Remember the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or even Yugoslavia. This also happened 20 years ago to the USSR. Was Ukraine’s independence just a whim of destiny, the consequence of a combination of geopolitical circumstances, or a byproduct of the struggle for power between Gorbachev and Yeltsin? Or on the contrary, could it be the implementation of the internal logic of a nation’s development, the general line that was sometimes lost under the pressure of external forces, but could not ultimately rise to the surface of the historical process?
To agree with the first view, it will be necessary to not notice or forget the unsuccessful experience of liberation struggles, the efforts of several generations of Ukrainian dissidents within the framework of various countries, the armed resistance against the soviet monster, and finally, without exaggeration, the evident or concealed dream of millions of Ukrainians that “We too shall rule, brothers, in a free land of our own”, as the national anthem goes.
In addition, bearing in mind the favourable situation for Ukraine to gain independence, it is also important not to forget major obstacles, which are no less significant, including very real might of the Soviet Union built on force and violence, with its army, militia and secret police, the indifference, even hostility of foreign players in the international arena who were terrified of an independent and unpredictable Ukraine; the numerous “fifth column” the carriers of a specific type of mentality, who see themselves as the agents of civilization and their opponents as barbarians and finally, the force of habit of a huge number of people who did not want or could not imagine a life, other than one behind barbed wire.
Independent Ukraine was built by the forces of several categories of activists, those looking in many different directions and even those with opposite priorities, goals, ideologies, and experience.
The first group was comprised of idealists who saw winning their country as the ultimate goal. In their view, other objectives would “take care of themselves”. Enthusiastic experts and intellectuals, who, until recently, had no intention of resisting the system even though they hated it, now accepted the national revival slogans equally enthusiastically.
The second group included yesterday’s soviet functionaries who quickly saw the prospects of career growth; the so-called red directors – the powerful and not so powerful managers who had the best knowledge of the ‘real sector’ of life, hoping to adjust it to their needs. They were amateur businessmen; recent heads of co-operatives, with unlimited appetites and ambitions; and representatives of the criminal world, who moved into business with their own specific ideas of the ways to run it. They all turned out to be closely connected by joint interests that subsequently grew into joint projects.
Also, there was a mass of simple Ukrainians, who believed in the sincere intentions of the newly-created elites despite the chaos and poverty, and were satisfied with the first speechmaking exercises of the President. This was easier than building a real democracy based on the real division of power, equal opportunities and competitive ideas, than transforming the economy which was limited to a handful of giant plants producing defense products that no-one needed and fast-moving consumer goods that were unfit for use.
No-one or barely anyone thought about the fact that the declaration of independence was not the end of a long road, but merely its beginning. No-one or barely anyone remembered the well-known expression: “We have created Italy. The only thing to do now is to create Italians.” No-one, or barely anyone dotted the “I’s”, that to have a common state, language and culture are not the ultimate goal, but a tool for preparing a political nation for the purpose of consolidating such principles of society, such as integrity, dignity, education, readiness to accept new things, and as a consequence, its well-being.
Romanticism always bears a trace of irresponsibility. The new responsible and competent elites had nowhere to come from. That was a vicious circle: they had to be prepared based on the potential of the country but the leadership of the country was not interested in this.
Whether the ruling class realized this or not, it was diligently resisting the birth of a new generation and new type of players. On the contrary, it selected those who accepted the newly-established playing rules. To a certain extent, it tolerated some external expressions of patriotism and national awareness but in fact, from the very start, it followed its own internal logic and squeezed out all substantial expressions of anything Ukrainian to the margins of life.
Legal nihilism, failed expectations, the establishment of corporate capitalism typical of the third world, based on corruption and personal relations, and vice-versa, the hampering of the much needed economic reforms, as well as the lack of humanitarian and language policies – the concept of an independent Ukraine has absolutely no relation to all of these sins.
We can list wasted opportunities and recall wasted time as much as we want. We can search for and find someone to blame for the fact that the country is as far from the ideals of freedom and democracy on the 20th anniversary of its independence as it was in the late 1980s. Still, with a sober understanding of all sins and defeats, we can say that there is still a chance. Independence is not a hollow word as long as the current government does not totally give it away. Independence means that there is still a chance to reboot. In the final instance, it is a feeling of responsibility for the country as a whole, not as the separate province of an empire.
To everyone who now says that the Ukrainian project has failed, a recommendation to make one mental experiment: let him or her picture Ukraine as still being part of the USSR... the old one, with a Central Committee, Afghanistan, political labour camps. Or the new one, with a power hierarchy, Chechnya, and inter-ethnic clashes. Well, what do you think?