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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kuchma Weighs Legacy With Mixed Emotions

KIEV -- President Leonid Kuchma plans a role in the life of a nation that almost allergically rejected the course he had set for it.

After 10 years in power, decades of influence, and then scandal and opprobrium in his final term, Kuchma admits to melancholy and says that his pride over Ukraine's advances since declaring independence in 1991 is tinged with regret that he is leaving a nation divided. He concedes he might be arrested. His ambivalence is clear.

"One cannot be completely satisfied; many things I see now at a different angle," he said, leaning forward from a silk-covered, gold-leafed armchair inside the presidential administration building.

"However, looking back at my life, I think it could not be done in any different way," he said, quickly adding, "If I had known where I would stumble and fall, I would have put a cushion there."

Kuchma, 66, spoke in considerable detail about events that shook his nation, and offered a tentative self-assessment of his role. Kuchma flashed a range of emotions. At times he laughed, sometimes waving away questions or referring them to members of his government. He was reflective, occasionally self-critical.

And he spoke with noticeable care, whether from caution or courtesy, about former political underlings. He also credited everyone involved in the ultimately peaceful revolution -- from the government troops and both presidential candidates, to the oppositionists who filled Kiev's streets -- for having managed, however harrowingly, to avoid violence. "I saw it as a war of nerves," he said. "Who would cave in first? Thank God everybody's nerves were strong."

Now comes a period of assessment, a process he says will take time.

As a former missile plant director who inherited the reins of a dysfunctional post-Soviet nation, Kuchma was a technocrat-turned-head of state, and he brought with him a high intellect, management experience and a political base in a powerful clan as he confronted almost insurmountable problems. He departs with a much healthier nation but a darkly complicated legacy.

To his critics and the opposition, he is a president who presided over the corrupt privatization of the nation's resources, steering wealth toward supporters, relatives and eastern clans.

He has been accused of ordering the murder of a journalist, Heorhiy Gongadze in 2000, of approving the sale of radar systems to Saddam Hussein's Iraq and of rigging the election for Viktor Yanukovych, his disastrous choice as successor. Having found himself caught between the competing interests of Russia and the West, he satisfied neither. His stature on the world stage has shrunk.

Yet Kuchma accomplished critical tasks, including a sustained collaboration with Washington in nuclear disarmament and the closing of Chernobyl, which in 1986 suffered the worst nuclear accident in history. He leaves a country with a rapidly expanding economy, with independent parliamentary factions, an opposition television station and an often lively press. These would be all but unimaginable instruments of democracy in many former Soviet republics led by their former Communist Party men.

Moreover, Kuchma, willingly stepping aside, confronts his critics with a paradox. However messy the transition has been, Kuchma will be able to note with his leaving that Ukraine has taken a step toward joining a club with Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Georgia -- former Soviet republics that are developing democratic governance.

"Ukraine has happened as a country," he said. "All these years Moscow doubted that Ukraine might be a truly independent country. And we settled everything with our neighbors, and should say we had no less problems than any other post-Soviet republic. But we managed to resolve them in civilized, democratic manner without shedding a single drop of blood."

Asked how he thought he might be regarded in 10 years, he tried to bridge the divergent images -- the autocrat who submitted to democracy, the autocrat who resisted it until he had no choice -- and acknowledged error. "We failed to come to terms with the elite and take a softer road in politics. I mean we failed to register in our constitution a truly democratic system of power and the responsibility of the authorities. And the attempt to give more power to the president had its side effects."

He spoke also of sorrow. Under his stewardship, deep splits appeared in Ukraine. Many rise from historical differences in language, religion, ambitions and culture, and have been stoked by the clash between new President Viktor Yushchenko, a Ukrainian-speaking Westernizer, and Yanukovych, who favors the Russian language and leans politically toward Moscow.

He said he hoped to be part of a national reconciliation, and would lead a foundation to promote unity.

Kuchma showed political savvy against his competitors. In December, in exchange for a repeat election, he coaxed the opposition into constitutional changes that should reduce the powers of his successor, navigating the electoral crisis in a way that preserved influence.

But the opposition will command the law enforcement authorities that have long been under Kuchma's hand. Some opponents have spoken of arresting him. Asked how he regarded such possibilities, Kuchma said he feared nothing.

"I can look straight into my people's eyes because I can give an account of everything I did. It is absolutely absurd for me to be afraid of any legal action.

"Of course, I cannot exclude that some attempts will be made, but I look upon it philosophically. If this witch hunting will become the main characteristic of the new administration," he said, then the new administration "does not have any future because the country will be thrown into a new confrontation."