“Our independence was not pure luck, it was inevitable”
International lawyer Volodymyr Vasylenko speaks about the events leading to Ukraine's independence
Volodymyr Vasylenko was a proactive member of historic events that led to the revival of Ukrainian state independence. One of the most respected Ukrainian international lawyers, a diplomat, Professor at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and Ambassador Plenipotentiary from Ukraine in the past, he was one of the people behind the Declaration of State Sovereignty of Ukraine. The Ukrainian Week speaks to Mr. Vasylenko shortly before the Independence Day.
U.W.: The patriotic community in Ukraine tends to believe that Ukrainians had done nothing for their independence back in 1991, did not struggle for it and got it for free.
In fact, our independent statehood did not come to us out of the blue: Ukrainians had spent centuries before fighting for it desperately, sacrificing millions of lives for it. Nobody resisted Russia as much as we did. Our independence is not pure luck; it was inevitable. Voltaire wrote back in the 18th century that Ukraine always longed for freedom. Ever since Bohdan Khmelnytskyi was the Cossack Hetman, Ukrainians would start a new round of struggle for their freedom every 10-15 years. The new stage began in the 20th century when Ukraine’s national liberation struggle evolved into the statehood of the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UNR), Western Ukrainian People’s Republic (ZUNR), and Carpathian Ukraine. The locals would defend the independence of these states with weapons in their hands. Once Ukraine found itself in the USSR, it entered the darkest period in its history. It witnessed systemic repressions that peaked in the Holodomor, a genocide. Ukrainians did not give up; their resentment evolved into OUN, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, and UPA, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. Their struggle went under the slogan “Freedom to the man! Freedom to the peoples!” all the way until the 1960s. Then it ended, and the resistance seemed to be over. But the dissident movement of the Sixtiers emerged, focusing primarily on the preservation of Ukrainian identity.
After all, the more the communist system degraded (in fact, it had been self-ruinous from day one of its existence), the more favourable the environment got for a new stage of Ukrainian national liberation movement which gradually grew nation-wide and became fatal for the Soviet Union. The rallies demanding abolition of the communist regime and revival of Ukrainian independence in the late 1980s involved millions across Ukraine. The most proactive campaigners were members of Narodnyi Rukh (the People’s Movement of Ukraine). When someone says that our independence was merely an outcome of the August 1991 putsch, this person picks one event out of its general historic context which had actually triggered it. The cause of that putsch was in that Ukraine refused point blank to sign the new Union treaty. Without it, it was impossible to preserve the Soviet Union. This was why the most reactionary part of the Kremlin establishment organized the coup; they were trying to preserve the Soviet Union by force. But it was too late.
By the way, it is important to realize one thing: the creation of the USSR in 1922 as a union of republics was largely a concession to Ukrainians who were reluctant to accept the Bolshevik occupation and continued their desperate struggle against it. This forced Vladimir Lenin to agree to Ukraine joining the USSR as a sovereign republic with the right to exit it, and not as part of the “united and undivided Russia” as proposed by Joseph Stalin.
Obviously, this right to exit was only formal. But the mere fact of having such provisions in the Soviet Constitution was a huge benefit to the liberation movement and played into its hands greatly. As soon as this movement found the right moment, it used this provision as the ground for its independence struggle.
U.W.: Still, there is a lingering impression that, in addition to all geopolitical and economic aspects, Ukraine is something of a personal phobia for Russia.
Indeed, we are a “pain in the neck” for Russian chauvinists, hence such panicky reaction to any of Ukraine’s attempts to “leave”. Muscovy has been obsessed about Kyiv ever since it began to move towards the establishment of the Russian Empire. This is because Ukrainian historic and cultural heritage is the foundation for Russia’s state building. You can replace the roof, the windows or the doors in a building, but you can’t replace the foundation because it will change the building altogether and make it a totally different one. Remember Putin’s slogan: “The collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” It was that for Russia, and the imperialist-minded chauvinist that Vladimir Putin is. From the Ukrainian perspective, the collapse of the Soviet Union was the triumph of our national liberation movement. Just like the Battle of Poltava was a triumph for Russia and a tragedy for Ukraine.
U.W.: Some claim that the communist Ukrainian nomenclature had a crucial role in Ukraine’s independence when it played its tricks in fear of Boris Yeltsin who was radically against Communists.
That nomenclature, including the sovereign communist part of it, was forced to agree to independence under the pressure of the people. I think Ukrainians would have torn them into pieces if they had not voted for independence. Just recall the huge crowd in front of the Verkhovna Rada on August 24, 1991. Obviously, the Communists were also trying to secure themselves from Boris Yeltsin who banned the Communist Party. But that was not nearly the key incentive.
The Declaration of State Sovereignty of Ukraine had been passed on July 16, 1990. Between that date and August 24, 1991, when the Act of Independence was adopted, the then parliament, the Communists included, passed dozens of acts that formed the legal carcass of the new Ukrainian State. Interestingly, these acts included some very important ones that ruled almost all proceeds from taxes to stay in Ukraine. Thus, in the last year of the USSR, Ukraine virtually stopped funding all union structures, thus contributing greatly to its collapse. So, there were reasonable people among the Communists.
Another crucial moment was their attitude to the signing of the new Union treaty. Mikhail Gorbachev viewed it as a tool to preserve the USSR. What Moscow offered ran counter to the provisions of the Declaration of State Sovereignty, so the then Ukrainian leadership rejected the idea. They realized very well that the USSR was falling apart, and many had realized long before the putsch that it was time to flee that communal apartment. In 1991, the interests of the Ukrainian national movement and part of the Communists briefly coincided. These Communists did not include Oleksandr Moroz, Petro Symonenko, Tkachenko, Kriuchkov and others, the most reactionary party members who openly claimed they could not think of Ukraine beyond the USSR. I must admit the role of Leonid Kravchuk (the first president of the independent Ukraine – Ed.) who clearly sensed that it was better to leave the USSR in advance, peacefully and quietly, than wait until it would take blood to exit. He demonstrated colossal skillfulness in this. When I asked him back then, why the hell he wanted to participate in the talks on the new Union treaty, he answered: “We must win some time and prepare a serious foundation for our independence.” He was great at walking the fine line, hiding behind obscure statements. Many criticize him today for his overly cautious reaction to the putsch in the Kremlin, and they are right to some extent. However, he should be given credit for his conduct when General Varennikov arrived at Kyiv demanding him to impose the state of emergency in Ukraine. The then First Secretary of the Communist Party of Ukraine, Stanislav Hurenko, called Leonid Kravchuk and demanded him to come to the Communist Party Central Committee office for the meeting. Kravchuk replied that Varennikov should come to the Parliament if he wanted to meet with the Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada (Leonid Kravchuk was in that position at the moment – Ed.). When the meeting eventually took place at the Verkhovna Rada, Kravchuk made it clear that he would not support any actions of the putschists and said that there was no reason to introduce the state of emergency in Ukraine since the Ukrainian government was acting perfectly in line with the Constitution. The General left at that.
Thus, it was Kravchuk’s consistent implementation of the Sovereignty Declaration supported by the nation that served as the key to the revival of Ukraine’s independence.
U.W.: Unfortunately, the party nomenclature and its oligarchic descendants were never removed from power in the past 23 years. Moreover, Ukraine’s government elite is now a mix of “the 1980s Komsomol” and people who were shaped by the bandit-tormented 1990s. Why did national democrats fail to remove them from power?
Communist structures in Ukraine were established with a huge endurance capacity because the Ukrainian SSR was the key element of the entire USSR, a diamond in the crown of the empire. As a result, it is extremely difficult to struggle against the nomenclature, especially given the massive destruction of the Ukrainian elite throughout the 20th century. That is what makes Ukraine different from all European post-Communist states. There is a widespread speculation here that blames all of Ukraine’s problems on its independence: it is said to have left Communists in power that were later replaced by oligarchs.
In fact, this system dates back to the time of Leonid Brezhnev when part of the Communist nomenclature got aligned with criminals and law enforcement authorities. This resulted in the shadow economy, shaped by the nomenclature and criminals, which was legalized when Ukraine gained independence. Having stolen all party money first, then all public money, these wild beasts rushed to rob the country: that was the only thing they knew. Meanwhile, national democrats failed to do their best. Instead of choosing a tougher yet more constructive policy, they hopped into internal squabbles and took no efforts to somehow engage the opponents, at least the reasonable ones I mentioned above. They even failed to nominate a single candidate in the first presidential election although I still believe that Kravchuk would have won it anyway. He was supported by both pro-Communist people, and moderate national democrats because he had never previously resisted the People’s Movement openly, nor had he made any Ukrainophobic statements before.
As an eye-witness, I can tell you what you won’t hear often. After he was chosen the president, Kravchuk offered Viacheslav Chornovil (one of the most important members and the first leaders of the People’s Movement – Ed.) to become prime-minister and the right to appoint his Cabinet. Chornovil rejected that because he did not want to have anything to do with a “Communist”. This was a totally irresponsible move that dealt a huge blow to Ukraine’s attempts to build a democratic country. I can comprehend that many years in prison (a dissident, he was imprisoned and exiled by soviet authorities several times for three to six years each – Ed.) had urged him to not accept anything linked to Communism, but he was a statesman, a candidate for presidency, a member of parliament. Couldn’t he have tamed his emotions and made state interests a No1 priority?
The democrats made another tragic mistake. Leonid Kravchuk suggested that Ukraine held early parliamentary election as his initiative. It would have definitely left most Communists out of the Ukrainian parliament. Yet, the democrats did not want to take the pain: they thought the Communists would do whatever they wanted them to. Thus, another chance for de-Communisation and lustration was wasted. A parliament with Communists would not even have considered anything close to lustration. Eventually, all this led Leonid Kuchma, a creature of Russia whose campaign the Kremlin openly funded and supported by all means, to power. According to General Oleksandr Skipalsky, Chief of Military Intelligence at that point, Kuchma’s ascend to power in 1994 was a special operation of Moscow which was not happy even with the moderate Leonid Kravchuk as Ukraine’s president. The Kremlin arranged a trade war through a huge increase in fuel prices, bribed the elites and made agreements with the dissenters. I remember how upset and confused Leonid Kravchuk was in the summer of 1994 when he came to Brussels to sign the EU Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Ukraine.
Kuchma can be considered the father of today’s oligarchic system in Ukraine. He knew the criminal record of Viktor Yanukovych, and yet he appointed him the Governor of Donetsk Oblast so that Yanukovych provided him with support of the region in the 1999 presidential election. In exchange for this favour, Yanukovych was appointed prime-minister, so the door to top echelons in government opened for him. Kuchma essentially created the Yanukovych regime that eventually participated in the Russian aggression against Ukraine.
Unfortunately, Leonid Kuchma, Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych are the ones to blame for the fact that the way to power had been blocked for actual patriots of Ukraine all these years. As a result, the real elite have found themselves on the sidelines.
Many say that Leonid Kuchma was a statesman. This is partly true as he actually did a lot to develop the administrative hierarchy. However, he was not building Ukraine, but a firm hierarchy of power for himself. When he announced later that he had not become president to serve as Moscow’s vassal and even made an attempt to turn to the West during his second term in office, did not change the situation dramatically. Instead, it triggered the special operation of the Russian FSB with the Gongadze tapes (Kuchmagate scandal – Ed.), the one targeting Kuchma personally and Ukraine in general. Russia thus tried to keep Ukraine in its orbit and block its return to Europe.
As to Viktor Yushchenko, he was just repainting the façade of the system he had inherited in Ukrainian colours. He left the task of strengthening the foundation of Ukrainian statehood absolutely unattended. Public and objective assessment of Ukraine’s top officials and condemnation of their actions that damage the country are a guarantee of moral healing of society and strengthening of the state.
U.W.: All elites, at their early stages, are made of the most aggressive, entrepreneurial and relentless people. Ukraine is no exception. However, it is still hard to see any signs that the local elites are transforming form their early stages to the real state elite, or that any rotation is likely. What should Ukrainian society do to enhance the process? What if the actual patriots return from the frontline in Eastern Ukraine and bring order with an armed hand?
The government elite in today’s Ukraine is still a product of the Soviet system. An antipode to it is the patriotic national elite brought up based on democratic values. The government elite is just part of the national elite, the latter containing many well-prepared and patriotic people. Today’s clan-based approach to top appointments in the government should be replaced by the approach based on the involvement and proactive cooperation of all elements of the national elite who should meet five criteria: professionalism, patriotism, prudence, ability to work hard, and the will to work hard. Ukrainian elites have been rotating in a natural way overall. The government elite, by contrast, has been shaped on a clan basis, involving primarily business companions, family, friends and others who see the state as their personal wallet. Therefore, Ukraine needs rotation of elites, a natural one would be the best even if it takes some time.
However, it is now urgent to amend the election legislation to introduce proportional system with open lists of candidates. It will allow every voter in his or her constituency to choose a specific candidate rather than for the party list which oligarch-financed functionaries compile as they see fit. This approach (it is used in the UK, for instance) would allow Ukrainians to get new people in the next parliament and to launch the cleaning of all government structures.
It would certainly be desirable to campaign in peaceful circumstances, at least in order to allow patriots who are now fighting in Eastern Ukraine to fully participate in the election process. However, even if the anti-terrorist operation does not end soon, the general election should still take place. As the British experience shows, it only takes time to transform yesterday’s pirates or robbers into respectable members of society with state-oriented mindset. But Ukraine cannot afford to wait a few centuries. Therefore, quick and well-thought decisions are necessary. Lustration based on international experience and adjusted to local circumstances could help. Meanwhile, civil servants should be paid better to prevent corruption, including political one. Criminal liability for the servants who commit crimes should be increased, too. Being in civil service while committing a crime is an aggravating circumstance in case of incompliance.
U.W.: What can we do to overcome the profound mistrust for the state that has been around for very long and has deepened after the Maidan?
It is typical in Ukraine to blame any problems on the state, to say that it’s the bad guy. In reality, though, it is not the state as such but the quality of its elites in power that is the problem. State institutions in Ukraine are similar to those in any other state: the issue is the quality of their work. Therefore, criticism should focus on specific representatives of the government who use the state apparatus for their personal enrichment, not the state as a whole. This total criticism of the state is part of the Kremlin’s manipulation technique. We are still facing a massive propaganda war that aims at spreading mistrust for Ukraine as an independent state. This propaganda is utilizing slave mentality and nostalgia for soviet life of those who are willing to trade liberties for a piece of sausage. This very particular creature of the Russian mindset that evolved in the Soviet era is unfortunately widespread in today’s Ukraine, primarily its most problematic regions.
An average person with such mindset is scared and has one stereotype: he or she blames everything on the Ukrainian state because it has become independent from the Moscow master. This stereotype is very dangerous and misleading, its real aim being to hammer into the heads of Ukrainians a thought that they do not need any sovereignty or independence.
In fact, most of our problems stem from the lack of our own independent state for many years, hence the lack of an opportunity to develop properly in line with our national interests and needs. Statehood is a natural state of any nation. Without it, it is doomed to disappear. We must realize that Russia has constantly been waging a humanitarian aggression against us. Now, it has transformed into a military one. Ukraine will survive as a normal state if it manages to resist this aggression properly. To do this, all of Ukraine’s society and government structures have to consolidate efforts.
Volodymyr Vasylenko is an expert in international law, a statesman and academic. Born in 1937 in Kyiv, he graduated from the Law Department of the Kyiv Shevchenko University in 1959, and earned his L.D. in International Law in 1964. In 1972-1992, he worked as legal advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was delegate to the founding meeting of the People’s Movement of Ukraine (Narodnyi Rukh Ukrayiny), and member of the assembly committee and the First Convention of the Great NRU Council. In spring 1990, he prepared the first draft Declaration of State Sovereignty of Ukraine, then participated in the drafting of the final act as consultant to the Verkhovna Rada. In 1992-1995, he served as Ukraine’s Ambassador to Benelux and representative to the EU and envoy to NATO. In 1998-2002, he was Ambassador to Great Britain and Ireland. Mr. Vasylenko represented Ukraine at the UN General Assembly many times. In 2001, the UN General Assembly elected him member of the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia where he worked as a judge until January 2005. In 2006-2010, Ms. Vasylenko represented Ukraine at the UN Human Rights Council. In 2010, he was Ukraine’s envoy to the International Court of Justice in the Romania versus Ukraine case. He is currently member of the People’s Committee to Protect Ukraine, a merited lawyer of Ukraine, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Ukraine, Doctor of Law, and professor.