Ukraine after 20 Years: the Glass is still Half-Empty

Mykola Riabchuk

Ukrainian Independence Day is still an event that evokes a flood of articles, memoirs, speeches, and debates in the national mass media, sometimes pathetic and pompous, but in most cases embittered, frustrated and utterly sarcastic.

Oleksandr Irvanets, a renowned Ukrainian writer, very popular inter alia through his ad hoc poetical parodies, produced a sham “ode” with the explicit dedication to the national Independence Day – “Our Victory” []. The bogus ode is composed of poetical clichés borrowed from both the socialist realist and nationalist writing of the “heroic” genre. This combination is pretty funny in itself but the main comic effect comes from the names of “heroes” inserted within the “ode” and from their purported “national-liberation” activity. All the names represent the so-called Ukrainian elite – the top politicians and oligarchs who in fact had never dreamed about any kind of national independence (some of them actually worked within the ancien regime to suppress it) but who, ironically, appear to be the main, if not only, beneficiaries of Ukraine’s independent statehood.

Lina Kostenko, another prominent Ukrainian writer, published a scornful feuilleton “Dress Ranks to the Podium!” in which she mockingly suggested substituting the traditional military parade with a carnival procession of all the corrupt officials, judges, and other government folk who have ripped and pillaged the country over the past twenty years. All four Ukrainian presidents, she suggested, should stand at the podium greeting the parade and displaying on their chests the list of who ceded and wasted what over the past two decades – “either nuclear weapons, or the Black Sea Fleet, or national industry and strategic objects, or the Orange revolution, or the entire country” [хто що здав за ці 20 років. Хто флот і ядерну зброю, хто промисловість і стратегічні об’єкти, хто помаранчеву революцію, хто взагалі Україну] [].

The reputable Dzerkalo tyzhnia weekly (“Mirror Weekly”) commemorated the jubilee with a number of articles headed by graphic titles such as “Twenty Years of Solitude,” “Twenty Years of Discontent,” or merely featuring Ukraine’s place in various international rankings: no. 1 in the world for alcoholism among children, no.1 in Europe for the spread of HIV, no. 2 among IMF’s biggest borrowers ($12.66 billion debt), no. 5 for the biggest suppliers of emigrants (6.6 million people have left the country since independence – nearly 15% of today’s population), no. 5 in the world for alcohol consumption, no. 7 for computer piracy, no. 10 for the number of prisoners (334 per 100,000 people), no. 69 (among 169 surveyed) on the human development index, no. 73 (out of 192) for quality of life, no. 110 (out of 177) for prosperity, no. 131 for freedom of speech, no. 134 (out of 180) for corruption, no. 164 (out of 179) for economic freedom, no. 181 (out of 183) for the simplicity of taxpaying procedures (an average Ukrainian entrepreneur, according to the World Bank data, spends 657 hours annually filing tax-related documents and settling business issues) [].

Either deliberately or by coincidence, the same issue of Dzerkalo tyzhnia features an overoptimistic article by the Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych himself. Here, he trumpets Ukraine’s “European choice” and commitment to “European values,” boasts about large-scale reforms and anti-corruption measures, and professes, on behalf of the government, the highest respect for the national constitution and rule of law []. As a speech writer’s product it seems pretty good but the reality resonates differently. All the “reforms” to date have noticeably improved the well-being of the president’s friendly oligarchs and brought misery to the life of the common people; all the “anti-corruption measures” so far, have resulted in the persecution of opposition figures under dubious charges and in a higher than ever corruption and lawlessness within the president’s inner circle; all the “respect for the constitution” is demonstrated by multiple violations of its clauses in the most blatant way since Yanukovych’s accession to power. The hard fact is that under his leadership Ukraine has dropped in numerous international rankings – including in political and economic freedoms, administrative efficacy, and quality of life.

Remarkably, it is foreigners rather than Ukrainian citizens who express some optimism about Ukraine’s development in their comments. Steven Pifer, a former American ambassador to Ukraine, believes that the emergence of a national identity spanning all of Ukraine is among the country’s key achievements of the last two decades. “In eastern Ukraine it may not be quite as thick as it is in the west, but I think most Ukrainians now see Ukraine as an independent state and whatever issues they are going to face, they want to resolve those issues as a Ukrainian state” [].

Matthew Rojansky, director of the Carnegie Endowment’s Russia and Eurasia Program, agrees, according to the same source, that the most significant change in the post-Soviet republics was has been “the creation and re-establishment and re-creation of new, independent identities,”, “which includes seeking to differentiate themselves from Russia even when people had been very heavily Russified and economies had been heavily Sovietized.” Ukraine, he contends, stands prominently among those countries in which a new generation of leaders has emerged that “has confidence in democracy and is willing to source its power from their electorates rather than from chummy relations with Moscow.” In this regard, he considers the wave of colored revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan as an important development in the right direction, “a sign of the generational weakening of the sociopolitical legacies of the Soviet experience.”

And Alexander Motyl, in his recent blog on Ukraine’s Independence Day, envisions, rather unexpectedly, the country’s bright future despite the fact that the Ukrainian rulers, in his own terms, are just a bunch of greedy and incompetent thugs who captured the state (the view actually is not so unique and extravagant since Ukrainian publicists often describe Yanukovych’s clan as a “Donetsk mafia” meaning not necessarily a deliberate insult but, rather, the pedigree and the way in which the inner circle of the Party of Regions is organized). Motyl believes, nonetheheless, that these people are doomed to Europeanize/modernize Ukraine despite themselves, i.e., notwithstanding their entire set of beliefs, habits, and basic instincts. They simply have no choice: “Unfortunately for Ukraine’s current mafia, their thuggish godfather to the north is stronger than they are… Vladimir Putin’s Russia knows no bounds on its appetites toward Ukraine… If you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile. If you give them a mile, they’ll take ten. Jeeze, what’s a poor Ukrainian capo to do? The answer is obvious: go straight. Get rid of those black shirts and wide lapels, stop smoking cigars and packing heat, cut your fingernails, brush your hair, buy yourself a nice house and mow the lawn, start a respectable business, and join a country club, preferably in Brussels” [].

“Oh, and one more thing,” Motyl suggests acerbically, “Declare Putin and his sidekick Dmitri Medvedev Heroes of Ukraine. They deserve it. Their thuggishness might just make Ukraine fully independent.”

Whatever the reason for optimism and/or pessimism about Ukraine, the main difference between the two approaches stems not so much from different views of Ukraine and its internal developments, but rather from different views of the context within which the country is placed. The “pessimists” consider Ukraine as a part of Europe and gauge it against the experience of much more advanced western neighbors. The “optimists” still perceive it primarily as a “Eurasian” state, which is definitely more advanced in many regards than virtually all its post-Soviet brethren. It is still like a glass of water that can be considered either half-full or half-empty, depending on the predisposition of the speaker.

The “pessimists” seem to be right about Ukraine’s present, whereas the “optimists” may be right about its future. To be sure, the incumbent regime is no friend of Europe, democracy, freedom of speech, and fair economic competition. Russian-style authoritarianism or Belarus-style dictatorship would have been their most favored system of government. Yet they lack resources to afford the former and are too vulnerable to inevitable international sanctions to move toward the latter. And to make bad things worse, they lead a restive society that may require even more resources than Russia has to bribe it, and more coercion than Lukashenko applies to ensure it is pacified.

So, the paradoxical shift of the staunch authoritarians toward Europe and therefore toward European practices envisioned by Motyl cannot be excluded. Yanukovych’s speech signals this possibility not only by multiple references to “our European choice” but also by a carefully worded resentment vis-à-vis Moscow: “The past years have proved undeniably that good neighborly relations with Russia are possible only if they are based on an equal balance of national interests and the mutual respect of both sides for each other. The state and its leadership will do everything they can to construct such a balance.” Diplomatic niceties aside, the statement means that Ukraine cannot perform a friendship dance alone, and that Russia should show equal respect for Ukraine and its national interests.

Of course, there is a long and sometimes insurmountable distance between words and deeds, intentions and practices. Even if the Ukrainian “mafia,” under domestic and international pressure, decides ultimately to follow Motyl’s advice – to get rid of bad habits and start a respectable business, – it might be a very difficult task, as the last part of “Godfather” illustrates graphically. Third-party enforcement (or at least arbitration) in such a transition might be the key factor. But it is not very clear whether the European Union is ready and able to play the sort of role in Ukraine that it played successfully in the Balkans.

If such a shift happens – as seemed likely after the Orange revolution – we may call the Ukrainian glass half-full. So far, alas, it remains half-empty.


Distinguished University Professor, University of Alberta


  1. Pingback: Ukraine after 20 Years: the Glass is still Half-Empty « Maidan

  2. UkrToday

    Ukraine will never be a free independent democratic state whilst it is subject to Presidential “rule by decree”

    Ukraine has struggled over the last 20 years to adopt a parliamentary system of governance. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland are all successful Parliamentary democracies. Ukraine came close to completing the transition in 2002/3 and in 2004/5 took a major step forward when it adopted constitutional changes that removed some power and authority for the President, Unfortunately the presidential powers that remained enabled Yushchenko to undermine the stability and effectiveness of Ukraine’s parliament. In 2006/7 Ukraine once again came close to reaching agreement to remove power from the office of the president., In order to avoid Ukraine becoming a parliamentary democracy, Yushchenko illegally and unconstitutionally dismissed Ukraine’s previous parliament, Going so far as to directly interfere with the independence and operation of Ukraine’s Constitutional Court. Yushchenko’s actions caused seven months of political and civil unrest. The fresh round of elections that followed only further destabilised Ukraine by delivering a hung parliament.

    Yushchenko has destroyed what chance there was for Ukraine to become a true democratic state. His term of office has been the worst on record since 1991. In 2010 Yushchenko was the most hated and disliked presidential candidate with over 85% of Ukraine opposed to his re-election,

    Thanks to Yushchenko Ukraine is now back where it started,. It has lost direction and is unlikely to find sufficient support to establish Ukraine as a full parliamentary democracy.

    To a large extent the events that are unfolding in Ukraine today are a direct flow on from Yushchenko’s term in office.

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