His presidency was surrounded by numerous corruption scandals and the lessening of media freedoms. Corruption accelerated after Kuchma's election in 1994, but in 2000–2001, his power began to weaken in the face of exposures in the media.
On his watch the Ukrainian economy continued to decline until 1999, whereas growth was recorded since 2000, bringing relative prosperity to some segments of urban residents. During his presidency, Ukrainian-Russian ties began to improve.
After a successful career in the machine-building industry of the Soviet Union, Kuchma began his political career in 1990, when he was elected to the Verkhovna Rada (the Ukrainian parliament); he was re-elected in 1994. He served as Ukrainian Prime Minister between October 1992 and September 1993.
Since July 2014, Kuchma has been Ukraine's representative at the semi-official peace talks regarding the ongoing War in Donbass.
Leonid Kuchma was born in the village of Chaikine in rural Chernihiv Oblast. His father Danylo Prokopovych Kuchma (1901–1942) was wounded in World War II and eventually died of his wounds in the field hospital #756 (near the village of Novoselytsia) when Leonid was four. His mother Paraska Trokhymivna Kuchma worked at a kolhoz. Kuchma attended the Kostobobrove general education school in the neighboring Semenivka Raion. Later he enrolled in Dnipropetrovsk National University and graduated in 1960 with a degree in mechanical engineering (majoring in aerospace engineering). The same year he joined the Communist Party of Soviet Union. Kuchma is a candidate of technical sciences.
In 1967 Kuchma married Lyudmyla.
After graduation, Kuchma worked in the field of aerospace engineering for the Yuzhnoye Design Bureau in Dnipropetrovsk. At 28 he became a testing director for the Bureau deployed at the Baikonur cosmodrome.
Some political observers suggested that Kuchma's early career was significantly boosted by his marriage to Lyudmila Talalayeva, an adopted daughter of Gennadiy Tumanov, the Yuzhmash chief engineering officer and later the Soviet Minister of Medium Machine Building.
At 38 Kuchma became the Communist party chief at Yuzhny Machine-building Plant and a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine. He was a delegate of the 27th and 28th Congresses of the Communist Party of Soviet Union. By the end of the 1980s, Kuchma openly criticized the Communist Party.
In 1982 Kuchma was appointed the first deputy of general design engineer at Yuzhmash, and from 1986 to 1992, he held the position of the company's general director. From 1990 to 1992, Kuchma was a member of the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine's parliament). In 1992 he was appointed as Prime Minister of Ukraine. He resigned a year later, complaining of "slow pace of reform". He was re-elected into parliament in 1994.
Kuchma resigned from the position of Prime Minister of Ukraine in September 1993 to run for the presidency in 1994 on a platform to boost the economy by restoring economic relations with Russia and faster pro-market reforms. Kuchma won a clear victory against the incumbent President Leonid Kravchuk, receiving strong support from the industrial areas in the east and south. His worst results were in the west of the country.
Kuchma was re-elected in 1999 to his second term. This time the areas that gave him strongest support last time voted for his opponents, and the areas which voted against him last time came to his support.
During Kuchma's Presidency, he closed opposition papers and several journalists died in mysterious circumstances.
In October 1994, Kuchma announced comprehensive economic reforms, including reduced subsidies, lifting of price controls, lower taxes, privatization of industry and agriculture, and reforms in currency regulation and banking. The parliament approved the plan's main points. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) promised a $360 million loan to initiate reforms.
He was re-elected in 1999 to his second term. Opponents accused him of involvement in the killing in 2000 of journalist Georgiy Gongadze (see also SBU, "Cassette Scandal", Mykola Mel'nychenko), which he has always denied. Critics also blamed Kuchma for restrictions on press freedom. Kuchma is believed to have played a key role in sacking the Cabinet of Viktor Yushchenko by Verkhovna Rada on 26 April 2001.
Kuchma's Prime Minister from 2002 until early January 2005 was Viktor Yanukovych, after Kuchma dismissed Anatoliy Kinakh, his previous appointee.
In 2002 Kuchma stated that Ukraine wanted to sign an association agreement with the European Union (EU) by 2003–2004 and that Ukraine would meet all EU membership requirements by 2007–2011. He also hoped for a free-trade treaty with the EU.
In his inaugural address Kuchma said:
Historically, Ukraine is part of the Euro-Asian cultural and economics space. Ukraine's vitally important national interests are now concentrated on this territory of the former Soviet Union. ... We are also linked with... the former republics of the Soviet Union by traditional scientific, cultural and family ties... I am convinced that Ukraine can assume the role of one of the leaders of Euro-Asian economic integration.
Kuchma signed a "Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership" with Russia, and endorsed a round of talks with the CIS. Additionally, he referred to Russian as "an official language". He signed a special partnership agreement with NATO and raised the possibility of membership of the alliance.
After Kuchma's popularity at home and abroad sank as he became mired in corruption scandals, he turned to Russia as his new ally. He said that Ukraine needed a "multivector" foreign policy that balanced eastern and western interests.
From 1998 to 2000, Kuchma's bodyguard Mykola Mel'nychenko was allegedly eavesdropping Kuchma's office, later publishing the recordings. The release of the tapes – dubbed "Kuchmagate" by the Ukrainian press – supposedly revealed Kuchma's numerous crimes. In particular, his approving the sale of radar systems to Saddam Hussein (among other illegal arms sales) and ordering the Ukraine's police minister to "take care" of the journalist Georgiy Gongadze.
In September 2000, Gongadze disappeared and his headless corpse was found mutilated on 3 November 2000. On 28 November, the opposition politician Oleksandr Moroz publicised the tape recordings implicating Kuchma in Gongadze's murder. In 2005 the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s office instigated criminal proceedings against Kuchma and members of his former administration in connection with the murder of Gongadze. In 2005 the press reported that Kuchma had been unofficially granted immunity from prosecution in return for his graceful departure from office in 2005.
Critics of the tape point to the difficulty of Mel'nychenko recording 500 hours of dictaphone tape unaided and undetected, the lack of material evidence of said recording equipment, and other doubts which question the authenticity and motive of the release of the tape. Kuchma acknowledged in 2003 that his voice was one of those on the tapes, but claimed the tapes had been selectively edited to distort his meaning.
The General Prosecutor of Ukraine's Office canceled its resolution to deny opening of criminal cases against Kuchma and other politicians within the Gongadze-case on 9 October 2010. On 22 March 2011, Ukraine opened an official investigation into the murder of Gongadze and, two days later, Ukrainian prosecutors charged Kuchma with involvement in the murder. A Ukrainian district court ordered prosecutors to drop criminal charges against Kuchma on 14 December 2011 on grounds that evidence linking him to the murder of Gongadze was insufficient. The court rejected Mel'nychenko's recordings as evidence. Gongadze's widow Myroslava Gongadze lodged an appeal against the ruling one week later.
During the trial of Oleksiy Pukach, he claimed that Kuchma and (Kuchma's head of his Presidential Administration, Volodymyr Lytvyn) were the ones who ordered the murder of Gongadze. Pukach was convicted and sentenced to life for his part in the murder of Gongadze.
First Deputy Prosecutor General of Ukraine Renat Kuzmin claimed 20 February 2013 that his office had collected enough evidence confirming Kuchma's responsibility for ordering Gongadze's assassination. Kuchma's reply the next day was, "This is another banal example of a provocation, which I've heard more than enough in the past 12 years".
Kuchma's role in the election crisis of 2004 is not entirely clear. After the second round on 22 November 2004, it appeared that Yanukovych had won the election by fraud, which caused the opposition and independent observers to dispute the results, leading to the Orange Revolution.
Kuchma was urged by Yanukovych and Viktor Medvedchuk (the head of the presidential office) to declare a state of emergency and hold the inauguration of Yanukovych. He denied the request. Later, Yanukovych publicly accused Kuchma of a betrayal. Kuchma refused to officially dismiss Prime Minister Yanukovych after the parliament passed a motion of no confidence against the Cabinet on 1 December 2004. Soon after, Kuchma left the country. He returned to Ukraine in March 2005.
Kuchma said in October 2009 he would vote for Victor Yanukovych at the Ukrainian presidential election, 2010. In a document dated 2 February 2010 uncovered during the United States diplomatic cables leak, Kuchma in conversation with United States Ambassador to Ukraine John F. Tefft, called the voters' choice between Yanukovych and Yulia Tymoshenko during the second round of the 2010 presidential election as a choice between “bad and very bad" and praised (the candidate eliminated in the first round of the election) Arseniy Yatsenyuk instead.
As of September 2011, Kuchma believes that Yanukovych was the real winner of the 2004 election.
Leonid Kuchma has been active in politics since his presidency ended. He aligned himself with President Viktor Yushchenko in 2005, but later raised concerns about the president in correspondence with then U.S. Ambassador to the Ukraine, John Tefft. Kuchma endorsed Yanukovych for president in 2010.
Kuchma represented Ukraine at negotiations with the armed separatist in the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces on 21 June 2014 to discuss President Petro Poroshenko peace plan. His role as a diplomat has been received positively by the west and Russia as well as the public in Ukraine.
On 11, February 2015, Kuchma was one of the signatories of a draft plan to end the conflict in Donbas. The summit was known as Minsk II. The plan ensured that a ceasefire was implemented and reaction from leaders in Europe was generally positive.
In March 2015, Kuchma delivered an address and called on the west for greater involvement in the region. He criticized the action of Russian backed forces in the attempt to seize the town of Debaltseve.
Kuchma decommissioned the Chernobyl power plant's reactor.
In September, 2015 Kuchma was again appointed as the representative for Ukraine at the Trilateral Contact Group. The group met in Belarus to discuss ending the conflict in Donbas. The choice of Kuchma comes nearly a decade after his presidency ended.
In early 2017, Kuchma spoke out against the transport blockade of Donbass. In March 2017 at the Trilateral Contact Group (TCG) in Minsk, he demanded the Russian Federation repeal their decree on the recognition of passports issued in separatist-held areas.Volodymyr Horbulin – personal friend, aide, later Head of the National Security and Defense Council
Volodymyr Lytvyn – long-term first aide, later Head of Presidential Administration, then Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada
Viktor Medvedchuk – business oligarch, then First Vice Speaker of Verkhovna Rada, later Head of Presidential Administration (2001–2004)
Dmytro Tabachnyk – manager of the Kuchma's first successful election campaign, later Head of Presidential Administration, then Vice Prime Minister;, Minister of Science and Education (2010-2014)
Leonid Derkach – personal friend, Head of the Security Service of Ukraine
Yuri Kravchenko – Minister of Internal Affairs (police chief), committed suicide after the fall of Kuchma's regime
Oleksandr Omelchenko – long-term governor and mayor of Kiev
Ihor Bakai – business oligarch, later head of Naftogas of Ukraine national gas and oil company, then Head of the State Accommodation Department, escaped to Russia after the fall of Kuchma's regime, refusing to return permanently
Heorhiy Kirpa – long-term head of the Ukrzaliznytsia national railways, then Minister of Transportation, committed suicide after the fall of Kuchma's regime
Viktor Pinchuk – second son-in-law, Jewish business oligarch in control of several important media
Leonid Kuchma is married to Lyudmyla Kuchma since 1967. She is the Honorary President of the National Fund of Social Protection of Mothers and Children, "Ukraine to Children" and is also known as a paralympic movement in Ukraine supporter.
Kuchma's only child, daughter Olena Pinchuk, is married to Viktor Pinchuk, a Jewish industrialist and philanthropist whose Victor Pinchuk Foundation regularly hosts Ukraine-dedicated and philanthropic fora at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos. Olena Pinchuk has a son Roman (born in 1991, from her previous marriage with Ukrainian businessman Igor Franchuk) who attends Brown University, and two daughters with Viktor Pinchuk, Katerina (born in 2003) and Veronica (2011). Olena Pinchuk founded the ANTIAIDS Foundation in 2003. According to the Ukrainian magazine Focus, Olena Pinchuk was amongst the "top 10 most influential women" in Ukraine as of 2010.
Victor Pinchuk recently made headlines when it was revealed that one of his lobbyists was previously picked by Donald Trump for national security aide. It was also revealed that his Foundation made significant contributions to both Trump and Clinton campaigns.
Kuchma was an amateur guitar player in his younger years. He was also known for his skill at the complicated card game preferans.
After retirement, Kuchma was allowed to keep the state-owned dacha in Koncha-Zaspa for his personal use upon completion of his state duties. The government order #15-r that would allow for Kuchma to keep his estate was signed by the acting prime-minister Mykola Azarov on 19 January 2005. Kuchma was also allowed to keep his full presidential salary and all the service personnel, along with two state-owned vehicles. That order also stated that these costs would be paid out of the state budget.
Kuchma was awarded the Azerbaijani Istiglal Order for his contributions to Azerbaijan-Ukraine relations and strategic cooperation between the states by President of Azerbaijan Heydar Aliyev on 6 August 1999.Ukrainian Honours
Order of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) of St. Ilya of Murom, 1st class (2004)
Honorary Citizen of the Donetsk Oblast (2002)
Knight Grand Cross with Grand Cordon of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic (3 May 1995)
Order of Merit for the Fatherland, 1st class (Russia, 20 April 2004) – for his contribution to strengthening friendship and cooperation between Russia and Ukraine
Grand Cross of the Order of Vytautas the Great (Lithuania, 20 September 1996)
Grand Cross of the Order of the Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas (Lithuania, 4 November 1998, Ludmila too)
Order of the Golden Eagle (Kazakhstan, 1999)
Order of the Republic (Moldova, 2003)
Order Laila Utama Dardzha Kerabat, 1st class (Brunei, 2004)
Chain of the Order of Prince Henry (Portugal, 16 April 1998) February 3, 1999
Order "Bethlehem – 2000" (State of Palestine, 2000)