Postscript to 15th anniversary of referendum affirming Act proclaiming Ukraine’s independence

By Yurii SHCHERBAK, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Ukraine and
director of the Center for Global and Regional Studies at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy

On Dec. 1, 2006, Ukraine marked an important date in its modern history: the 15 th anniversary of the national referendum that convincingly affirmed the Ukrainians’ will to live in an independent state and the election of Ukraine’s first president Leonid Kravchuk.

It would be a great exaggeration to say that Ukraine marked this event. Our country practically did not celebrate this date, except for a few perfunctory notes in the newspapers and some brief reports on television. People were more interested in the new rental and utility fees and the power struggle that has erupted between the blue-white-red coalition and the Orange people than in an event of worldwide historical importance that finally brought down the Soviet empire.

Of course, it is much pleasanter to mark Aug. 24: that’s a public holiday, the weather is nice, there’s lots of entertainment, like parades and pageants. You can knock back a beer on Independence Square, listen to pop music, and see some fireworks — a real celebration, is it not?

Meanwhile, Dec. 1 is a far more significant date, and the national leadership as well as “small Ukrainians” should have a much more reverent attitude to it. Unfortunately, Ukrainians, who are in the state of a cold civil war, dreaming of an alchemical formula called the “national idea” and stuck in the mire of everyday problems, apathy, mistrust, and disillusion, are beginning to forget about the exalted lesson of national unity that the Dec. 1, 1991, referendum taught us.


That day all divisions and all the political, geographic, religious, ethnic and linguistic barriers that had existed in Soviet Ukraine, for decades insistently imposed by the communist regime, were pushed aside. It was a true peaceful mass revolution, the free expression of a people’s will without any financial or administrative leverage applied. The Maidan of 2004 was a logical, if somewhat less unanimous, continuation of the 1991 referendum.

Eight months later the people, who as recently as March 1991 had supported Anatolii Lukianov’s Jesuitical formula of living in an “updated Union,” turned against a regime that was in the throes of agony and a system that was disintegrating with unpredictable consequences for Soviet citizens and the rest of the world.

It was an escape from empire, an attempt at national salvation on everyone’ part without exception: Soviet Ukrainian citizens, irrespective of their ethnic origins or party affiliation. I think what mattered here was not just sober reasoning but also subconscious impulses, such as genetic memory of the red empire’s bloody crimes, the fear of nuclear and non- nuclear conflicts, and the desire to wait out the historical storm in one’s own home, not in the outlandish structure constructed by utopian fanatics, which extended from Afghanistan to Finland.

When I was working in the US, I asked many people, including a Harvard professor — a Sovietologist — a former defense secretary, a well- known Washington journalist, a former ambassador to the USSR, and influential members of the US Congress and administration whether they had ever thought the Soviet Union might collapse and Ukraine gain independence.

No, they had not. They did not take this into account in their plans and forecasts. In his famous and thought-provoking book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, published four years before the collapse of the USSR, Paul Kennedy analyzed world history from 1500 to 2000 and came to the completely erroneous conclusion that a bipolar world divided between the two superpowers, the US and the USSR, would survive for an indefinite period of time.

Moreover, no one could foresee Ukraine’s role in this geopolitical drama. Both Western theoretical analysts and local communist practitioners looked upon Ukraine as a totally tamed, weak-willed, and “reeducated” province of the empire, only capable of setting records in the production of grain, sugar beets, meat, and coal. What is more, a number of progressive intellectuals in Moscow considered Ukraine “more Soviet” and “reactionary and orthodox” than the imperial center or its Baltic environs.

So much for the West or Moscow! I know dozens of outstanding figures of the Ukrainian Renaissance, who had passionate dreams of national independence but at the same time did not believe that history’s verdict of the Soviet Union’s viability would be carried out so unexpectedly quickly, in our lifetime, on Aug. 24, 1991, and confirmed on Dec. 1 as one that is not subject to appeal.

Each person who voted “yes” in the referendum had his own, deeply personal, reasons for doing so — ranging from ideological hatred of communism to a utopian desire to see Kyiv at the head of a new Slavic empire that would resemble Kyivan Rus’. But these historical and philosophical motives were alien to the vast majority of those who came to the polling stations. About 70 percent of those who voted for independence believed that when Ukraine, with its rich resources and superior economic and human potential, formed an independent state ruled by their “own” freedom-loving Kyiv, not by imperial Moscow, it would quickly, if not instantaneously and almost automatically, turn into a prosperous state and fill the ranks of Europe’s advanced democracies.

This dream, phantasmagoria, utopia, and all-pervading illusion became, in spite of its naivete, a purely Ukrainian national idea. Those who are now seeking new intricate formulas tend to forget what 92 percent of the Ukrainian electorate voted for: independence, well-being, democracy, justice, and European choice.

And whatever the remaining Bolsheviks and heirs of Stalin may say, taunting these naive Ukrainians (“Look at what your independence has brought us!”) who believed in their dream, we, Ukrainian democrats, are convinced that the people were not mistaken or deceived by the basic instinct for freedom. Neither the sufferings of the millions of poverty- stricken Ukrainians in the first years after the proclamation of independence, nor the collapse of an ineffective and absurd centralized economy and semi-feudal collective farming, nor energy problems, could kill the Ukrainian dream: on the contrary, they made it even more pressing and indispensable.


The trouble is how the ruling elite has used the people’s mandate to implement the Ukrainian dream. For 15 years Ukraine has been running away from the empire, feeling the hoarse breathing of its prisoner-convoy German shepherds and watching with trepidation the hell that the empire’s Praetorian Guard is raising ever more aggressively and openly in the political circuses and on the streets and squares of Ukrainian cities. The empire is now acting in a new guise of Eurasian oil and gas, where the red star has an autocratic eagle, an Orthodox cross, and a Gazprom shut valve inscribed in it.

But the organizational principles of the imperial space remain the same: a single white tsar, omnipotent secret services, a single state-run radio and television that can air pornographic programs but eschews free debate, and a single imperial language that drives local “dialects” underground.

For 15 years a shameful act has been taking place before our eyes: the government’s imitation of care for the people — a government that deliberately robs people of fair wages, i.e., a considerable part of the gross national product that belongs to them, a government that deliberately hinders fair competition, stifles small and medium businesses, and carefully raises and cherishes a clan of oligarchs, who transship the nation’s hard-earned wealth offshore, thus strengthening foreign economies.

Look attentively at the past 15 years, and you will feel yourselves witnesses of Ukraine’s centuries-old history, that sad national story in which exalted spirit and sacrificial heroism fight against and most often lose to a loutish bunch of venal bosses, atamans, and large and small hetmans bent on grabbing a luscious morsel from the people’s table.

If you recall the political actors of the past 15 years, you will understand why Kyivan Rus’ disintegrated, why Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s Cossack state did not materialize, and why the Ukrainian National Republic ceased to exist. Just remember the personal relationships among Mykhailo Hrushevsky, Volodymyr Vynnychenko, and Symon Petliura, or the vaudeville-style entourage of Pavlo Skoropadsky. What an immortal algorithm of self-depreciation and vanity is instilled in our history and its characters!

The only reason why the gloomy predictions of the CIA and Moscow analysts concerning the inevitable demise of the independent Ukrainian state (one, two, or five years after the proclamation) did not come true was that the Ukrainian people proved to have a very strong and flexible inner structure, and they showed great reluctance to be part of the empire again. A nation that has never liked or trusted any bosses, either the old communist or the new pseudo- democratic ones, has preserved a powerful potential for self-preservation: no matter how bad the Ukrainian government may be, it is not as dangerous as the far-away, repressive, cold, and merciless imperialist government that despises those khokhly with their fatback and fertile soil. Even the most kindhearted nation does not forgive scorn and contempt. Casting their ballot papers, voters remembered very clearly who had organized the Holodomor, the Siberian prison camps, nuclear saber-rattling, and the occupation of other “friendly” countries.

As long as this genetic memory survives, Ukraine will never voluntarily return to the empire.


The referendum anniversary was nevertheless marked: Ukraine House extolled the first president of Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk, on Dec. 1, 2006. In the audience were people who are truly aware of what Kravchuk did for Ukrainian history. Among the speakers were his comrades-in-arms, former prime ministers Vitold Fokin and Yevhen Marchuk, and former members of parliament and ministers, diplomats, and public figures.

But for some reason Kravchuk did not receive any greetings from the second and third presidents of Ukraine. They must have forgotten. I wish they had not because, in comparison with those who came to power after him, Leonid Kravchuk will always remain a true democrat, a wise, tolerant, cautious, and far-seeing politician — a genuine Ukrainian patriot. He was the first to hear the subterranean roaring of the earthquake that was brewing in the bowels of the USSR and which could destroy his people. The Belovezhskaia pushcha agreement was the pinnacle of his life because Russia alone, in the person of Boris Yeltsin, could not have — and what is more — would not have wanted to destroy the rotten imperial building. Fifteen years ago Kravchuk executed a true feat: he risked his own life, raising his fist against the seemingly indestructible foundation of an empire. Accordingly, he incurred the deep hatred of his recent communist friends, those who had lived by the laws of a criminal gang that never forgives the one who has embarked on the path of truth.

Kravchuk’s next feat was his decision to call early elections without resorting to the administrative resource during the election campaign, renounce any dubious strong-arm tactics, and democratically transfer power to Leonid Kuchma.

I remember how Kuchma’s entourage was baffled in 1995 when visiting US President Bill Clinton asked them to arrange a brief meeting with Kravchuk: he wanted to shake hands with the person who for the first (and perhaps the last) time in the history of the CIS voluntarily transferred power to his democratically elected successor. After coming to power, Kuchma’s team immediately started showing signs of the typically Soviet syndrome: to destroy the predecessor (morally, if not physically). At first accusing Kravchuk of every sin, Kuchma later saw that he was beset by the same problems; that he, like the first president, was in the grip of the same objective circumstances — so he changed wrath into grace.

Neither could Viktor Yushchenko and his “dear friends” escape this syndrome of looking for enemies in the ranks of his predecessors. These weeds are running riot today, as Viktor Yanukovych’s team bulldozes representatives of the “alien” team out of its way. The Democrat Clinton was not afraid to appoint Republican Senator William Cohen as US defense secretary. Meanwhile, today’s Ukrainian politicians uphold the opposite principle: discord, revenge, and a search for “public enemies,” who must be made short work of and humiliated in every conceivable way.

Can you imagine a minister of foreign affairs (the No. 2 or 3 man in the governmental hierarchy of Western countries), still officially in office, being stopped — in a rude, boorish, and tough-guy manner — from attending a cabinet session? Can you believe that these people want to go to Europe? Who will let them in?

The principle of the total political elimination of predecessors, now sinking its roots in Ukraine, is setting a very dangerous precedent and is extremely harmful to a state that suffers from an acute shortage of skilled personnel.

The referendum’s 15 th anniversary was also the subject of the international roundtable debate “Moving Forward, Looking Back,” which was organized by the embassies of Canada and Poland as well as the Diplomatic Academy of Ukraine: it was the referendum that opened the doors of the international community to Ukraine. The participants of the roundtable recalled that Poland and Canada were the first to give diplomatic recognition to independent Ukraine — on the second day after the referendum and a few hours later, respectively. As a witness and participant of those events, I can say that these first acts of international recognition were of paramount importance to Ukraine. It is difficult to overestimate the significance of these gestures: Poland and Canada — in 1991 and today — are doing their utmost to lead us out of the imperial space and help us join global processes.

Yevhen Marchuk, the former prime minister and defense minister of Ukraine, delivered a brilliant and bitter speech at the conference, focusing on the lessons of the past. Asked why the Soviet Union, a mighty empire that had a powerful ruling party and a strong repressive apparatus, collapsed, Marchuk said that the national idea had come to the fore and suppressed proletarian internationalism. In Marchuk’s view, Kravchuk, an experienced statesman, did a very wise thing by refusing to follow in the wake of radicals, both leftists and rightists. Kravchuk’s principle of “walking in between raindrops” worked far more effectively in extreme conditions than any abrupt, provocative gestures. Neither the communist fundamentalists nor the national radicals stood any chance of state-building success in the conditions that emerged in 1991-92.

The 15 th anniversary of the referendum provokes deep reflections on the role and destiny of Ukraine in the world as well as on the system within the state. The people who breathed the air of freedom in the 2004 Orange Revolution and who have again fallen, like in 1991, under a spell of their own illusions and hopes, will never forgive the “Orange ones” and their chief Maidan showmen for their betrayal. They will long remember that these politicians defiled their most exalted dreams and hopes for justice. The public is aware that political impotence, absence of strong governmental willpower, and the petty struggle for power and money rather than for Ukraine led the Orange team to open up a Pandora’s Box with their own hands when they ignominiously lost to the “blue- white-reds” because of the helplessness and inefficiency of the Maidan leaders.

Ukraine has again been swept by a murky wave of counterrevolution brandishing the slogan of all-out revenge and witch hunting. They are trying again to impose old imperial myths and an inferiority complex on society. Back in fashion is provincial kowtowing to the Kremlin, where the winners regularly go for reports and instructions, like their predecessors used to visit the Communist Party’s Central Committee and the Council of Ministers to obtain funds and coordinate ministerial appointments.

In the air hangs the pre-storm atmosphere of a creeping coup d’etat, slippage toward authoritarianism, a radical change of domestic and foreign policy, and departure from democratic gains.

Like all temporary and uncertain political upstarts, the “winners” are trying to persuade society that they have come to power for a long time, if not forever. Following the example of Brezhnev-style Kremlin leaders, they are restoring to power the most odious and compromised figures in order to create the illusion of stability and their irreversible domination. Why on earth do they need this? In democratic countries, ruling parties mercilessly discard any compromised politicians and immediately replace them with new, “clean” ones. For what matters most is the image of a party, not the destiny of an individual son of a bitch.

In the 16 th year after the referendum we must proclaim loudly: Ukraine is in danger! And the sooner the mechanism of parliamentary coalition changes implemented by the authors of the constitutional amendments starts to work, the better it will be for the country: this will reduce administrative pressure on the real economy, which, as experience shows, has learned to work quite well without governmental injunctions. This will make the successors — those who will replace the Orange and the White-Blue — more cautious in their words and actions. Ukraine must have not a primitive, provincial copy of the imperial model but a system of dynamic equilibrium that will take into account the interests of this country’s different parts rather than of one clan enraged out a common predatory reflex.

In his book Five Years of the Ukrainian Tragedy (1999) Marchuk wrote that a certain category of high-ranking officials is provided with total impunity. This kind of person becomes “one of us” and is easy to manipulate and control. The author noted that this “controllability” is typical of the underworld.

When the government is stupidly confident of its impunity, this may be fatal for the state and society. The sooner it departs the scene, the better it will be for Ukraine.


So are those 15 years since 1991 lost years? Are the hopes of all those who voted for independence dashed?

No, we are different now. Ukraine and the world have changed beyond recognition. What was once played as part of a worldwide bloody tragedy (the history of Ukraine as part of an empire) today resembles a tragicomic farce performed by provincial actors.

Indeed, Ukraine became an independent state, and it has managed to run quite far away from the empire:

* For the first time in its centuries-long history, Ukraine has a powerful mechanism for protecting its national interests as a state, a subject of international law, recognized by the world community. The only problem lies in the reasonable application of state levers;

* For the first time Ukraine has begun to identify its own national and geopolitical goals instead of having to passively accept imposed participation in the imperial games of “southwestern area” rulers;

* For the first time there is not only a theoretical but also a practical opportunity to form the Ukrainian political nation in a consistent and state-oriented way. As Viacheslav Lypynsky once said, “Only in a separate Ukrainian state can the Little Russian tribe be turned into the Ukrainian nation...We want a Ukrainian State that embraces all the classes, languages, and tribes of the Ukrainian Land;”

* For the first time conditions were created to form a Ukrainian political elite that espouses the idea of statehood and Europeanness. Even today there is a powerful state-minded intellectual potential in the person of highly-educated young people, true Ukrainians who should be actively invited into the government.

For the first time in hundreds of years people in Ukraine are not being imprisoned or punished for loving their fatherland, for having an independent opinion, or for devotion to European values — and very soon the numbers of such individuals are going to grow into a new quality.

People may tell me that far from everything mentioned above has been realized in Ukraine.

This is true, but we still have managed to do quite a lot in these 15 years. Just look at old photographs and TV recordings and try to recall how we were back in 1991 when we were isolated — in terms of borders, transportation, information, etc. — from Europe. Try to imagine the streets and cafes of our cities, the interiors of our apartments, and, above all, our idea of ourselves and the world that existed 15 years ago, and you will see how far we have come since then. Our main discovery is that we have understood that over these years the authorities have been, with certain exceptions, worse, intellectually poorer, and less moral than the people. It is the authorities that slowed down our development and our movement towards prosperity. The authorities have broken all kinds of records in a wide-scale pilfering of the nation’s property, not in fair rule or economic progress.

On Dec. 1, 1991, the people also voted for Purification. The Maidan gave a new impulse to this mighty, irreversible process. No matter who may slow down this process for some time, Purification is looming and with it, Ukraine’s final liberation from the somber ghosts of the empire.

41, Tuesday, 19 December 2006