Ukraine: Bold but bloodless

Driving through western Ukraine on a hot spring day in the mid-1990s, I passed an idyllic scene. Scores of Ukrainian army conscripts lay around a radar antenna, sound asleep in the rich long grass and flowers, soaking up the sun, expressions of pure serenity on their faces.

Not for these young men the horrors their Russian cousins were facing in the meat-grinder of Grozny, or a posting to some miserable Arctic garrison thousands of kilometres from home. Not for them the bloody civil wars of other parts of the old communist space then raging, in Georgia, Moldova and Yugoslavia.
The young Ukrainian soldiers were poor. But at least they weren’t killing each other.

Now, when government and opposition, riot police and students, easterners and westerners, face off on the streets of Kiev, it is worth remembering how many times, and with how little fuss and blood, Ukraine has stepped back from the brink before.

It is not a guide to the future; rather a reminder both of how damp the tinder of civil strife is in the least-known of Europe’s big countries, and how, should it ever catch light, it might take generations to put out.

Ukraine’s peaceful, democratically taken decision in 1991 to walk away from the Soviet Union — taking more than a fifth of the USSR’s population with it — was so quick, quiet and unexpected that history, and Russia, have still not come to terms with it. But it happened, and nobody died.

Crises loomed throughout the 1990s. How could Russia put up with Ukraine’s insistence on dividing the old Soviet Black Sea fleet? Yet it did. How would ethnically Russian Crimea tolerate its almost accidental incorporation into independent Ukraine without a fight? Well, it did.

Would a newly independent country really surrender the nuclear weapons it had inherited to the one country most opposed to its independence? Ukraine gave its nukes to Russia with barely a murmur. Surely Ukraine’s wily first president, Leonid Kravchuk, wouldn’t really give up power to the man who beat him at the polls, Leonid Kuchma? But he did.

Energy crises, economic crises, religious crises, linguistic crises — they have come, and never really gone. Yet the feared bloodshed has not happened.

The lack of dramatic, headline-friendly events in the emergence of this new country of 50-million has been such that it sometimes seems Ukraine only has a history in the sense of not being as exciting (violent, dangerous, humiliated) as Russia. Yet much has changed in 13 years.

Few now question the fundamental idea of Ukraine as an independent country, an idea which for years seemed doubtful. Millions of Ukrainians now come and go from their country to work and study abroad: the enlarged European Union is right next door. The economy has reached a kind of stability, the country’s vast potential to feed Europe is beginning to be harnessed, and beautiful Kiev, sadly, has reached the ugly skyscraper stage of a building boom.

At the same time, until now, democracy has been creeping backwards. Control of the biggest industries, of the media, of state revenue and of the security services has fallen into the hands of a corrupt and sometimes murderous elite of cynical, self-loving opportunists who feed off the enterprise and hard work of others as they float between the worlds of business, politics and bureaucracy.

Prominent among this new elite is a member of the old Soviet elite, the outgoing president, Kuchma, head of state for 10 years.

In his book, Beheaded: The Killing of a Journalist, Jaroslaw Koshiw details the scandal around the kidnapping and murder of Georgi Gongadze, who criticised Kuchma on the Internet. From the transcripts of conversations secretly recorded by one of Kuchma’s bodyguards, many of them independently certified as genuine, it can be seen not only that Kuchma ordered the journalist’s kidnapping but that he is, in private, unusually foul-mouthed, paranoid and anti-Semitic.

The same kind of visceral disgust at the perceived corruption of their leadership as overthrew Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia seems to be at work in the extraordinary stoicism of the Kiev crowds, standing up for their rights in the snow.

There may be something else at work, too; a disgust with the feeble, undignified way in which Ukraine, despite its independence, continues to mimic Russia. It happens at all sorts of levels. Moscow rebuilt a landmark church destroyed by Stalin: Kiev immediately rebuilt a landmark church destroyed by Stalin. Boris Yeltsin handed power to a trusted successor, Vladimir Putin, to protect himself and his friends; Kuchma wanted to hand power to his trusted successor, Viktor Yanukovich, for similar reasons.

There is some truth in the idea that the standoff between the two Viktors (the other being Viktor Yushchenko, the opposition leader) represents the old split in the country — ethnic, religious, historical, linguistic — between the Russified east and south of the country and the more Europe-looking west.

Beneath the surface, the divisions are more complex. Traditional Ukrainian nationalism, centred in the western provinces, is conservative; an archaic nationalism that harks back to the 19th century and is much more anti-Russian than it is pro-western. One of the striking things about the new wave of anti-government protests is that they seem to have brought on to the streets disgruntled middle-class voters and students who are more likely to contrast their lives with those of their counterparts in Barcelona or Warsaw than with those in Moscow.

Ultimately, Ukraine is a project still under construction. What is happening on the streets of Kiev now may be the last time Europeans witness a country of such size defining exactly what it is and, not least, understanding the unique character of its own post-Soviet inheritance, with so many large, proud cities vying to be first among equals: the great seaport of Odessa, the most cosmopolitan of Soviet cities; the baroque nationalist capital of Lviv, haunted by the absence of its slaughtered Jewish population; the formerly closed missile-making city of Dnepropetrovsk, maker of Kuchma and of Leonid Brezhnev; the Mafia-marred glory of Yalta; and bleak, low-rise Donetsk, where Ukraine’s exploited coal miners, once a more privileged class than doctors or lawyers, cultivate their grudges.

All now send their pride, their grievances, and, increasingly, their best and brightest, to Kiev, rather than Moscow: they’re still getting used to it. In the rivalry of the cities there’s plenty of mutual incomprehension, and some dislike. The short history of Ukraine so far gives hope, but no guarantee, of a muddling through without violence or a shift to authoritarianism. And that, given the history of the former Soviet Union, would be historic. — Â

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