Leonid Kuchma (born 1938) was elected as Ukraine's second president in free and fair elections in 1994, defeating Leonid Kravchuk. Kuchma was reelected in November 1999 to another five-year term, with 56% of the vote. He left office in 2005. Despite numerous scandals he was credited with removing the Soviet era restrictions and sponsoring free trade, which led to high rates of economic growth. He downplayed conflicts with Russia, especially regarding the status of 11 million Russians living in Ukraine. Kuchma, a rocket engineer was a technocrat in the aerospace industry before becoming prime minister in 1992-93.
His regime opened the way for the Orange Revolution in 2004, which has not been able to reform Ukraine politics.
Local networks of elites remain important in Ukraine; Kuchma brought in many friends and allies from his base in Dnipropetrovsk; they dominated the administrative and executive branches of government.
The number and wealth of oligarchs exploded in Ukraine in the 1990s. In 2000, 386 of the 450 deputies in parliament were founders of 3,954 businesses, controlling 25% of Ukraine's imports and 10% of its exports. The head of the SDPU(O) Viktor Medvedchuk and Fatherland Party leader Yuliya Tymoshenko (former country's prime minister)—used government contacts to gain access to lucrative energy resources. Many others have been accused of using government connections to promote a wide range of businesses and industries.
Partly in exchange for access to state resources, oligarchs helped to mobilize political support for Kuchma in the late 1990s and early 2000s, often drawing directly on their firms. Kuchma relied extensively on oligarch-controlled television networks and newspapers. Viktor Medvedchuk of the SDPU(O) controlled television news. Oligarchs in other industries also drew on their workforces to support Kuchma. In the 2004 election, it was widely reported that workers in auto, pipe, steel, coal, and energy plants owned by proregime oligarchs were mobilized to show up at demonstrations, vote for Yanukovych, and in one somewhat strange instance hold a "strike" to draw attention to the "danger" posed by opposition activity. Such mechanisms of political mobilization were especially important because of the lack of strong political parties.