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Independent Ukraine’s first president dies

KYIV, UKRAINE (AP) – Leonid Kravchuk, who led Ukraine to independence during the collapse of the Soviet Union and served as its first president, died on 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 on 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 December 8 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.

Former Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk. PHOTO: AP

He lost the 1994 presidential election to former Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma.

“Thank you for the peaceful renewal of our Independence. We’re defending it now with weapons in our hands,” Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov Reznikov tweeted on Tuesday. Kravchuk’s death comes a week after that of the first president of post-Soviet Belarus, Stanislav Shushkevich, who died aged 87 following treatment for COVID-19.

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.

Some participants in the historic December 8 meeting pointed to Kravchuk as having played the main role in the demise of the Soviet Union.

Ukraine had declared its sovereignty after a coup 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.