"Right, Left and Center"

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By For Ukraine's President Leonid Kuchma, winning re-election proved the easy part. Thanks to his control of the media and liberal use of the tax inspectorate, Kuchma won 56% of the vote in a Nov. 14 runoff while his Communist Party rival Petro Symonenko gained 38%. But Kuchma won by splitting the country into extreme camps--east and west, pro-Russian and pro-Western. If he is to succeed in his goal of forging a coalition government--one capable of long-overdue reform--Kuchma will have to create a center that can hold.

It is a tall order. In his first term, Kuchma's half-steps toward opening up Ukraine's command economy to competition were hampered by paralysis in a parliament in which Communists are the largest faction but lack a majority. To forge a coalition, Kuchma will have to enlist pro-Western, pro-business politicians. "If Kuchma is serious about leading a broad movement to deliver us from stagnation, he must attract centrists," says Mikolo Tomenko, a political analyst in Kiev.

Serhiy Tyhypko, Kuchma's beleaguered but respected Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Reform, could certainly use help from the likes of Viktor Pinzenik, the liberal economist who pushed for reform as Deputy Prime Minister in 1994-96 and now heads the Reform and Order Party. In the election, Pinzenik formed a bloc with Hennady Udovenko, who leads one wing of Rukh, the party that spawned the independence movement in the final Soviet years. Kuchma must now give such leaders a chance to liberalize the economy. "They'll only work with a Europeanized Kuchma," says Oleksandr Tkachenko, a leading Ukrainian journalist. "He must create the ground for a truly civil society."

That is vital to win the trust of Ukraine's 51 million people, for whom the post-Soviet "transition" has seemed endless. The high hopes of a decade ago--democracy, reform and Western investment--have given way to a bloated bureaucracy that feeds on corruption. Reversing the slide will be difficult. Despite Kuchma's triumph, the national currency is sinking. "We are living on the patience of the IMF," says the liberal economist Pinzenik. Kuchma's election may have beaten the "red threat," but the red ink is growing.

With or without the economic problems, Kuchma could hardly have lost the election. Symonenko was a dismal campaigner; in a pre-election interview he sat alone in a dark office repeating an odd refrain: "If only I could win." Kuchma wisely framed his campaign as a stalwart defense of modernization against a Bolshevik revanche. That may not have been convincing to many Ukrainians--they know that Kuchma has privatized few enterprises and lured but a trickle of investment. And 15 million retired Ukrainians need no reminding how hard it is to survive on pensions of less than $15 a month. Yet they voted for him all the same, simply because he was not running under the Communist banner.

"Kuchma is ruled by the clans and the West," says an elderly woman in Gusachivka, a village 45 km east of Kiev. But she still supports him because, she says, "The gulag, collectivization, famine, Russia's fist--we've already had one Communist experiment. Anybody but the Communists." Now, with another five years to deliver promises too long unkept, Kuchma has a chance to rescue Ukraine's stranded reformers--and at last build the centrist alliance Ukraine so desperately needs.