Leonid Kravchuk, Independent Ukraine’s First President, Dies

Leonid Kravchuk, Independent Ukraine’s First President, Dies
Russian President Boris Yeltsin (L) shakes hands with Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk during his visit to Yalta, Ukraine, on Aug. 3, 1992. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP Photo)

KYIV, Ukraine—Leonid Kravchuk, who led Ukraine to independence during the collapse of the Soviet Union and served as its first president, died Tuesday, Ukrainian officials said. He was 88.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy paid tribute to Kravchuk, calling him not just a historical figure but “a man who knew how to find wise words and to say them so that all Ukrainians would hear them.”

Zelenskyy said Kravchuk died Tuesday but gave no details of the circumstances. He had been in poor health and underwent a heart operation last year.

Kravchuk led Ukraine as its Communist Party boss in the waning years of the Soviet Union, and played a pivotal role in the demise of the USSR before holding the Ukrainian presidency from 1991 through 1994.

He was a driving force in Ukraine’s declaration of independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and later that year joined with the leaders of Russia and Belarus to sign an agreement on Dec. 8, 1991, which formally declared that the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

As president, Kravchuk agreed to transfer remaining Soviet nuclear weapons on Ukrainian territory to Russian control, in a deal backed by the United States.

He lost the 1994 presidential election to former Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma. In 2020 he returned to politics to try to negotiate a settlement as part of a “contact group” for the conflict in eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists had fought Ukrainian forces since 2014.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov wrote on Twitter that with Kravchuk’s signature to the December 1991 agreement disbanding the Soviet Union “the Evil Empire disintegrated.”

“Thank you for the peaceful renewal of our Independence. We’re defending it now with weapons in our hands,” Reznikov wrote Tuesday.

Kravchuk’s death comes a week after that of the first president of post-Soviet Belarus, Stanislav Shushkevich, who died aged 87.

Since Shushkevich’s death, Kravchuk was the last survivor of the three leaders who signed the 1991 deal. Russian President Boris Yeltsin died in 2007 aged 76.

Belarus Shushkevich Obit
Russian President Boris Yeltsin (R), with Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk (L) and Belarus leader Stanislav Shushkevich (C), applauds after signing a communique agreeing to set up a new Community of Independent States in Raouchani, Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, USSR, on Dec. 8, 1991. (AP Photo)

Ukraine had declared its sovereignty after an August coup by hardline Communist Party members weakened Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s authority. A week before the Belovezha agreement, Kravchuk was elected president of Ukraine in a vote that also overwhelmingly approved its independence from Moscow.

Participants in the Belovezha talks said Kravchuk rejected any efforts to keep the Soviet Union going with reforms.

“Kravchuk was focused on Ukraine’s independence,” Belarusian leader Shushkevich, who took part in the talks and signed the deal, told The Associated Press in an interview last year. “He was proud that Ukraine declared its independence in a referendum and he was elected president on Dec. 1, 1991.”

Zelenskyy said Kravchuk’s ability to speak to Ukrainians was particularly important in “difficult, crisis moments, when the future of the whole country may depend on the courage of one man.”

Noting that Kravchuk had lived through World War II and the occupation, Zelenskyy said he knew the price of freedom and with all his heart wanted peace for Ukraine. I am sure that we will accomplish this. We will achieve our victory and our peace.”

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