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The Nowhere Nation


On November 14, 1999, President Leonid Kuchma of Ukraine won re-election to a second term in a runoff vote against his Communist opponent, Petro Symonenko, a former apparatchik who was opposed to a market economy and in favor of a confederation with Russia and Belarus. Official results showed Kuchma, who promised to continue economic liberalization, including privatization, by reducing government controls, and to preserve Ukrainian independence, winning by a large margin: 56 percent to 38 percent (6 percent of the voters having opposed both candidates).

The campaign, however, was the dirtiest and most scandal-ridden in Ukraine’s eight years of independence. In 1994 Kuchma, a sixty-one-year-old former director of a Soviet missile factory, had upset Ukraine’s first president, Leonid Kravchuk, in a hard-fought but remarkably peaceful campaign. To many, the transfer of power at that time demonstrated that Ukraine had passed an important test of its democratic credentials.

The 1999 campaign suggests that the praise Ukraine’s acceptance of democratic fair play received in 1994 was premature. After the first round of voting, on October 31, election observers from the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) commented that the campaign had been “highly questionable,” even though the voting was conducted in an orderly fashion. The observers stopped short of charging that the election returns misrepresented “the will of the Ukrainian people,” but Simon Osborne, the British head of the OSCE monitors, spoke of “serious violations,” during the campaign, including forged ballots, confiscation of campaign materials, improper influence by public officials, and biased coverage by newspapers and television, the latter largely under government control.

Conditions became even worse after the first round. President Kuchma fired the governors of the three provinces in which he had done poorly, presumably to make sure local officials there would produce more favorable results during the second vote. According to foreign monitors, some voters were given more than one ballot, and officials put pressure on voters in prisons, hospitals, and educational institutions to vote for Kuchma.

Kuchma’s strategy seemed modeled on Boris Yeltsin’s 1996 reelection campaign in Russia. Yeltsin started that campaign when his popularity was below 10 percent but ultimately defeated Gennady Zyuganov, his Communist rival, by a small margin. Kuchma’s popularity never sank quite as low as Yeltsin’s; in the months preceding the campaign it hovered around 20 percent. Copying the tactics Yeltsin had used in Russia, Kuchma first tried to divide the opposition—there were sixteen candidates in the first round—and then turned the runoff into a referendum on a return to the Communist past.

There were also differences between Russia in 1996 and Ukraine in 1999. The Communists and other “left-wing” parties in Russia—i.e., those supporting a return to “socialism” in 1996—did not receive a majority of Russian votes; this year, during the first round of votes, their Ukrainian counterparts did. If Kuchma’s opponents had been able to unite behind a single candidate who was smart enough not to raise the specter of a return to Soviet conditions, they might well have won a fair election.

As it turned out, Ukrainian Communists and socialists failed to unite. Moreover, their endorsement of the Soviet past frightened many voters, and the election, though reasonably free, was anything but fair. The monitors from the OSCE refused to stigmatize the results as invalid since they could not assess the effect of the violations on the outcome. Nevertheless, it seemed clear that Kuchma’s majority, even if genuine, was given him by the voters only with great reluctance. Ukraine is, in fact, a deeply troubled country, and most Ukrainians are dissatisfied with the country’s political leadership.

In 1995, when Ukraine was in its fourth year of independence, I traveled to Kiev with several other former members of the US National Security Council staff to discuss with Ukrainian officials and scholars the process of decision-making on questions of national security. We had prepared papers on how the NSC operates in Washington, describing its relationship to the various departments and agencies, its dealings with Congress and the press, and the way it manages the “paper flow” within the government so the president will have the information necessary to make thoughtful decisions.

When we had finished our presentation, the Ukrainian chairman observed that in the United States “national security” meant defense and foreign policy. “Here, however,” he continued, “our problem is different.” He then unfolded a large map with each province in Ukraine shaded from light to dark. The westernmost provinces—some bordering on Poland—were white, those in the center gray, and those in the east—bordering on Russia—and south a solid black. “These are shaded to indicate the degree of dissatisfaction with the Ukrainian government,” he explained. “As you can see, for us national security is not about foreign policy, or even about defense. Our problem is how to create a nation when most people in some regions don’t feel themselves part of it.”

The differences in attitude that the chairman pointed out were rooted in Ukraine’s history, the composition of its population of some 50 million people, its regional economic differences, and—underlying it all—its ambiguous, sometimes vacillating attitudes toward Russia and Russians. With borders defined only since World War II, Ukraine is the second-largest country in Europe, twice the size of Italy (though slightly smaller than Texas), with more people than Spain and almost as many as either France or Italy. Long a primarily agricultural region, it experienced rapid urbanization and industrial growth in the twentieth century, so that when it became independent in 1991 some 70 percent of its population lived in cities. By 1996, agriculture yielded only 13 percent of its gross national product, although it employed 24 percent of its labor force to produce the grain, sugar beets, meat, and dairy products that not only feed its citizens but are exported in large quantities to Russia and other neighboring countries. Light industry—textiles, clothing manufacture, food processing—is well developed throughout the country.

Heavy industry, however, is disproportionately concentrated in the east, toward the Russian border, where, by the 1980s, the inefficient and poorly maintained coal mines in the Donets Basin and the smoke-belching steel mills close by—still operating blast and open-hearth furnaces designed in the 1920s—had become financial and environmental disasters for the Soviet regime. The region also had more modern plants, producing aircraft, ships, automobiles, and farm equipment; but many of them, like the missile factory Kuchma once ran, belonged to the Soviet military-industrial complex.

As industry developed in the eastern provinces of present-day Ukraine, ethnic Russians moved in to work in the mines and factories. Many Ukrainian farmers in the region were deported to Siberia when Stalin ordered the collectivization of agriculture in the 1930s, and subsequently, during Khrushchev’s time, some left to settle on the steppes of northern Kazakhstan. Those who moved to the cities gradually came to speak Russian more often than Ukrainian, for proficiency in Russian was essential for professional advancement.

Western Ukraine, the provinces bordering on Poland, Slovakia, and Romania, has a distinct history and a character all its own. It was never a part of the Russian Empire, but was part of Lithuania and Poland in medieval and early modern times, of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the partition of Poland in the eighteenth century, and of independent Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Romania between the two world wars. Lviv, the capital of Galicia, the best-known of the western Ukrainian provinces, whose name is sometimes applied to the whole region, became a center of Ukrainian cultural life under complacent Austrian rule in the nineteenth century, when Russian tsars banned publications in Ukrainian. Ukrainian nationalism in Galicia, however, was directed primarily at Poles; it was only after Stalin brought the region into the Soviet Union after World War II and expelled most of its Polish population that Russia became, for Ukrainian nationalists in the west, the main enemy.

The Ukrainian south bears few resemblances either to the west or to the east. Odessa was the major port for both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Like other major commercial ports, it was cosmopolitan, with a population made up much more of Jews, Russians, Greeks, and others from the Black Sea and Mediterranean littoral than of Ukrainians. The Crimean peninsula, conquered by Russia in the eighteenth century, became by the twentieth primarily Russian, with a large naval base at Sevastopol and a string of holiday resorts stretching along the coast around Yalta—the Florida or Southern California for the Russian nobility, gentry, intelligentsia, and navy.

This regional diversity lay behind the differences in attitude that our host in Kiev noted. Ukrainian independence had naturally been more popular in western Ukraine than in the east and south. People in the west had never been part of Russia and they never wanted to be part of the Soviet Union. In the east the population was mixed Russian and Ukrainian and the economy more integrated with Russia; in the Crimea most residents considered themselves Russian rather than Ukrainian. Independent Ukraine had a state but was not yet fully a nation.


That was four years ago, when independent Ukraine was only half as old as it is now. Have things changed, and if so, how?

If anything, they have gotten worse. A poll conducted in December 1998 by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology suggested that the Ukrainian government was even less popular then than it was in 1995. From 80 percent to over 90 percent felt that the government was doing a bad job in such central matters as protecting the needy, combating corruption, and ensuring civil liberties.1 Another survey indicated that three out of five Ukrainians were strongly or somewhat in favor of Ukraine entering a confederation with Russia and Belarus. “Confederation” was not precisely defined, but most respondents in the east and south favored closer ties with Russia than existed at that time. In the west, “strong support” dropped to 14 percent.2 This was doubtless a factor in western Ukraine’s heavy vote for President Kuchma in 1999. In 1994 its vote had gone to his opponent, Leonid Kravchuk, but Kuchma was sufficiently firm in dealing with Russia during his first term to satisfy the independence-minded western Ukrainians.

Ukrainian independence has not only produced dilemmas of statehood for that country, but also attracted an unprecedented degree of attention from scholars eager to study the transition from communism to something else. But most of the hundreds of studies of contemporary Ukraine produced over the past few years either have dealt with only a fragment of the picture or have been distorted by doctrinaire preconceptions.

By contrast, Anatol Lieven’s Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry is concise and clear. It is full of insight and its judgments are well balanced. By all odds it is the place to start if you are confused about what is going on in today’s Ukraine, or are inclined to blame its problems on Russia. Lieven, the author of an excellent book on the Baltic campaign for independence and the best single study of the 1994-1996 war in Chechnya,3 provides a clear introduction to the fundamental question of the relations between Ukraine and Ukrainians and Russia and Russians.

  1. 1

    Opinion Analysis, M-30-99, US Information Agency, February 23, 1999.

  2. 2

    Opinion Analysis, M-39-99, US Information Agency, March 11, 1999.

  3. 3

    The Baltic Revolution and Chechnya: The Tombstone of Russian Power (both Yale University Press, 1993 and 1998 respectively).

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