Ukraine mourns first president Leonid Kravchuk

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky and his wife Olena Zelenska attend the funeral ceremony of Ukraine's first president, Leonid Kravchuk, in Kyiv. PHOTO: REUTERS

KYIV, UKRAINE (AFP) - Deep in the throes of a Russian invasion, Ukraine on Tuesday (May 17) mourned former president Leonid Kravchuk, who led the country to independence in 1991 and died on May 10 aged 88.

Current President Volodymyr Zelensky was clearly emotional as he laid a wreath of white, pale pink and violet flowers by Kravchuk's coffin, which was draped in a blue and yellow national flag.

Zelensky was accompanied by his wife, the pair both dressed in black as they paid their final silent respects before a casket guarded by soldiers clad in ceremonial garb, rifles at their sides.

Behind them had been placed a giant photograph of Kravchuk, a hint of a smile on his lips, the face easily recognisable for his white mane of hair.

The ceremony organised at the Ukrainskii Dom, or Ukrainian House, was open to the public in downtown Kyiv, stained glass windows opening the tall, round and concrete building to the sky.

"He was behind the creation of the Ukrainian state," declared Leonid Kuchma after paying his own final respects to the man he succeeded as president.

Soviet hierarchy

"We worked with him for a number of years. We got on well. We were not declared bosom pals but we helped each other whenever possible," reflected Kuchma, who served as Kravchuk's first prime minister in 1992-1993 but then defeated him in the 1994 presidential election.

"This is the end of an era," said another former president, Petro Poroshenko, as ranking officials past and present paid homage to the man who steered Ukraine through its early years of statehood following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"He was the man who created our independence, our army, our institutions," Poroshenko, president from 2014 to 2019, told reporters.

In August 1991, Kravchuk, then leader of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, managed in a matter of days to persuade the Communist majority in parliament to come out in favour of independence.

Months later, he scored a first round victory in presidential polls as he managed to win the support of communists and nationalists - earning the sobriquet of "cunning fox".

On Dec 8, 1991, he signed along with Russian and Belarus counterparts Boris Yeltsin and Stanislav Shushkevich a treaty dissolving the Soviet Union.

Former Ukrainian presidents (from right) Viktor Yushchenko, Petro Poroshenko and Leonid Kuchma answer journalists' questions during the funeral ceremony. PHOTO: AFP

Born in 1934 to a peasant family in the western Rivne region of what at the time was Poland, he rose slowly but steadily as a bureaucrat through the administrative ranks of the Soviet hierarchy.

Nuclear handover

Since he was a product of the Soviet system, Kravchuk's electoral success was seen by some at the time as a missed opportunity for his nation.

Other states previously under Moscow's umbrella - notably the Baltic states - moved to align themselves with Europe and develop market economies.

But the newly independent Ukraine came under pressure from Moscow and Washington.

The two countries feared a potential catastrophe and pressed Kyiv under Kravchuk to hand over its portion of the Soviet nuclear arsenal to Russia for dismantling.

Honour guard members carry the coffin of Ukraine's first president, Leonid Kravchuk, during his funeral ceremony in Kyiv. PHOTO: REUTERS

After his term in office, Kravchuk would serve as a lawmaker and continue in politics, albeit without making waves, until 2006.

In 2020, he briefly re-appeared on the scene at Zelensky's behest to join talks with Russia on attempting to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine that had started up between the two neighbours in 2014.

Kravchuk was buried on Tuesday afternoon in a ceremony attended by close family at the Baikove ceremony on the south side of Kyiv where several leading Ukrainian figures have been laid to rest.

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