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Kyiv (Ukraine) (AFP) – Ukraine’s first president Leonid Kravchuk, who agreed to give up his country’s Soviet nuclear arsenal, the world’s third largest, died on Tuesday, the presidency announced. He was 88 years old.

“Sad news and great loss,” presidential aide Andriy Yermak said on Telegram. “Leonid Makarovych was a wise patriot of Ukraine, a true historical figure in achieving our independence.”

A powerful former Communist Party official, Kravchuk was known for his cunning political style, which helped him become post-Soviet Ukraine’s first leader but did not save him from popular discontent.

A grey-haired man with a smirk, Kravchuk proved to be a master of political intrigue when, in the chaos of the Soviet breakup, he gave up his highest communist post to emerge within weeks at the head of a new state called Ukraine.

Kravchuk, who earned the nickname “the cunning fox”, managed to rise to the highest office in the country as a figure of compromise for communists and nationalists.

His tenure, however, was rocked by runaway inflation and corruption scandals over the privatization of state-owned enterprises.

Kravchuk was removed from office three years into his term, amid economic turmoil and following his controversial decision to abandon the country’s nuclear arsenal and transfer it to Russia.

Luck lost

Kravchuk was born in 1934 to a peasant family in what was then Polish territory, now part of western Ukraine.

A graduate of a special Communist Party high school, he spent 30 years rising through the ranks of the party’s propaganda department before resigning immediately after the Soviet coup attempt in August 1991.

As speaker of the parliament of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic, Kravchuk succeeded within days in persuading the communist majority to proclaim Ukraine as an independent state on August 24.

In the next political somersault in December of that year, Kravchuk ran as an independent and was elected president in the country’s first democratic election.

But the victory of Kravchuk, who was deeply entrenched in the communist system, was seen by many as the country’s lost chance to follow the Baltic and Eastern European states down the path of painful but successful reforms.

Instead, in 1992-94 the rate of inflation was in the thousands and dozens of banks failed, delaying the payment of salaries to millions of Ukrainians across the country.

A sad symbol of that time, a small two-wheeled cart, in which impoverished Ukrainians transported modest goods to resell them in open-air markets to make ends meet, was called “kravchuchka” (Kravchuk’s bag).

Moreover, newly independent Ukraine found itself under pressure from the United States and Russia, which feared chaos, to surrender its nuclear weapons inherited from the Soviet Union.

In 1993, Kravchuk agreed to transfer all Ukraine-based nuclear weapons, which included dozens of intercontinental ballistic missiles and strategic bombers, to Russia in exchange for compensation to be paid for each nuclear warhead.

Later, when war with Russian-backed separatists broke out in 2014, Kravchuk’s decision to give up nuclear weapons was remembered by many as a mistake.

The deal, signed by then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin, also paved the way for kyiv to sell part of the former Soviet Black Sea Fleet to Moscow, a move that sparked discontent of many Ukrainians and caused Kravchuk’s popularity to plummet.

In 1994, the political crisis triggered an early presidential vote, which Kravchuk lost to his former Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma, who was seen as a pro-Russian candidate.

Shortly after the defeat, Kravchuk joined a party run by oligarchs and was elected as a deputy in 1998. In 2009, he left the Social Democratic Party, which was heavily criticized for its pro-Russian stance.

In 2020, Kravchuk, 86, made a brief political comeback when he accepted an offer from President Volodymyr Zelensky to become one of the main Ukrainian negotiators in talks with Russia on settling the separatist conflict in the east of the country.