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7 November, 2019  ▪  Volodymyr Vasylenko

Tertium non datur

The key stages of Ukraine’s independence, important lessons and agenda for the current government

Declaration of Ukraine’s independence in August 1991 was a remarkable historical event. It broke the chain of Russian imperial enslavement that long bound the Ukrainian nation, marking the ultimate crash of the communist system in Europe and the world. 


Tectonic shifts

The restoration of Ukraine’s independent statehood was a geopolitical triumph for its national liberation movement. As a result, the USSR vanished as a communist empire – the “evil empire” in Ronald Reagan’s words – and as a threat for the democratic world. Ukraine’s independent statehood is a monument to all fighters for its freedom and an essential element of its development as a successful nation-state of European type.


In its path since declaring independence, Ukraine has seen a number of undeniable accomplishments. Despite all efforts by Russia, its agents and the fifth column, Ukraine still develops as an independent state where democratic institutions function and respect for human rights is ensured.  


Ukraine is a universally acknowledged full-fledged member of the international community. It has not caved in to Russia’s blackmail and pressure. Instead, it has made its civilizational choice by signing the Association Agreement with the EU and taking a path towards membership in the EU and NATO. 


Ukraine has succeeded in confronting Russia’s armed aggression which gained a temporary tactical victory by occupying Crimea and some parts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts but faced defeat strategically. Resistance to the Russian aggression has proven that Ukraine has patriotic leading class and citizens, as well as the will of the majority to live in an independent state of the European, not Asian type. 


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Tectonic shifts in the mindset of most Ukrainian citizens accompany resistance to Russia’s armed aggression as they opt for European civilizational values as the reference point for the development of Ukrainian society and state. Civil society has emerged in Ukraine and makes the government listen to it. A driver and a guarantor of progressive development in the country, it resents communist ideology. 


Ukraine has embarked on the path towards energy and economic independence from Russia. Decommunization is ongoing and conditions are in place for the independent Ukrainian Church to develop. Ukraine has managed to overcome dangerous economic crises and ensure economic growth, reform the banking system, conduct decentralization, launch a series of reforms – including in the pension and health care systems – and create the legal and institutional infrastructure for fighting corruption.


At the same time, the government failed to ensure quick economic growth and fair distribution of national wealth, or to create an environment for Ukrainians to accomplish decent quality of life. The economy critically depends on the growing foreign borrowings that burden the budget. A large part of the population struggles beyond the poverty line. Judiciary reform failed. Anti-corruption mechanisms do not work effectively. Some essential spheres, such as humanitarian and environmental, lack effective instruments to protect vital national interests. 

Some Ukrainians, mostly older, believe that Ukraine’s independence is the source of all current problems. In fact, the deep and fundamental reason for the lack of the much wanted progress in Ukraine’s development is the ruinous impact of two empires, the tsarist and its communist heir, that forcefully held the Ukrainian nation in their chains. 


The difficult legacy 

Once it restored its independence, Ukraine became the master of its life. Yet, it also inherited an extremely complex package of problems. Its development as a successful state depends on the way these problems are solved. 


Ukraine was seen and actually was a gem in the tsar’s crown, then in the communist empire. Their power institutions consistently took steps to destroy national identity of Ukrainians preventing any attempts of Ukraine’s political self-identification as an independent and self-sufficient national body. 


As a result of determined anti-Ukrainian politics in both empires, Ukraine long developed as a dependent fragment of the imperial whole. That development was framed by imperial problems, not the needs of the Ukrianian nation. The Kremlin’s policy became especially cunning, violent and massive after the 1917 October Revolution. The communist regime in Ukraine was built to be very resilient while its punitive apparatus was used for permanent persecutions and purges of Ukrainian national elite. 


As a result, Ukraine’s national statehood structure was seriously distorted by the time it restored independence. Based on rejection of private property, its economy was part of the heavily centralized imperial economic complex. Its development strategy was planned from Moscow. It was primarily oriented at expanding the capacity of the soviet military industry. After independence, Ukraine had to build a self-sufficient national economy on the fragment of the imperial command economy it inherited. This was a powerful fragment but it barely had any full production cycles of its own. Its enterprises were oriented at servicing the entire Soviet Union, had no proper international connections and were not integrated into the global economy. 


Based on totalitarian paternalism and aimed at cultivating consumerist mentality, the social sphere received leftover funding from the state. It satisfied people’s basic needs but failed to provide proper quality and standards of life. Salaries and pensions set by the state were identical within every given professional sector, but they were quite low. Queues for everything and deficit of everything, from food to clothes, household appliances, cars, homes, quality medical services etc., were two landmark features of the soviet realm. On the other hand, soviet party nomenclature had political and material privileges. The communist regime created total material dependence of society from the state, using it for powerful leverage and totalitarian control over society. 


A strong part of the USSR Armed Forces was stationed in Ukraine’s territory. But it did not have its national army, so it needed to create one basically from scratch. 

Throughout the existence of the Soviet Union, the population of Ukraine was a target for permanent indoctrination through the soviet system of education and through daily communist propaganda. A great share of the population in many cities around Ukraine, especially in the South and the East, was zombified and denationalized mass, not conscious citizens. Soviet cultural policy was fully integrated into the overall strategy for the liquidation of the Ukrainian nation with signs of racist discrimination. The USSR leadership allocated 3.8 karbovantsi per capita for cultural development in the Ukrainian SSR compared to 12.8 karbovantsi for the same purpose in the Russian SSR. Inferiority complex was constantly cultivated in Ukrainians through manipulative claims about the supreme status of the Russian language and culture. 


The communist regime focused its efforts on implementing the concept of merging nations into the soviet people, a uniform Russian-speaking community. For this purpose, massive russification was conducted in Ukraine. 


The “soviet people” was indoctrinated with hostility towards the capitalist West, its culture, values and institutions, especially NATO labelled as an aggressive military bloc. 


The task of all soviet entities was to cultivate imperial mindset in Ukrainians where there was no place for an independent Ukraine or for its self-sufficient cultural development. 


As a summary, it is fair to say that the imperial humanitarian policy focused on dismantling Ukrainian national identity as the deep foundation of Ukrainian statehood. Therefore, Ukraine had to start overcoming its imperial legacy in the humanitarian domain from below the baseline. Another important aspect is the massive demographic losses the Ukrainian nation suffered as a result of its war against Russianoppressors,famines and two world wars. These losses seriously undermined Ukraine’s demographic potential and led to quality losses in the top intellectual class. As a result of active and constant fight of the communist regime against what it labelled Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism, as well as the lasting russification policy, the part of Ukrainian intelligentsia that escaped repressions was terrified and confused, and major groups of it were exterminated. 


Strategic mistakes 


Despite massive efforts of the communist regime to crush Ukrainian national liberation movement, the best representatives of the nation never stopped fighting for Ukraine’s national rights and freedom openly or underground, legally or illegally throughout the 20th century. Their resistance to the imperial oppressionat different stages of history took different forms, scales and methods, but it never stopped. They enjoyed the understanding and moral support of the silent Ukrainian majority that always existed and never accepted the communist regime. Narodnyi Rukh (People’s Movement) woke this energy of the Ukrainian majority, using its power in the struggle to restore Ukraine’s independent statehood. 


The People’s Movement fulfilled its historical mission by playing a crucial role in the restoration of independence. However, its leadership failed to use all of the potential available then to deal with the consequences of the imperial legacy and to further develop Ukrainian statehood on the foundation of different quality. People in the movement, including its proactive part, subconsciously assumed that all issues of statebuilding would be solved as soon as Ukraine declared independence, and it would automatically become a successful state. 


But the miracle never happened: Ukraine’s society and political establishment were divided ideologically, the nation-state mechanism remained underreformed, and no systemic policy of statebuilding was developed. Quite a few average citizens and politicians, including the supporters of Ukraine’s statehood, advocated for keeping close ties with Russia and opposed Ukraine’s membership in the EU and NATO. A part of the political establishment linked successful development to unconditional economic assistance and strong political support of the West. At the same time, a segment of the political establishment supported by some layers of society was hostile to the mere idea of Ukraine’s independence, trying to sabotage and undermine the establishment of a European-type Ukrainian national democratic state. This segment was represented by part of the soviet party nomenclature whose members stayed in power in independent Ukraine. The Verkhovna Rada in the transition period was the reflection of that social divide. Elected before independence in the spring of 1990, it passed the act of independence and stayed in place after that. 

Given the lack of professional knowledge and experience of statebuilding, as well as underrating of the threat of an imperial revanche, the leaders of Ukrainian national democratic forces made at least three strategic mistakes: 

— they did not create one strong ideological party on the basis of the People’s Movement that would be Ukraine-centric and capable of resisting the Communist Party of Ukraine and other pro-Russian forces in Ukrainian politics; 

— they failed to nominate a single candidate in the first presidential election;

— they failedto reach an agreement to support the proposal of the newly-elected president Leonid Kuchma to hold snap general election as soon as possible. 


When most of the 239 MPs from the communist majority voted for the Act of Independence and the Rada Presidium then banned the Communist Party on August 30, the democratic opposition assumed that the communists would be “obedient” from then on. According to that illusionary assumption, the communists would vote in line with the MPs from the People’s Council, a group of around 120 MPs that constituted the opposition minority. 


Naturally, these assumptions proved false. The Communist Party of Ukraine was indeed banned for some time. But the communist majority in parliament stayed in place represented by its MPs. It wasn’t long before the communists rebounded, pushing a new resolution of the Presidium on May 14, 1993 to allow “citizens of Ukraine that share communist ideas” to create party organizations in line with the legislation. The communists held their founding convention on June 19, 1993 in Kyiv declaring the establishment of the new Communist Party of Ukraine. That convention was numbered XXIX while the foundation documents claimed that the newly-established party entity was “the heir of ideas and traditions” of the banned old Communist Party of Ukraine. The restored Communist Party was registered with the Ministry of Justice on October 9, 1993, and ran in the 1994 parliamentary election conducted under the first-the-post system in two rounds over March-April. After the election, the Communist Party of Ukraine had 85 MPs in the new Rada. Another 39 mandates went to the ideologically related parties, including 18 to the Peasants’ Party, 14 to the Socialist Party, 4 to the Labor Party, 2 to the Civic Congress and 1 to the Party for Revival of Crimea. The People’s Movement of Ukraine, transformed into a party by then, had 20 MPs. Other centrist and right political parties had 25 mandates: 9 for the Ukrainian Republican Party; 5 for the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists; 3 for the Ukrainian Republican Party; 2 for the Democratic Party; 2 for the Socialist-Democratic Party; 2 for the Ukrainian Conservative Party; 1 for the Christian Democratic Party and 1 for the Ukrainian National Assembly. 168 MPs were elected to the Rada as non-aligned with any party. 


Because the leaders of the anticommunist segment of Ukraine’s political establishment failed to create one powerful ideological party in the first years of independence, the Communist Party of Ukraine consolidated while national democrats fragmented. As a result, the Rada failed to 1) pass a law on lustration and the formation of a new truly Ukrainian government; 2) keep representatives of security services and the Kremlin’s agents out of parliament, and 3) launch effective reforms to overcome communist legacy and develop European-type Ukrainian nation-state. 


The cornerstones of Ukraine’s foundation

The government bodies established after Ukraine declared independence lacked a critical mass of patriotic professionals with Ukraine-centric mindset and experience in state building. The lack of worldview and ideological unity amongst representatives of legislature and executive power led to uncertainty about Ukraine’s civilizational choice and its notorious multivector foreign policy. The absence of well educated people with experience in nation-state building and strategic thinking in the country’s leadership and civil service resulted in their underrating the Russian threat and overrating the opportunities of Western support.  


The sense of national inferiority that infected most of Ukraine’s elite prevented the realization that they could build an independent Ukrainian state relying on themselves in the first place. Few realized that this was not a one-time act, but a complex and painful process that had to develop in line with objective laws of nation-state shaping and operation in place at that time, and taking into account the need to fix the distortions the Ukrainian nation had experienced in the years of forced stay in the communist empire. 


The elite in power did not have a clear understanding of the fact that any state should stand on a solid foundation with five cornerstones – the economic, security, social, humanitarian and legal blocs. Nor does it seem to have a clear understanding of it now. These cornerstones are the basis and the source of survival for the state, society and citizens. 


The function of the economic bloc is to create national wealth and material resources to sustain all state structures and apparatus, and to provide proper living standards for its citizens. The security bloc should defend the state from domestic and foreign threats. The social bloc should take care of the nation’s physical health by implementing a fair social policy and creating the environment allowing every citizen to freely fulfill his or her potential and meet his or her material needs. The humanitarian bloc is responsible for the mental health of the nation, preservation and strengthening of its identity via nation-centric humanitarian policy in language, education, media, history and religious segments. The legal bloc is a system of laws and regulations based on the Constitution to regulate social relations in the key sectors, and the judiciary system that should operate in line with the rule of law, ensure constitutional order, proper legal protection of the citizens’ rights and justice in society. 


Each of these blocs should interact closely in a balanced way, not operate autonomously. That is the only way for the state to be an effective and self-sufficient social body that can properly guarantee national security, social justice and welfare for its citizens. Unfortunately, Ukraine’s state-building, reform and modernization in the key spheres is still unbalanced, inconsistent and chaotic.


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The system of oligarch clans remains a huge factor that hampers Ukraine’s development. Unless dismantled, it will never allow Ukraine to overcome corruption, build fair justice, restructure and modernize national economy, identify priority spheres of economic development, create competitive business environment and encourage the emergence of small and mid-sized owners whose work creates national wealth and ensures their own well-being. 


Ukraine has successfully countered Russian armed aggression but it temporarily lost part of its territory after long overlooking the needs of the national armed forces, which culminated in intentional demolition of the army under the Yanukovych regime. Ukraine’s current leadership and part of society realize that the country needs to strengthen and increase its defense capabilities. However, defense of the country and victory in the war never grew into a cause of the whole society because of government policy. 


Ukraine still lacks consistent Ukrainocentric humanitarian policy. This creates a threat for national unity and undermines the country’s identity, the deep foundation of national statehood. It is important to remember that Russia conducts armed and humanitarian aggression against Ukraine aimed at more than hostile anti-Ukrainian propaganda, poisoning of Ukrainians with the Russian World ideologemes or denial of Ukraine’s right to statehood. Its goal is the total destruction of Ukrainian identity that would lead to the ultimate elimination of Ukraine as a nation, a state and as part of the geopolitical realm.  


Proactive and consistent humanitarian policy is a tool that can shape national elite and the leading governing class – Ukraine could not operate effectively without it. In other words, the lack of a consistent Ukrainocentric humanitarian policy for language, culture, education, information, religion and historical memory is a strategic threat No1 for the existence of Ukraine’s statehood. Launching this policy alongside strengthening Ukraine’s defense capacity, eliminating the system of oligarch clans and improving well-being of Ukrainians should be the top priority of the new government if it is Ukrainian and cares about Ukraine’s future. 


Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s team has found itself in a unique situation after it won the presidential and parliamentary elections. Never in Ukraine’s history had the pro-presidential parliamentary faction such an overwhelming majority in the Verkhovna Rada. So any law or other act supported with the political will of the President and his team will be passed by the Parliament. According to Art. 93 of Ukraine’s Constitution, the President has the right to sponsor laws, and the Verkhovna Rada considers the laws he defines as urgent in the priority order. All this makes Zelenskiy’s powers virtually unrestrained politically, even if not necessarily in de jure, allowing him to quickly create the legislative base to reform and reorganize the country, and to remove distortions and imbalances in its development. President Zelenskiy has a unique opportunity now to preserve high trust of society by launching effective reforms in economic, defense, social, humanitarian and rule of law spheres. 


After three revolutions 

Ukraine evolved as an independent state through three main stages: 

— the 1990 Revolution on Granite, a symbol of the nation’s aspiration for independence; 

— the2004 Orange Revolution, a protest against the anti-democratic regime of Leonid Kuchma and violations of the citizens’ right to the freedom of election; and

— the 2013-2014 Revolution of Dignity, a protest against the criminal regime of Viktor Yanukovych and an attempt to deprive the Ukrainian state from its right to free choice of its civilizational path. 


Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s presidency can be a victorious and final stage in the peaceful construction of Ukraine as a successful national democratic state of European type, or yet another intermediary stage in the modern Ukrainian revolution, and not a necessarily peaceful one. Whether or not Ukraine goes through another revolution depends on the conduct of its new leadership. Given the current state of the Ukrainian society, the new government may trigger a strong social explosion if it repeats the mistakes of its predecessors, imitates reforms and abuses its powers. The power of that explosion will be equal to the level of expectations that were never higher before and never spanned so wide across the young population, including the people involved in countering Russia’s aggression. 



Accomplishments. Civil society has emerged in Ukraine as a result of three Ukrainian revolutions, or three stages of the modern Ukrainian revolution to be more precise


As a result of three Ukrainian revolutions – or three stages of the modern Ukrainian revolution, to be more precise, – civil society has emerged in Ukraine along with the trend of supporting the political forces that choose to strengthen Ukraine’s independent democratic national statehood and its further European and Euro-Atlantic development. 


Still, some politicians remain in Ukraine that enjoy the support of the electoral minority zombified by the Russian propaganda. They try to impose initiatives and decisions on the entire society that will undermine Ukraine’s independent statehood, turning it into a Russian World gubernia with no rights. These backward political outsiders are now mostly in the Opposition Platform – For Life faction in parliament. Led by Viktor Medvedchuk and Vadym Rabinovych, this platform is not parliamentary opposition, but a group of people taking an anti-state, anti-people and anti-national position and defending Russia’s imperial interests. It is unsurprising that one of the newly-elected MPs recently referred to it as “occupation platform”. 


Three other factions in the new Rada, including Batkivshchyna (Fatherland), European Solidarity and Holos (Voice), can and should create democratic parliamentary opposition and suggest that the Servant of the People refrains from any moves to legitimize Medvedchuk’s and Rabinovych’s group, i.e. refuse to give it any quotas in parliamentary or executive authorities. 


At the same time, the democratic opposition should agree with the Servant of the People to constructively cooperate and determine red lines. The parties should agree that the following things are unacceptable: 

— a change of Ukraine’s civilizational choice of full-fledged membership in NATO and EU as recorded in the Constitution; 

— any territorial concessions to Russia or special status to any parts of Ukraine; 

— amnesty to people involved in war crimes or crimes against peace during Russia’s armed aggression against Ukraine; 

— total lustration and politically-motivated persecution of the previous government; 

— abolition of the moratorium on free sale of land without recording “private family farms as the basis of Ukraine’s land system” in legislation and without legal regulation of rules for the sale of farmland; and 

— abolition of laws on decommunization, the policy to ensure Ukraine’s sovereignty in the occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, and on ensuring the use of Ukrainian as the state language. 


An easy choice. Volodymyr Zelenskiy is doomed to face defeat in the clash with Russia without a well-thought through Ukrainocentric policy


Volodymyr Zelenskiy and the leaders of three parliamentary factions, including Sviatoslav Vakarchuk, Petro Poroshenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, should assume that parliamentary opposition is in power, too. They should cooperate constructively in the issues related to Ukraine’s statehood, strengthening of its identity and political unity, improving its defense and national security, countering any imperial ambitions, including Russia’s armed aggression, and overcoming the consequences of this aggression. This is an imperative requirement. Ukrainian forces that are not in parliament could and should play an important role in defending Ukraine’s national interests. For now, they are fragmented and have not yet managed to agree on establishing a powerful Ukrainian ideological party. President Zelenskiy could play a positive role in bringing them together and encouraging them to act jointly to benefit the state. 


Successful development of Ukraine and success of Volodymyr Zelenskiy as President will depend on whether he and his team deliver consistent Ukrainocentric domestic and international policies, or on whether they cave in to the pressure of domestic and foreign anti-Ukrainian forces to undermine the foundation of Ukraine’s independent statehood. Volodymyr Zelenskiy could enter history as a great president of Ukraine relying on the Ukrainian majority. Or he could face total defeat if he opts to satisfy imperial ambitions of other states and play into the aspirations of the anti-Ukrainian minority. Tertium non datur. 


Translated by Anna Korbut 

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