by Andrew Fedynsky
On Ukrainian independence
It's eight years since the Soviet Union collapsed and Ukraine declared independence. Since then, nearly all the newly independent countries have been engaged in some kind of conflict. Russia, having lost its war with Chechnya in spectacular fashion, is at it again in the Caucasus, this time fighting Islamic guerrillas in Daghestan. Violence is tearing at the fabric of Georgian society; President Eduard Shevarnadze is a perennial target of political assassins. Armenia and Azerbaijan have never stopped fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh. In Uzbekistan authorities have banned political parties and are sentencing people to death for political bombings in the capital city of Tashkent. In Tajikistan the government has been in armed conflict with the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) for the past five years. Belarus, under its bizarre dictator Ayaksandr Lukashenka, is both a tragedy and an international laughing stock. Virtually the only formerly Soviet-occupied countries with no armed conflict or political repression are the Baltic states and Ukraine.
That's not what everyone expected. Three years ago in September, Forbes Magazine published a highly offensive article, "Tinderbox," that compared Ukraine to Yugoslavia and hyped a self-styled militia leader and lunatic as if he were characteristic of the whole country. "The world hasn't seen the last of ethnic turmoil in Eastern Europe," Forbes warned. "Keep your eye on Ukraine." Since then, Ukraine has been an island of stability and if anything, the world is keeping its eye on Russia.
In its eight years of independence, Ukraine, under two presidents, has proven to be a responsible force in international affairs. In its very first years as an independent country, Ukraine made an immeasurable contribution to American and international security by choosing to divest itself of thousands of nuclear warheads. (I hope Congress keeps this in mind as it considers the foreign assistance bill this fall.) During the recent crisis in Kosovo, Ukraine resisted pressure from Russia and aligned itself with NATO against Slobodan Milosevic's ethnic cleansing. Elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia, Ukraine has been helping to keep the peace in Bosnia for more than two years now. In fact, the use of military force in Ukraine has been exclusively peaceful - most recently this past summer when Ukrainian warships participated in NATO maneuvers on the Black Sea and at the Yavoriv training center in Lviv where 17 NATO and observer nations took part in the Peaceshield '99 NATO-sponsored war games.
New York Mayor Ed Koch used to greet people with a cheerful, "How am I doing?" That's a reasonable question, and one that many people constantly apply to Ukraine. The country, of course, is large and complex, and the absence of political violence is certainly not the only standard by which we measure its status. So how's Ukraine doing? By any normal standard, the answer is "terrible." The economy is a mess, the environment is a disaster, health care is poor, the state still controls most major business, including the vital agricultural sector, and the general mood is one of pessimism and gloom.
Ukraine, though, is not a normal country where normal standards apply. This is a place where God was banned for 75 years and people worshipped a mummy laid out in a Moscow mausoleum. This was a land where people didn't trust anyone - even children were taught to inform on their parents and teachers. Within living memory, Ukraine was a killing field where the Communists murdered millions of peasants, artists and professionals. Millions more died in the bitter struggle with the Nazis. Those who survived the Great Famine, the Great Terror and the war lived in fear of the biggest police bureaucracy in history. From the top down, everyone survived by suppressing any instinct toward creative thinking or entrepreneurial initiative. People even stopped using the letter "g" when the authorities ordered them to do so.
When the Soviet Union finally collapsed in August 1991, Ukrainians of all ethnic backgrounds voted almost unanimously for independence. Unfortunately, the expectation that an era of prosperity would promptly ensue has been cruelly frustrated. The habits and attitudes forced on society by the Communists continue to prevail. If the country's doing terribly, there are plenty of reasons why, based on its history and the mindset inherited from the Soviet era.
Soon after Independence Day celebrations in August, Ukraine will hold its third presidential election. Since 1991, the country has conducted a smooth transition from one presidential administration to another and peacefully replaced its Parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, following free elections that international observers certified as democratic and fair. In eight years of independence, Ukraine has proved it can sustain its sovereignty, conduct peaceful and democratic elections and play a responsible role in international affairs. Not a bad record for a country that many predicted would erupt in ethnic turmoil and Yugoslav-style conflict.
Unfortunately, people can't eat independence or take democracy to the bank. Democracy and stability provide the basis for progress and prosperity, but tough choices still have to be made and a lot of hard work still confronts the citizens of Ukraine. Regardless, I hope Ukrainians and Ukraine's friends in the West appreciate the value of what has been achieved and keep things in perspective.
Ukraine is doing far better than Yugoslavia (Forbes Magazine please take note) and is playing a much more responsible role internationally than its giant neighbors to the north and east. It's apparent that the Clinton administration, the State Department, many members of Congress, NATO, the International Monetary Fund and other key players in the world recognize Ukraine's strategic role and have taken notice of its leaders' efforts to maintain the country's security, stability and international standing. On the other hand, it's no secret that critical decisions are not being made. That is why the country that is doing so well in some respects is failing in the economic sphere.
Taking all these factors into account, how's Ukraine doing? Compared to the United States and the European Union, the country is light years behind. Compared to Russia and other countries that once were part of the Soviet Union, Ukraine is a model of civic responsibility. Compared to where the country was two and three generations ago, things have never been this good. It all depends on your perspective. Ukraine has come a long way. It has a long way to go.
Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, August 22, 1999, No. 34, Vol. LXVII
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