Independence: the fifth anniversary

Five years ago on August 19-21, hard-liners in Moscow attempted a coup d'état to depose Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. In Ukraine, the situation was tense. The chairman of the Ukrainian SSR Supreme Soviet (Council), Leonid Kravchuk, was straddling the fence: he did not condemn the coup plotters, nor did he support President Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian Federation, who stood firm in the name of democracy. Meanwhile, democratic organizations - united in an ad hoc coalition called Independent Democratic Ukraine - called on the Ukrainian Supreme Council to condemn the coup and to distance itself from the so-called Emergency Committee in Moscow.

Ultimately, the coup, which was aimed at perpetuating the USSR, brought about the exact opposite. Dr. Yuri Shcherbak, speaking in the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, told his colleagues in no uncertain terms: "What has happened is the collapse of the central empire, the full destruction of the structures of imperial power. There can be no illusions: the Soviet Union no longer exists." On the heels of the coup came the Ukrainian Supreme Council's unexpected declaration of Ukraine's independence on August 24, 1991, and that clinched the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union.

On December 1, the Parliament's act was overwhelmingly affirmed by the people of Ukraine, as over 90 percent voted "yes" for independence. Four days after the plebiscite, Ukraine's first president, Leonid Kravchuk, took the oath of office.

And thus, Ukraine embarked on the road to accomplishing the twin tasks of state-building and nation-building - tasks that continue to this day. Athough it was apparent that modern-day independence owed much to the sacrifices of the past, it soon became clear that there were new sacrifices that had to be made by the current generations.

Adding to the growing pains experienced by the newly independent state was the pressure exerted by the ever-present "elder brother," as Russia began asserting itself as a great power with a special regional role to play. Internationally, Ukraine was nearly made out to be a pariah as the major powers sought its denuclearization and disarmament, and the closing of the stricken Chornobyl nuclear power plant. Domestically, the president (who did much to make the world understand that, yes indeed, Ukraine is independent), the Parliament and the government were involved in a power struggle, resulting in a deleterious stalemate.

Pre-term parliamentary and presidential elections were scheduled, respectively, for March and June of 1994, and a second Leonid - Leonid Kuchma - then an unknown quantity, was elected president in the July 10 runoffs. He came into office speaking of a Eurasian space, working within the CIS, normalizing relations with Russia and making Russian an official language of Ukraine. But his on-the-job training, so to speak, has apparently been successful, as he has grown into the role of president of independent Ukraine.

Ukraine's orientation now is definitely Westward - toward Europe and beyond; Russia knows where it stands in relation to Ukraine; and Ukrainian remains the only state language (though language rights are guaranteed to all of Ukraine's minorities). Ukraine today is successfully being integrated into international and European structures, and it finally has a new Constitution to boot.

So, as Ukraine marks the fifth anniversary of an event that many of us thought would never come to pass, it is worth recalling where the reborn independent state called Ukaine has been, and where it is now headed. "Slava Ukrayini!" And, oh yes, "Mnohaya Lita!"

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, August 18, 1996, No. 33, Vol. LXIV

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