Leonid Kravchuk, first president of Ukraine, dies at 88

Leonid Makarovich Kravchuk, who led Ukraine out of the collapse of the Soviet Union and signed the renouncement of the country’s nuclear arsenal as the first elected president of the people, died on Tuesday. hey what 88

A family member reported his death to the Ukrainian news agency and it was confirmed by Ukrainian officials, including President Volodymyr Zelensky. His health had deteriorated last year when he underwent heart surgery and then spent a long time in intensive care.

Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kravchuk was a leader of the Communist Party of Ukraine and later effectively led the country itself. A longtime ideologist, he was committed to cracking down on any growing nationalism.

However, as an experienced statesman with a crack for timely evolutionit saw the wind of change in the late 1980s and eventually took on the role of independence.

He left the Communist Party in 1991 after hardliners attempted a coup against Mikhail S. Gorbachev. That December he was elected president with a landslide victory in independent Ukraine’s first popular election. “Ukraine was born,” he exulted.

Days after his election, he signed a multinational agreement formally declaring the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Mr. Kravchuk was his last surviving signatory: Boris N. Yeltsin of Russia died in 2007 and Stanislav Shushkevich of Belarus, who became the first leader of independent Belarus, died last week at the age of 87.

Mr. Kravchuk’s death comes when the nation he helped found is locked in a potentially existential war with Russia.

“Leonid Makarovich knew how much freedom costs and with all his heart he wanted peace for Ukraine,” Zelensky said in a video address Tuesday, swearing that the country would be able to secure that peace.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov greeted Mr. Kravchuk on Twitter for disintegrating the “evil empire” and thanked him for the country’s independence. “We are defending it now with weapons in our hands”, He said.

None of these weapons are nuclear, because Mr. Kravchuk agreed to give up the arsenal that Ukraine had inherited from the Soviets in exchange for security guarantees. At the time, Ukraine was the third largest nuclear power in the world and that deal is now the source of it some regrets.

Kravchuk established a peaceful transfer of power to Ukraine after losing the 1994 presidential election.

He became involved in the country’s struggle to maintain its sovereignty. In 2020, Zelensky appointed him to represent Ukraine in the Trilateral Contact Group, formed in 2014 with Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in hopes of finding a diplomatic end to the conflict with the separatists backed by the Russia in the eastern Donbas region. President Vladimir V. Putin used elements of that conflict to justify his February 24 invasion of Ukraine.

Mr. Kravchuk was born in 1934 in the village of Velyky Zhityn in the Rivne region. He was the son of a farmer killed in World War II and attended a vocational school before studying Marxist political economy at the University of Kiev. He graduated at the age of 24 and became a teacher of political economy in Chernovtsy before entering politics.

He is survived by his wife, Antonina, who also taught political economy at the University of Kiev, and their son and grandchildren.

Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko was one of many prominent Ukrainians who greeted Kravchuk on Tuesday and praised his love for Ukraine.

“We are still fighting for our independence and freedom,” Klitschko wrote on Telegram, adding, “But we will retain the sovereignty and freedom we gained over 30 years ago!”