Twenty years ago, the Ukrainian parliament declared independence, following a failed putsch in Moscow. The dramatic move virtually guaranteed the end of the Soviet Union, as Mikhail Gorbachev admitted. It also raised hopes that the new state of 52 million people would emerge as a democratic and strong country through its strategic location in central Europe.
The late 1980s saw a cultural revival and a popular movement led by leading writers who spearheaded the move to independence. Catalyzed by the USSR’s failure to respond to the 1986 Chornobyl disaster, it revisited “blank spots” of the past, such as the tragic famine of 1932-33 and Stalin’s purges. Fueled by activists from a plethora of informal associations—environmental, political, and religious—it signaled real hope for Ukraine, a resource-rich country endowed with valuable agricultural land. The future seemed bright.
However, two decades of independence have brought deep disappointment. Ukrainian intellectuals are virtually falling over each other with cynical remarks about the rates of corruption, alcoholism, infectious diseases, and lack of freedoms (see Mykola Riabchuk’s article on this site).
Conversely, Western analysts seem slightly more upbeat, if only because they compare Ukraine favorably with other former states of the USSR like Russia and Belarus, or the monolithic dictatorships of Central Asia. Despite difficulties, the economy has returned to positive growth. And, the mere fact of survival is an achievement, the longest period of independence in Ukrainian history.
It is impossible, however, to avoid an impression of fading optimism.
On the eve of Independence Day, the government banned any public demonstrations other than the official celebration.
Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister and a co-leader of the 2004 Orange Revolution, remains on trial for making a 2008 gas deal with Russia, despite coming down with a debilitating illness. Her onetime ally and former president Viktor Yushchenko testified against her at the trial, further testimony to the disintegration of the democratic forces.
The president, Viktor Yanukovych, has filled the cabinet with cronies from the Donbas, few of whom even speak Ukrainian. He appears every inch the Soviet bureaucrat, thuggish and vindictive, and actively using the security forces against his enemies.
The failure to live up to early expectations can be attributed to several factors.
First, there were inevitable teething problems. The parliamentary chair, Leonid Kravchuk, former ideological secretary of the Communist Party, became Ukraine’s first president on December 1, 1991. By declaring independence on August 24, the Communists managed to retain power and remained strong during the following years, paralyzing government and opposing their former mentor, Kravchuk.
Second, Ukraine’s eastern cities were a stronghold of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Nikita Khrushchev made his political career in Donetsk; Leonid Brezhnev was born in Kamenskoe—today known as Dniprodzerzhinsk after the founder of the Soviet secret police (latterly the KGB), Felix Dzerzhinsky.
These cities fought for supremacy after independence, struggling for control of vital resources in coal mining, ferrous metallurgy, and chemicals. The Dnipropetrovsk group triumphed in the mid-90s with Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko and his Deputy Energy Minister Tymoshenko. But the notoriously corrupt Lazarenko looted an estimated $200 million from Ukraine in 1996-97 and was eventually tried and convicted in USA.
Today it is the Donetsk group that wields power. It suffered a severe setback with the Orange triumph, but the leniency of the Yushchenko presidency ensured its recovery. There is a notable continuity from former Soviet bosses to the current “clan” leaders of the region. Backed by magnates like Rinat Akhmetov, the Yanukovych regime is interested in empowerment rather than democratic ideals. Above all it wishes to prevent a return to the Orange movement of 2004.
Third, and crucially, the Yushchenko presidency (2005-10) became mired in fractious disputes and failed to build on the energy created in the streets of Kyiv. Not only did it avoid addressing corruption, it failed to bring to trial the main transgressors, and restored Yanukovych to eminence by, improbably, making him Prime Minister in August 2006.
Fourth, neither the European Union nor Russia under Putin and Medvedev has supported Ukraine adequately. The EU failed to live up to its promises for early membership during the Orange Revolution, whereas Russia started a war over gas prices with the Yushchenko administration, and today is an uncomfortable and intrusive neighbor that seeks much tighter integration with Kyiv.
Critically, the government of Ukraine has failed to enunciate a national vision for Ukraine. On the contrary, Yanukovych and his associates encourage regionalism, divisions, and extremism in order to pose as the voice of moderation. The growing authoritarianism poses a serious threat to democracy that can no longer be ignored by European leaders or by Ukrainians themselves.
This article appeared simultaneously in the Edmonton Journal, Ottawa Citizen, and Vancouver Province, 24 August 2011