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Political veterans seen as last resort at Ukraine roundtable

Two former Ukrainian presidents, Leonid Kravchuk and Leonid Kuchma, are moderating the roundtable talks in Ukraine. But experts doubt the two former presidents will give the talks a greater legitimacy.

It's almost an unwritten rule of politics: If a crisis needs to be negotiated somewhere in the world, former presidents and leaders of major organizations are sure to step in and act as moderators.

The current crisis in Ukraine is no different. Former presidents Leonid Kravchuk and Leonid Kuchma, the first two heads of state following Ukrainian independence in 1991, have both been taking part in negotiations and have been involved as far back as the first Maidan protests.

Their involvement has been taken for granted, so much so that another former president - Viktor Yushchenko - has complained that he wasn't invited to the renewed peace talks. The pro-West leader, who led the country from 2005 to 2010 following the Orange Revolution and turned the country towards Europe, is seen by some as having indirectly laid the foundation for today's conflict.

For Winfried Schneider-Deters, the former head of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Kyiv, there's essentially one reason that Kravchuk, 80, and Kuchma, 75, are leading the talks: a lack of alternatives.

"There is simply no one with the same high-profile reputation among the Ukrainian public," Schneider-Deters told DW. "It's believed that their authority will have a moderating influence on the talks." In his view, their participation is also meant to simply lend more weight to the negotiations.

Kravchuk, Kuchma and Yanukovych
Photo ITAR-TASS/ Andrei Mosiyenko

Kravchuk (left) and Kuchma (right) met with former President Viktor Yanukovych at crisis talks in 2013

Neither 'elder statesmen,' nor moral authorities

But do the two ex-presidents actually enjoy the great respect from the Ukrainian population that former leaders often enjoy in other countries? After all, Kravchuk was the first president after Ukraine declared its independence from the Soviet Union, and thus the country's first freely elected head of state.

Stefan Liebich, chairman of the Left party faction in the German parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, said he had doubts about whether the two former presidents will give the talks a greater legitimacy.

"Inviting older, controversial politicians like Kuchma and various oligarchs to sit at the table will, reflect rather the opposite," he said, adding that he believes their presence has actually weakened the role of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which invited the men to the talks.

Winfried Schneider-Deters

Schneider-Deters: Kuchma is far from being a moral authority

Schneider-Deters was not as critical: In his view, the presence of the two veterans is irrelevant. According to him, even though Kravchuk led his country to independence, that didn't necessarily give him the honorific of elder statesman. And this applies even more to his successor.

"Kuchma was completely discredited when he left office," said Schneider-Deters, pointing out that the former president was accused of indirectly causing the death of a dissident journalist in 2000. Although the case has since been closed, suspicions linger to this day. Kuchma, therefore, is far from being seen as a moral authority.

Experienced negotiators

Earlier this year, Kravchuk attracted some attention following an emotional speech in the Ukrainian parliament in which he spoke of a "revolution," saying his country was "on the brink of civil war." In recent years, he has also led a committee tasked with drafting a new constitution. "In this respect, he has a certain relevance today," said Schneider-Deters. "But I don't think that's of much concern for the general population."

In the past, Kravchuk was known for emphatically underlining Ukraine's independence from Moscow. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he also repeatedly criticized the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the grouping of former Soviet states. But he has not been overly critical when it comes to Russia itself, said Schneider-Deters - an important factor when it comes to avoiding a further polarization of the tense situation between pro-Russian and pro-Western groups.

Ukraine border in Chongar Kherson 
ITAR-TASS Photo/ Stanislav Krasilnikov

The Ukraine-Russia border has long been a source of dispute

Kuchma, who succeeded Kravchuk as president in 1994, also had some disputes with Moscow during his 11 years in office. At issue then, as today, was the status of Crimea and the status of the Ukrainian-Russian border, temporarily resolved in 2004 by the ratification of two border agreements.

But Kuchma also pushed for Ukraine to join the proposed Eurasian Economic Union at the end of his tenure, a single economic region consisting of former CIS countries - a pet project of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Developing close relations with Moscow on the one hand, while fostering closer ties with NATO and the European Union on the other: Kuchma was remarkably successful with this balancing act.

But the past - that is, the years before the 2004 Orange Revolution - are no longer very relevant to the current situation. That the two former presidents are still involved in the discussions proves one thing to Schneider-Deters: how overextended the younger politicians are when it comes to the crisis talks.

"Especially since the armed separatists have not been invited to the roundtable talks," he said. "That means that they need to present a consensus to the public that is as wide as humanly possible."

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