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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kuchma Takes Lesson From Yeltsin

The unpopular president of a large former Soviet country with a failing economy calls himself the only bulwark against a communist revival and unites the media and business elite behind his re-election bid.

Boris Yeltsin's Russia in 1996?

No, Leonid Kuchma's Ukraine in 1999, where the incumbent - ? la Yeltsin - is using the threat of a red revanche to keep himself in power.

"Under no circumstances can we turn back," Kuchma said Thursday in remarks reported by The Associated Press. "It is impossible to build socialism or some military communism in Ukraine."

Kuchma's comments were clearly directed at his two main rivals for the presidency, hardline communists Petro Symonenko and Natalya Vitrenko.

On Sunday, Ukraine's 38 million voters will go the polls to elect a president for the second time since gaining independence in 1991. Kuchma, the former head of a rocket plant, became Ukraine's president when he defeated the country's Soviet-era leader, Leonid Kravchuk, in 1994 in a close election.

If none of the 13 registered candidates wins a majority on Sunday, a runoff will be held on Nov. 14. Kuchma, 61, is leading in the polls, but he is not expected to win outright and will probably end up facing one of the two hardline communists in a second round.

Kuchma's message to voters is clear: Things may not be great with me, but under those communists it will be downright scary.

Vitrenko and Symonenko, who are running neck-and-neck in second place behind Kuchma, appear to be playing right into the president's hands.

The firebrand Vitrenko, 47, leader of the extreme left-wing Progressive Socialist Party, promises to close Ukraine's borders, send the current political and business elite to labor camps, freeze all payments on Ukraine's foreign debt, break off all relations with the International Monetary Fund and set up an "anti-NATO front" with Russia and Belarus.

Symonenko, also 47, is less radical - but only slightly. If elected, the soft-spoken leader of Ukraine's Communist Party promises to abolish the presidency and try to re-create the Soviet Union, restore socialism, redistribute property and end cooperation with NATO and the West.

"There is no significant difference between Symonenko and Vitrenko," the AP quoted Kuchma as saying. "They both profess the same ideology that is dangerous for the country."

"Why is the present-day dictatorship of bandits better than the upcoming dictatorship of the proletariat?" Symonenko said in remarks reported by Radio Liberty.

According to English-language newspaper The Ukrainian Weekly, most polls put Kuchma in the lead with 29 percent to 31 percent of the vote. Polls indicate that Vitrenko is supported by 14 percent to 15 percent of the electorate and Symonenko by 11 percent to 13 percent.

Kuchma's opponents complain that they have been denied media access. They also accuse the incumbent of financing his re-election bid with state funds, using police intimidation against campaign workers of rival candidates and stifling the opposition press with politically motivated tax audits.

At a campaign rally last month, Vitrenko was wounded in a mysterious grenade attack, which also injured 33 others.

"It's very obvious to us that it was a political order to kill me," The Kyiv Post, an English-language newspaper, quoted her as saying after the attack.

Radio Liberty recently reported that over a 25-day period monitored by the National Council for Television and Radio Broadcasting, an independent media-watchdog organization, Kuchma received more air time than all 12 of his challengers combined.

In comments reported by Rossiskaya Gazeta, Vladmir Lukin, chairman of the State Duma's foreign affairs committee, said that Ukraine's election campaign is "very reminiscent of Russia's in 1996, when all the media worked for one candidate."

Kuchma has also managed to get the country's business elite behind him.

The Kyiv Post reported that Kuchma has particularly close relations with Viktor Pinchuk, a wealthy commodities trader and media magnate who runs the country's largest circulation newspaper and two television stations.

Pinchuk reportedly has access to Kuchma through the president's daughter, Olha Franchuk - a relationship that uncannily mirrors that of Russian oligarch-supreme Boris Berezovsky and first daughter Tatyana Dyachenko.

According to The Kyiv Post, other Ukrainian oligarchs backing Kuchma include Hryhoriy Surkis, head of Ukraine's largest trading company, and Ihor Bakai, who runs the country's natural-gas and oil monopoly

If Kuchma faces either Vitrenko or Symonenko in a runoff, he is widely expected to win. If he faces a more moderate opponent, like the popular socialist leader Oleksandr Moroz or former Prime Minister Yevhen Marchuk, he could be in trouble.

Last week, an alliance of four second-tier candidates - including Moroz and Marchuk - fell apart, apparently leaving Kuchma without any serious opponents other than the two extremists.

Ukraine, a country of 50 million people, is sharply divided between the mostly Russian-speaking, industrialized east and the rural west, where Ukrainian nationalism reigns supreme.

In eastern Ukraine, where dying coal mines and outdated factories dominate the economy, voters tend to be more pro-communist and at the same time favor greater integration with Russia. Here, mine and factory workers have failed to find a way to survive in a market that does not need their products and under a government that is unable or unwilling to assist them.

In the rural and predominantly Catholic west, people tend to favor closer ties with the European Union and NATO. Western Ukraine, which during various times was part of Poland and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939. Ukrainian nationalists in the west struggled bitterly against the Soviet incursion; a guerrilla force called the Ukrainian Insurgent Army fought Moscow's rule into the late 1940s.

In Ukraine's 1994 election, ethnicity rather than ideology was the main theme. The Russian-speaking Kuchma carried the more populous industrialized east. Kravchuk, who repackaged himself as a moderate Ukrainian nationalist, took the west.

This time around, Kuchma appears to own western Ukraine - which fears a communist revival and sees him as the lesser of two evils - and is dueling with his communist opponents for votes in the east.

In his five years in office, Kuchma has strived to bridge the ethnic divide. He began speaking Ukrainian in public, for example, at first haltingly, and later with more confidence.

Kuchma has also tried to delicately balance Ukraine's foreign policy between Russia and the West.

His government opposed NATO's campaign of airstrikes against Yugoslavia earlier this year, for example, although he has sought out close ties with both NATO and the European Union.