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Democracy Watch, 2011 - Issue 26

08-23-2011 07:33 AM CET | Politics, Law & Society

Press release from: People First Foundation

20 years of Ukrainian Independence: progress or servitude?

Evaluating Ukraine’s 20 years of Independence, to be celebrated on the 24th of August, is a complex and contentious task. However, this anniversary provides a unique opportunity to reflect upon the social impact and reality of the many dramatic reformations that make up Ukraine’s brief history. Ukrainian leaders are rightly characterised by their many missed opportunities to better the quality of life for Ukrainians in general. Yet, to Ukraine’s credit, the country has managed to preserve its integrity and avoid violent upheaval becoming a beacon of endurance in Eastern Europe.

Ukraine’s potential prosperity, marked by abundant natural and human resources, is starkly contrasted by the current paradigm; the result of dire misdirection and mismanagement by the political elite.

In 1991 a select few were vested with the responsibility to design a country; harnessing cultural resources, societal aspirations and avoiding the deficiencies of recent soviet history. In practice early state officials either failed to recognise the nation’s potential or failed to wield it as a progressive advantage.

However, some early decisive action can be seen in a more positive light. Throughout 1991, parliamentarians enacted 35 laws on ownership, lease, entrepreneurship, enterprises, banks and banking operation, household goods, etc. These laws provided a framework for Ukraine’s transition into a market economy.

Over the past two decades Ukraine has experienced a population reduction from 52million down to 46million people and continues to shrink by approximately 20 thousand people per month. Several million have been drained through employment emigration; predominantly to Russia and neighbouring European states. Ukraine itself has reduced in size after a section of the Black Sea shelf was handed over to Romania.

The Ukrainian people have less access to beaches, rivers and forests as vast swathes of real estate have been sold off into private ownership. In both psychological and physical terms Ukrainians’ life space is getting smaller and smaller.

Add into this the heavy toll of alcoholism, drug addiction, infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS (the highest in Europe) and tuberculosis all of which are either close to or at epidemic levels.

Alcohol alone claims more 40 thousand lives per year, as well as causing immeasurable domestic damage to families. Add into this the fact that Ukraine is currently a world leader in adolescent alcohol consumption(1).

Ukraine has also sacrificed much of its financial independence. Ukraine's obligations to the IMF now amount to over 14 billion US dollars, as of January 2011 making Ukraine the second largest IMF debtor after Romania. Ukraine essentially receives 2 out of every 9 dollars that the International Monetary Fund lends out globally.
Regrettably the IMF is not Ukraine’s only creditor; collectively Ukraine now owes in excess of 36 billion US dollars to various international lenders(2).

Another negative outcome of the last 20 years has been a worsening of socio-cultural divisions amongst the Ukrainian population, especially young people. A 2010 sociological survey demonstrates that 48.3% of young Ukrainians see no distinction between Russian and Ukrainian culture whilst 47.9% resolutely disagree. Nevertheless modern Ukrainians remain highly educated, eager for change and are increasingly travelling aboard, resulting in a more global perspective for Ukraine.

One positive result of the period of independence has been Ukraine’s ability to establish itself as a peaceful and peacemaking member of the world community. Aside from participation in peace-keeping operations, Ukraine voluntarily abandoned the nuclear arsenal it inherited from the USSR: 176 strategic ballistic rockets, 50 strategic bomber aircrafts and 1,300 nuclear warheads – a larger nuclear capacity than China, Great Britain and France of the day, combined(4).

In addition, Ukraine has successfully written its own Constitution and established democratic mechanisms for the distribution of power and election of representative officials.
Though these systems are in their infancy they have proved sufficient to support Ukrainian democracy up till today; the immediate future however has its own questions and concerns. Although Ukraine’s famous resources remain largely untapped its future development could potentially evolve into a major force in the post-crises European era.

Western Europe appears to retain mixed feelings towards Ukraine’s developments over the last two decades. According to German Ambassador Hans-Jurgen Heimsoeth, Ukraine has had a very turbulent economic start since the collapse of the USSR. He also highlights some positive developments over the past 10 years: economic growth, the establishment of democratic principles, free and fair elections between 2006 and 2010 and the new pro-Europe mentality amongst the Ukrainian youth. The ambassador also addressed some negative developments such as the retreat from democracy since the last local elections in 2010(5).

Many attribute the failure of Ukraine to stabilise its economic situation to the lack of a national Ukrainian ideology. A recent survey by the Institute of Sociology of the NAS of Ukraine reveals that the majority of Ukrainians form all regions describe the current era as the time of ‘criminals and frauds’ (48%), ‘wire-pullers’(44%) and ‘beggars’ (40%). Ukrainian society is internally believed to be influenced mainly by ‘Mafia and criminals’ (40%), ‘businessmen’ (37%), ‘leaders of political parties’ (31%) and ‘state officials’ (30%). The population unanimously believes that workers, farmers and intelligentsia have no influence on the governance of the country. Today less people are optimistic over the future of the country (39%) than in 1994 (52%). Thus Ukrainians can best answer the question about a direction Ukraine is heading today.

An interesting fact is that the number of people who support the idea of an independent Ukraine has dropped twofold compared to 90% in 1991. If a referendum was hosted today only 46.6% of participants would vote for an independent Ukraine with 27.8% against. 47.4% of respondents regret that the USSR collapsed. If the present tendencies continue to unfold the society will further deteriorate and perceive the state as their enemy rather than guarantor of their rights and freedoms.

To sum up Ukraine remains the country of unrealised potential surprising and deeply frustrating the rest of the world.

People First Comment:

Even the most optimistic review of Ukraine over the past 20 years would find it difficult to reach a positive conclusion and it would be all to easy to write a diatribe of the nations’ ills, but we all understand that despite all its natural and social advantages the nation has not achieved anywhere near its full potential. The question is why? How can a country that has so much, have achieved so little?

It is not that the nation lacks the expertise to run a successful economy and a prosperous nation as Ukraine once had one of the best educated populations in the world. It is not that there is a lack of experience of how to govern successfully as Ukrainians occupied many of the top administrative positions within the former government of the USSR. It is not lack of resources as Ukraine has more agricultural, mineral and energy resources than most of the rest of Europe put together. What separates Ukraine from many of the other nations of Europe and holds the nation back is the almost complete lack of any form of mutual social responsibility or collective social culture. This is not to say that Ukraine is without culture as history clearly demonstrates a unique national identity that goes back to the dawn of civilisation, but is this enough?

Some might seek to blame the current situation on the nations turbulent past… but all nations have turbulent pasts. Some might seek to blame it on the breakdown of law and order but this is a symptom, not a cause. People First research has identified that the current pervading philosophy of Ukraine within all strata of society is ‘self’ and ‘family’ and whilst there is a very strong sense of family responsibility this is not reflected in social responsibility. Ukrainian society today has become self protective and self indulgent in the extreme and as a result corruption has become endemic. Yes Ukrainians are a proud people but nationhood is more than flags and patriotism.

The current state of inner city housing is a clear indicator of self protection. Walk into any tower block and behind the steel doors you will find mini palaces which are safe, secure and supported in the main by strong family bonds. The communal areas however could not be a greater contrast. The financial indulgences of the wealthy and their almost addictive demand for designer labelled cars, watches, fashion and bling clearly indicates a level of self indulgence that has now become a social norm as it permeates down through society. Yet in all this ‘designer finery’ society seems perfectly happy to walk through unparalleled urban decay to reach their domestic ‘palaces’ and instead of demanding repairs to the road infrastructure they simply buy more robust jeeps.

What is missing is any sense of social responsibility and collective national culture. Many would claim that the repair of communal areas is the responsibility of the local Zhek (administration) but after 20 years it must be pretty clear that they have no intention of delivering on this responsibility. Currently the people do nothing but complain to each other. Those that try to organise collective action are frowned upon and have doors slammed in their faces such is the belief that complaining will somehow unleash the hounds of hell.

Collective social responsibility is one of the cornerstones of a modern and sophisticated society. It is when individuals form neighbourhood groups that take it upon themselves to carry out repairs not because it is their job but because they simply want to live in a cleaner and more attractive environment. It is from these neighbourhood groups that district organisations takes root to put pressure on the authorities to maintain the local infrastructure and out of these grow grass root political organisations. Without this collective approach the whole country has become dependent upon those who have assumed power but clearly are not willing to use this power for the common good as they too have no sense of collective social responsibility.

You only have to look at the Polish example of ‘Solidarity’ to understand what social responsibility can achieve. Solidarity started as a group of disgruntled shipyard workers who decided to say no. Within a fairly short time they were a national movement and their leader was later elected President. This year they will assume the Presidency of the European Union as a wealthy and successful nation. It all happened because individuals decided to assume collective social responsibility for their situation and do something about it. Had they waited for the government to act then nothing would have changed.

There remains in Ukraine today a left over belief that the State will provide. It will not. To all extent the communal areas of tower blocks are a metaphor for the states abandonment of their responsibilities before the people. Thus the people have a choice; to either demonstrate their collective responsibility and take over what the State has abandoned or watch the very fabric of their society and all they hold dear disintegrate around them.

Can Ukraine change for the better over the next 20 years? Of course it can, but only when the people realise that true nationhood can only come from the collective action of the people and that the current situation is a direct result of their over dependence on a corrupt and non democratic system that has been allowed to evolve in the interests of a select few. Similarly the political and financial elite need to recognise that their neglect of the national interest is putting their future at risk as neither the people nor the international community will allow the continued rape and pillage of this nation without serious consequences.

Quote of the week:

You can’t control people. You must understand them. You have to know where they’re coming from, their beliefs and values, what turns them off, what they’re against.

Alexander Lukashenko
President of Belarus since July 20, 1994

Democracy Watch is the weekly monitor of the People First Foundation and serves to raise public awareness of how government and parliamentary action is impacting upon Ukrainian democracy and democratic due process. The information is copyright free and may be reproduced but we ask that any comments are reproduced in full and with reference to the People First Foundation.

People First Foundation
1 Skovorody Street, Kyiv 04070, Ukraine
Telephone: +38044 536 1508 / Fax +38044 536 1509

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