Marchuk, Yevhen

Marchuk, Yevhen [Марчук, Євген; Marčuk], b 28 January 1941 in Dolynivka, Haivoron raion, Kirovohrad oblast, d 5 August 2021 in Kyiv. First head of the Security Service of Ukraine, then holder of high governmental offices under President Leonid Kuchma, including the post of the prime minister of Ukraine, and thereafter senior statesman. In all of these contexts, Marchuk made himself known as a patriotic, uncorrupted political figure for whom the interests of the state superseded personal considerations. In the majority of tasks assigned to him in public life, no matter how difficult, his approach was described as dispassionate, analytical, and optimistic.

Having graduated in 1963 from the Kirovohrad Pedagogical Institute, Marchuk began his career initially as a teacher of Ukrainian and German languages, but in the same year became an agent of the local Ukrainian section (KDB) of the all-Union Soviet secret police, KGB. He was transferred two years later to Kyiv as a junior operative and began his climb up the ladder within the agency’s central headquarters. The ease with which he accomplished this ascent has been ascribed to being very much ‘his own man’ psychologically, a conciliator rather than being confrontational with superiors, self-reliant, and self-assured. By 1988, he was security chief of Poltava oblast. In 1990, he returned to the Kyiv head office to become first deputy head of the KGB for the Ukrainian SSR.

During the turbulent final year of the USSR’s life, Marchuk was appointed Minister of Defence, National Security and Emergency Situations of the Ukrainian SSR, a position he occupied from June to November 1991. At the time of the August coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, he and Kostiantyn Masyk were reported to have headed a shadowy ‘committee’ prepared to do the junta’s bidding in Kyiv, but the coup failed. He then became inaugural head of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), successor to the KDB and presumably independent of the USSR KGB. His task was to reform and reorient the institution to serve the new needs of Ukraine’s security. In March 1994, he became the youngest-ever officer to be promoted to the rank of army general.

In July 1994, he left his post at the Security Service of Ukraine to serve as vice-prime minister in the government headed by the veteran Communist Party of Ukraine apparatchik Vitalii Masol, as well as president’s representative to the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. In the latter capacity, he successfully defused the separatist crisis of the time preventing its being exploited by the Russian Federation for the destabilization of Ukraine. Having apparently found favour with the new president, Leonid Kuchma, Marchuk was promoted to first vice-prime minister on 31 October 1994. He also headed the Co-ordinating Committee for the Struggle Against Corruption and Organized Crime. On 3 March 1995, Kuchma dismissed Masol and named Marchuk as acting prime minister. Confirmed in that post on 8 June, Marchuk served as prime minister only until 27 May 1996, when he was dismissed by President Kuchma and replaced by Pavlo Lazarenko. The official reason for the firing was Marchuk’s failure to pursue economic reforms, his lack of commitment to them, and that he paid too much attention to his own image instead of running the government. It may have been that Kuchma perceived a rival for his own second term in the presidency.

In fact, during his term as prime minister Marchuk attempted to the extent of his powers (deliberately infringed by the president) to stabilize the economy while steering clear of partisan politics and neglecting to build his own political base. He stayed above conflicts, was independent, remained in the shadows, avoided extraneous activity, and was simply pragmatic, being consistently inclined to pursue ‘laboratory analysis’ rather than indulging in rhetoric. Meanwhile, Marchuk had been elected to the Supreme Council of Ukraine from a constituency in Poltava in December 1995 in a by-election, and the following October became leader of the Social Market Choice caucus. It appealed to him as being ‘the least ideologized’ parliamentary fraction. Once relieved of the prime ministership, Marchuk adopted an oppositional stance towards Leonid Kuchma’s administration.

In the 1998 elections to the Supreme Council of Ukraine, Marchuk was elected as second on the Social Democratic Party of Ukraine (United) or SDPU(O) list (behind former president Leonid Kravchuk), a party of oligarchs with no connection to social democracy. Within the assembly he led the party’s caucus and was head of the parliamentary committee on social policy and labor. In preparation for his run for the presidency, Marchuk in December 1998 gave up the leadership of the SDPU(O) caucus. He actually never became a member of the party, but was from the beginning an independent actor, and eventually fell out with the party’s leadership.

As opposition to President Leonid Kuchma increased, four prominent opposition leaders agreed to form an alliance backing one of them as their common presidential candidate for 1999. They were: Viacheslav Chornovil, Oleksandr Moroz, Volodymyr Oliinyk, and Marchuk. Given their ideological incompatibilities the alliance collapsed and each ran separately. According to his supporters, Marchuk thus became the best president Ukraine never had.

In the presidential election of 1999, Marchuk’s program began with a sweeping assault on ‘the criminal-clan system—the most dangerous despoiler of Ukraine,’ an obvious and not untrue reference to the Kuchma regime. He promised to bring order to the country, eradicate its mafia elements, pay off state debts to the public, and at the same time guaranteeing full employment at decent wages, investment levels, keeping the mines open, and raising the status of scientific, rural, and military life. He would transform personnel policy in the public service, and put an end to interdepartmental and interbranch fighting in the government. When he was head of the Security Service of Ukraine he gained a reputation as somewhat of a democratizer by opening the agency up to civilian scrutiny by the Supreme Council of Ukraine. Some voters saw him as a Ukrainian version of Chilean General Augusto Pinochet—for better or worse. He had earlier expressed a preference for ‘controlled democracy,’ and expressed admiration for the Singaporean model of government. Ironically, prominent dissidents whom he had monitored in his role a KGB officer supported his candidacy, their views and his on Ukrainian nationhood having converged.

Marchuk obtained 8.0 percent of the vote in the first round, a respectable fifth place out of 13 candidates. Despite having criticized the Kuchma regime’s corruption in the campaign, Marchuk was offered and accepted the post of secretary of the National Security and Defence Council (RNBOU), a post he held from 10 November 1999 to 25 June 2003. Following the election, he became a strong supporter of President Leonid Kuchma as well as a powerful government figure in his own right.

On 7 April 2001, Kuchma bestowed on Marchuk the Order of Prince Yaroslav the Wise fifth class. Recognized as a public servant, Marchuk remained the political outsider: in a public opinion survey in April–May 2001, only 2.6 percent of respondents identified him as a leader capable of improving the economic situation in Ukraine. As head of RNBOU Marchuk advocated strongly for Ukraine’s accession to NATO, acknowledging the process would take a long time—up to a decade. The decision to seek membership was made in 2002. He was still regarded at the time as being affiliated with the SDPU(O), the party headed by Kuchma’s chief of staff, Viktor Medvedchuk. On 25 June 2003, Marchuk was appointed Minister of Defence. Despite his bright prospects at the outset and his evident loyalty to Kuchma, Marchuk lasted in the defence portfolio just over one year. In September 2004 he was dismissed, ostensibly for failing to dispose of excessive amounts of Soviet-era ammunition. One month prior to that, he had been reprimanded by the president and Marchuk’s first deputy was sacked in the process. The real reasons may have been Marchuk’s independent pursuit of military reform and his pro-NATO stance. In the controversial 2004 presidential election which led to the Orange Revolution, Marchuk attracted attention by announcing his support for Viktor Yushchenko rather than the establishment’s candidate, Viktor Yanukovych.

From 2014 to 2019, Marchuk served on a security sub-committee of the Trilateral Contact Group which was attempting to implement the provisions of the Minsk Agreements dealing with the Russo-Ukrainian war in the Donbas. Believing in the value of diplomacy and negotiation he prepared meticulously for these meetings.

A dedicated public servant, Marchuk’s political career was characterized by independence from party or patronage ties. He was neither a member of any of the prominent clans of the day (Kyiv, Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk), nor a client of any particular patron, nor a patron himself in the usual sense, although he did have a following. This extraordinarily independent political career might have been due to the store of kompromat (damaging information about various politicians) that he carried as a former SBU chief, making him a formidable opponent and unlikely ally. He also had a connection to the newspaper Den' (The Day) through his wife, Larysa Ivshyna, its editor-in-chief. According to the eulogies published at the time of his death, Marchuk’s approach to every assignment in public life was dispassionately analytical and consistently optimistic. Considered a role model, he was thought to have dealt effectively with numerous crises (e.g., Crimean separatism, the Tuzla Island confrontation, and the Sknyliv air show disaster) at home and in representing his country abroad. He expounded his strategic vision of Ukraine’s social and economic development in his book P’iat' rokiv ukraïns'koi trahedii (Five Years of Ukraine’s Tragedy, Kyiv 1999). He succumbed to the COVID-19 virus.

Bohdan Harasymiw

[This article was written in 2023.]

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