Volume 9 Number 4
Ukraine '- Five Years Into Freedom
01 August 1996
Grim realism has replaced the euphoria of 1991 in Ukraine, as in most countries of the former Soviet Union. On a recent visit to Ukraine, Mike Lowe discovered that democracy must start at the grassroots
In the late Eighties, the Soviet press carried a story about a girl who tried to find a home for a stray dog. After many fruitless phonecalls, she lamented to her father, 'In this country of ours there's no place even for a homeless dog.' Then she realized with horror that she'd left the phone off the hook and asked her father if her remark would cause him trouble.
Ihor Hrynev, the young leader of Ukraine's Reform Support Foundation, tells this story to illustrate the country's greatest achievement over the last decade - the end of the culture of fear. When, in 1987, he joined the Lion Society - one of the founding groups of the movement for Ukrainian independence - his family and friends were horrified. Their fears, he says, were greater than the oppression he actually encountered.
Today, this atmosphere has lifted. 'There are no such fears, or grounds for them, even in the older generation,' he says. But lack of fear has not yet blossomed into trust. This, he believes, is the major issue facing his country today.
On a basis of population, Ukraine was the second largest country of the former Soviet Union. It lies to the south and west of European Russia and has a rich and romantic cultural heritage. It was from here that the Kievan Rus kingdom brought Christianity t o Russia, and the Cossack horsemen rode to battle.
Nation-building has dominated Ukraine's p olitical agenda since independence in 1991. Most of the country, including the capital Kiev, had been part of the Russian empire for over 300 years and many Russians still find it hard to accept that it is now independent. West Ukraine, however, was only a nnexed by the Soviet Union in 1939, having spent most of the previous two centuries under the relatively tolerant Austro-Hungarian empire. It was the pressure of West Ukrainian nationalism that finally tipped the scales against the Soviet Union.
The two parts of the country have different mentalities, says Yuri Shveda, Director of the Ukraine-Europe Foundation in Lviv, West Ukraine. 'When we talk about the Europeanization of Ukraine, we mean the appropriation of certain factors - multi-party democracy, freedom of speech, human rights, a well-developed economy and a priority towards privatization. These are the priorities for West Ukrainians.
'In the East, because of the totalitarian system, the ideals of mutuality, of sharing property and concentration of power in one pair of hands are stronger. From our point of view this is the main problem we must overcome.'
Shveda' s foundation, set up in 1992, aims for the integration of Ukraine into Europe. It works closely with reformist politicians, disseminates information about Europe and European values and, in partnership with a Polish foundation, organizes training for local administrators.
In West Ukraine, the symbols of Ukrainian statehood are evident. You see flags everywhere. Statues and street names honour the Ukrainian writers Taras Shevchenko and Ivan Franko - Franko even has a city named after him. Everyone speaks Ukrainian whereas Russian is the first language of most East Ukrainians. There is even a distinctive religion - the Greek Catholic Church. This was ban ned by Stalin in 1946 and the struggle for its legal acceptance became part of the wider independence struggle in the late Eighties.
In both West and East Ukraine, there is widespread acceptance of the country's independence, although there is debate about how close relations should be with Russia. The country has many ethnic groups, most of whom supported independence in 1991' s referendum.
Ion Popescu is the only member of Ukraine's 300,000 strong Romanian community to have a seat in parliament. 'On the one hand,' he says, ' the members of the minorities accept that they are part of Ukraine. But on the other, especially in areas where they make up the majority, they want to live as in their own home. They are not immigrants to be assimilated, but just as muc h part of the native population as Ukrainians are. If the state accepts this and guarantees their rights then they will be prepared to give their lives for the state.'
When Ukraine joined the Council of Europe, it signed the European conventions on the rights of minorities and minority languages. This gives Popescu hope. ' If everything is ratified and put into the new constitution then Ukraine will have one of the best judicial systems in the world.'
Unfortunately, he says, some proposals in the draft constitution before parliament could undermine minorities' rights to representation and the status of their languages in areas where they form the majority. ' Unless the rights of minorities are guaranteed in law, all their energies go into defending their rights and this leads to separatism and conflict.' He cites Chechnya, Nagorno-Karabakh and Bosnia.
'If there is no internal stability then the state's very existence is threatened. Economic stability depends on political stability, on dialogue between political forces and on ensuring the rights of all confessions to worship, so that we don' t have religious conflict.'
Economic stability, though in sight, is still some way off. The administration of the first president, Kravchuk, was strong on developing the symbols of statehood, but resisted economic reforms for fear that 'shock therapy' would threaten the unity of the fragile new state. The result, in the words of Britain's Economist magazine, was 'shock without therapy'.
Inflation in 1993 reached 10,000 per cent. Vast numbers of loss-making enterprises sapped the national budget, forcing the government to print money to make up the deficit. President Kuchma, elected in 1994, succeeded in bringing inflation down to 180 per cent in 1995, with help from the Inter national Monetary Fund. He projects a rate of 40 per cent for 1996, though the figures for the first quarter suggest this may be overoptimistic.
Despite taxes running at 80 per cent of personal income, Ukraine will need a further $2 billion in 1996 to meet its budget commitments - assuming the government sticks to the budget. The old party bosses who run the moribund industries seem to have ways of getting money out of the system. The old-boy network of the former nomenklatura is still strong.
Nowhere is this more evident than on Ukraine's collective farms, which Ihor Koliushko, a reformist member of parliament from Lviv, describes as 'the last bastion of communism'. Ukraine' s fertile black soil once made it the bread-basket of the Russian empire. But today the inefficiency of state farms and high prices lead most Ukrainians to grow much of their own food on private land.
National law allows the members of collective farms to opt out, taking a share of the land and farm equipment with them. But few have done so, knowing that the farm manager would give them the worst part of the land to farm. Koliushko feels that real agric ultural reform will be difficult as long as the farm managers enjoy the support of the large communist bloc in parliament.
Hrynev sees hope in the new self-help mentality forced by economic adversity. He illustrates his point with a joke from the late Eighties. 'One dog asks another, "How's life for you under perestroika?" The other replies, " Well, they gave me a longer chain, but they took away the food." Now, in the time of economic reforms, nobody will bring you food - you have to look for it yourself.'
Another problem besetting Ukraine's economy is its complicated ties with the Russian economy. A manufacturer in Ukraine may depend on a distant part of Siberia for raw materials or tools.
'These links were created for purely political reasons,' says Koliushko. ' They never made economic sense. Now, since the break-up of the Soviet Union, factories which are highly dependent on links with Russia are suffering. They have a choice, either to go bankrupt or manufacture something else - but without funds for investment from within Ukraine, and with foreign investors still reluctant, it's difficult to change.'
One factor that may contribute to lack of investment is the 'mafia'. It is common knowledge that soon after you register a new business in Ukraine, you can expect a visit from some heavy looking people who want to sell you 'protection' . Some businessmen I spoke to view this simply as another 'tax' and, to avoid bankruptcy, cook their books so as to compensate by paying less tax to the government. Others call in the former KGB to trap and arrest the criminals.
Whereas the Russian KGB was re-structured so many times (in a deliberate attempt to weaken it) that it is now ineffectual and often corrupt, the Ukraine' s security service is relatively efficient. Many believe that the shooting of four mafia bosses in Lviv in the last six months was its work. Such measures may not be legal but most feel that drastic problems require drastic solutions.
Yuri Shveda believes that unless the mafia is dealt with, Ukraine could follow the path of those Latin American countries where criminality has become enmeshed in political life. He favours setting up something like the American FBI, under direct control of the President, which could compete with the former KGB.
Others see the growth of the mafia as inevitable as Ukraine pursues the free market with its winners and losers and as the chill wind of international competition is felt. As in southern Italy, there is a cultural factor - you can' t get anything done without knowing people in the right places, and one favour requires another in return.
The concept of rule by law was never strong in the Russian empire. Instead of legal obligations there were the obligations of the extended family or network, dividing the world into those you owe and those you don' t. The leaders of the old Soviet Union were no exception - Brezhnev was particularly notorious for getting family members into positions of power, regardless of their ability. As a result, some say that it is now impossible to distinguish the mafia from the state. None of this provides promising soil for classical free-market mechanisms.
In the face of these problems, Kiev' s School for Young Politicians is convinced that politics must be rebuilt on a new ethical basis. The school was set up in 1993 under the umbrella of the Reform Support Fund of the Ukraine, founded by Viktor Pynzenyk, then Finance Minister and now Deputy P rime Minister.
Last May the school organized a five-day seminar with Moral Re-Armament's Foundations for Freedom programme, on issues of ethics and politics. Themes included different models of freedom and political systems, how to deal with corruption, th e importance of taking responsibility for collective decisions and the role of young politicians in bringing change. One participant said that the seminar had convinced him to 'try to bring more honesty, love and morality into my inner life'.
One theme that stirred a lot of interest was the importance of building community. This contrasted the mindsets of community and hierarchy. The Soviet model of hierarchy was based on fear and treated people as a means to an end, whereas true co mmunity is based on love and respect, and treats people as important in their own right. The one encouraged cover-ups, dishonesty and distrust; the other encourages openness, honesty and trust.
As a result of its past, the skills of working together and relating as free individuals are lacking throughout Ukrainian society. Mistrust acts as a brake on development - reform-minded political groups disintegrate into squabbling factions, new enterprises find it hard to gain investment or to build relationships with suppliers a nd customers, bureaucrats avoid making decisions for fear their superiors may hold them responsible. Ukrainians lack a sense that they are all in the same boat and that they can solve some of their problems by working together.
'We have to nurture political leaders in Ukraine who will not just care about power, but will also look to whether people trust them,' maintains Ihor Hrynev. ' Our present politicians are viewed rather negatively. Often, when the government tries to push positive changes, the people do not trust and accept them. It's important to establish trust both ways - of the government to the people and vice versa.'
Vera Nanivska, a senior official at the World Bank in Kiev, feels that in spite of Ukraine's progress in developing political parties and establishing a free press, it is still weak when it comes to the development of 'civil society' - the network of communities and organizations that lie outside government control.
'A real non-governmental organization (NGO) grows from the bottom and pursues objectives which it has set itself,' she says. 'Here, many NGOs operate as if they were Soviet institutions - they rely on grants in the same way as they did when they were given money by the central committee of the Communist Party.'
She sees a link between the development of civil society and the building of trust. 'Deeper levels of trust in society develop as the result of transparency and community activity. Transparency is partly a technical thing - a matter of creating rules which require authorities to show what they are doing. You don't get trust without that. Community activity will grow by itself, but the idea that you don' t have to wait for the government to help you, that there are a lot of opportunities to help yourself, has to be implanted.'
One encouraging example of a genuine grassroots NGO is the Lviv Foundation for the Rehabilitation of the Handicapped, started by Yaroslav Hrybalsky, who is himself wheelchair-bound. It encourages self-help through training camps and raising money to buy sp ecialist wheelchairs and medical equipment, and it lobbies government on issues of medical provision and wheelchair access.
The NGO has set up a partnership with Lviv University to train the first generation of specialists in physiotherapy for the disabled. And two athletes from the foundation will be flying the flag at the Atlanta para-Olympics this summer.
The philosopher Ernest Gellner has suggested that civil society is more fundamental to freedom than the political institutions of democracy. For example , the non-conformist church movement furthered democracy in Britain because the men and women who ran the small chapels learned the skills of working together and taking responsibility. Without a strong civil society, these skills will not develop in Ukraine.
To this end, four NGOs - the Ukraine-Europe foundation, the Lion society, Young Diplomacy and the Lviv branch of the Rights of European Students Foundation - have set up a resource centre for NGOs in Lviv, with funding from the Soros Foundation. The centre provides NGOs with a library, information about funding organizations and legal problems, links with other NGOs in Ukraine and abroad, and access to the Internet. It also runs seminars. Over 50 NGOs use these facilities.
If civil society can truly develop, then Ukraine may have a third option between the sterile alternatives of authoritarian communism and 'every man for himself' free-market capitalism. A recent book by the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama suggests that trust and the social gra ces play a much more influential role in economic development than has been previously recognized. Community initiatives which bring together local businesses, government and NGOs could be the way forward.
The long-term future for Ukraine depends on its young people, and here there are many signs of hope. The School for Young Politicians is just one of many organizations preparing young Ukrainians to take responsibility. The Centre for Political Studies at D onetsk University, Young Diplomacy based at Lviv's Ivano-Frankivsk University and the 2,000-strong Young Christian Democrats are further examples. The Ukrainian Parliament has some 50 young 'interns' assisting its parliamentary commissions.
The reopening of the Kiev-Mohyla Academy in 1992 was another hopeful sign. The original academy was one of the foremost westward-looking theological academies in the 17th and 18th centuries, and was closed down under the Russian Tsars. The move to re-open it as a modern university looking towards the best trad itions of European education was part of the wave of cultural renaissance coming from West Ukraine. With help from academics from all over the world, and a determination not to accept the bribery that is endemic in many post-Soviet universities, it has qui ckly gained a reputation for the quality of its students.
The words of the re-opened academy's first Rector, Viatcheslav Brioukhovetsky, may prove prophetic for Ukraine and elsewhere. 'We shall gain real independence only when we have a highly educated gen eration of young people with a broad outlook and deep inner potential. It will take more than a year, but there is no other way out.'
Unless stated otherwise, all content on this site falls under the terms of the Creative Commons Licence 3.0