Leonid Kuchma
Leonid Kuchma; drawing by David Levine


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.

Lieven discusses the main features of Ukraine’s regional diversity, the ties that connect some regions with Russia more closely than others, and the features that have given rise to rivalry and animosity. He describes the importance of language, of history, and of the common experience of Soviet Communist society and its impact on the people of both countries. He is unquestionably right when he points out that the seventy years of communism (forty-odd years in western Ukraine) created more similar features in Russia and Ukraine than legitimate reasons for hostility. As for the disputed questions of pre-Soviet history, passionately debated by Ukrainian and Russian nationalist historians (but ignored by most people in both countries), Lieven shows that both sides are wrong. Neither Russia nor Ukraine can properly be considered the exclusive heir of medieval Kievan Rus. Religion has normally been a unifying force, since both countries are predominately Orthodox. (In western Ukraine, however, the Eastern-rite Uniate Church, a product of the Counter-Reformation, predominates.)

Language has been an important issue in independent Ukraine. Ukrainian is closely related to Russian, much as, say, Spanish is to Portuguese, and Russians living in a Ukrainian milieu quickly pick it up, just as Ukrainians find it relatively easy to learn Russian. The current literary language is based on that used by Taras Shevchenko, considered Ukraine’s national poet, who wrote in the mid-nineteenth century. It was further developed by writers in Austrian Galicia in the late 1800s and early 1900s. At that time, Ukrainian culture was predominately rural, and most literature had rural and “folk” themes. During the Soviet period, Ukrainian was a state language, along with Russian, in Ukraine, but it was rarely used for scientific and technical subjects, and most higher education was in Russian.

Consequently, the Ukrainian language is not as widely used in Ukraine as one might suppose. The last census, taken in 1989 when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union, is probably misleading. It indicated that 64 percent of the population spoke Ukrainian as their “native language,” while 9 percent were Ukrainians who considered Russian their native tongue and 22 percent were Russian, both ethnically and linguistically.4 “Native language,” however, is not necessarily the language a person normally uses. When Ukrainian citizens are polled on the language they prefer, the picture changes. Recent studies have found that about 40 percent of the population are Ukrainians who prefer to speak Ukrainian, some 33 percent are ethnic Ukrainians who prefer Russian, and about 20 percent are ethnic Russians who prefer Russian. If these results are accurate, a majority of Ukrainian citizens prefer to speak Russian.5

Nevertheless, even before independence, in 1989 Ukrainian was legally designated the sole state language in Ukraine, and Ukraine’s first independent government put into effect a vigorous policy of Ukrainianization. The law required local authorities to establish schools with instruction in Ukrainian in the same proportion as that of ethnic Ukrainians in the local population. In some eastern provinces, and in the Crimea, this stipulation was simply ignored; in others, such as the eastern province of Dnipropetrovsk, it was carried out literally, whether or not it reflected the wishes of the people. The superintendent of public education there told Lieven, “It is not my job as a state official to study local national proportions or local opinions. I have been told to make 72 percent of schools Ukrainian-language, and that’s what I’ll do.” With President Kuchma, however, pressures to “Ukrainianize” all public discourse have abated. Still, educational opportunities in Ukrainian are steadily expanding, and state support for publication and broadcasting in the Ukrainian language continues.

Ukraine’s continued independence, however, does not depend upon universal use of the Ukrainian language any more than the future of the Irish Republic depends on the revival of Gaelic or that of Belgium on the willingness of Walloons to speak Flemish. National unity and civic loyalty are not invariably based on language or ethnicity but on a sense of shared values and a shared fate, usually coupled with attachment to a given territory. A shared language, as Yugoslavs found in Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia, does not prevent separatism. Since 1995, Ukrainian governments have chosen to build the nation on the basis of a common citizenship and attachment to the territory, not on ethnic factors. That policy has reinforced the Ukrainian state, notwithstanding public dissatisfaction with successive governments.

Lying behind the language issue, of course, is Ukraine’s perception of its proper relation to Russia. Some of its politicians, mostly from western Ukraine, who led the initial drive for independence from the Soviet Union have insisted that Ukraine, to assert its identity, must accentuate its differences with Russia. At one time, most politicians of this persuasion were united in the nationalist political movement called Rukh, but it has since split into several factions and was not a significant force in the most recent election. The assumption held by nationalists from western Ukraine that the current Russian Federation is essentially the same as the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire that preceded it is no longer a strong current of thinking in Ukraine, but it lives on in foreign scholarship and journalism. According to what might be termed the radical nationalist view, Ukraine’s problems were created by malign Russian policy and are being perpetuated by imperialistic forces that persist in Moscow to this day.

As Lieven demonstrates, this view is mistaken in many particulars. The Russian Federation today is not the same as the Soviet Union—its leaders in fact joined Ukraine’s in abolishing the Soviet Union. Russia and Ukraine shared essentially the same fate under communism. Economic ties in a world of global markets will not be a matter of political choice but economic consequence. Equally important, the ethnic-nationalist view misrepresents the character of today’s Ukraine. Most citizens of Ukraine do not view Russians as enemies; nor do most Russian speakers in Ukraine, aside from those in Sevastopol, feel any political allegiance to Moscow. (For that matter, Russians inside the Russian Federation feel no great loyalty to their current government.)


As troublesome as these questions of ethnicity and nationalism have been for the fledgling Ukrainian state, the more important question for most of the population has been the economy. Among the Soviet republics, Ukraine had one of the strongest and most balanced economies; in many parts of the country, people lived better than they did in most parts of Russia.

The imports Ukraine needs most are oil, which it traditionally obtained from Russia and Azerbaijan, and natural gas, obtained previously from Russia and Turkmenistan. It is not, however, without its own energy resources since it is a major coal producer and also produces electricity for export, much of it from nuclear power plants. While the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl had a major impact on Ukraine, and indeed hastened its estrangement from the Soviet government in Moscow, the Ukrainian government still operates a reactor at the outmoded plant.6

It is true that some of Ukraine’s factories are outdated while few, if any, are efficient by international standards. But the root of its economic malaise lies in the structure of the command economy developed in the Soviet Union since the 1930s. One feature of that economy was a policy to ensure that no republic could be self-sufficient. Every major industry was planned so that enterprises in one republic would be dependent on suppliers and customers in others. Thus, Ukrainian industry, transport, and power grids were integrated with those in Russia and other former Soviet republics. A plant in Kiev produced a camera of that name (copied from the Swedish Hasselblad), but the lenses for it were manufactured in Leningrad. The optical glass, however, might well have come from Lviv or Lithuania.

Ukraine’s first president, Leonid Kravchuk, misled by economic reports he interpreted to mean that Ukraine was capable of economic self-sufficiency, promised that prosperity would inevitably follow independence and that Ukraine would rapidly outpace Russia. On the strength of that assumption, the people of Ukraine, including its ethnic Russians, voted overwhelmingly for independence in December 1991. That independence, however, was from the Soviet Union, not from Russia. Ukrainian citizens in the Crimea and the border regions with Russia were never asked whether they would prefer to be part of an independent Russia or part of an independent Ukraine.

Prosperity, it turned out, was not just around the corner. Instead of outpacing Russia, Ukraine, with even more inefficient leadership and administration, quickly fell behind. Inflation was more severe; government services deteriorated more rapidly; crime and corruption were even worse than in Russia. A poll in December 1998 indicated that 60 percent of Ukrainians now felt that “it is a great misfortune that the Soviet Union no longer exists.” This is largely nostalgia and does not represent an active desire to re-create the Soviet Union. But it is a measure of the degree to which the successive governments of independent Ukraine have failed to meet the expectation that independence would bring a better life.

For the political developments that led to Ukrainian independence and followed it, one should turn to Bohdan Nahaylo’s The Ukrainian Resurgence. It is, for the most part, a straightforward account of the political forces that brought independence to Ukraine, and of what Ukrainians have done with it since. Nahaylo’s point of view is that of a moderate Ukrainian nationalist who understands western Ukraine better than the eastern part, and Ukraine better than Russia. His book thus provides a fitting complement to Lieven’s, which will doubtless seem Russocentric to many Ukrainians.

Nahaylo’s book is weak, however, in dealing with Ukraine’s history. He gives only the barest outline of events before Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, but he spends the better part of two paragraphs describing Nazi atrocities against Ukrainians during World War II. The Holocaust is dealt with in a single sentence: “As elsewhere, Ukraine’s Jews were targeted for extermination and about 850,000 of them were killed.” The implication is that both Ukrainians and Jews were killed by the Nazis, but he doesn’t say just who killed whom. The Ukrainian role in the Holocaust obviously deserves more attention than this. Were the Nazis solely responsible, with Ukrainians only innocent bystanders, subjected to much the same treatment themselves? Or—as some would have it—were Ukrainians among Hitler’s most willing and enthusiastic executioners?

For light on this central question, we must thank Martin Dean for the original research in his Collaboration in the Holocaust: Crimes of the Local Police in Belorussia and Ukraine, 1941-44. On this, as on most other topics regarding Ukraine, the complexity of the facts defies simplistic generalization. So far as responsibility for the Holocaust in Ukraine, Dean is unequivocal. He writes that “it is fair to say that without the presence of the Nazis with their radical ideology, a systematic programme of genocide would have been unthinkable.” But he then adds: “Nevertheless, it was relatively easy for the Nazis to recruit people locally [for the local police, or Schutzmannschaft] who were prepared to carry out their terrible policies for a variety of different motives.”

Anti-Semitism was obviously one of the motives of local Ukranian police who rounded up their Jewish neighbors to be sent to extermination camps, but it was mixed with several others, including, Dean writes, “personal greed, alcoholism, anti-Communism, careerism, and peer pressure.” The brutality with which these collaborators treated their Jewish neighbors was also applied to members of other groups that the Nazis identified as “hostile elements”: Gypsies, prisoners of war, partisan families, and even Russians.

The Ukrainian government, at least rhetorically, has done more to confront this aspect of Ukrainian history than have Ukrainian nationalist historians. When President Kuchma visited New York shortly after his election in 1994, he met with a group of Holocaust survivors from Ukraine and pledged to prosecute remaining war criminals. Some of the survivors present testified that they had been saved by Ukrainian families, who risked their own lives to help.

Certainly, there were fewer Ukrainians who tried to save their Jewish neighbors than there were those who were frightened, indifferent, or downright sympathetic to the Nazis. Still, that such brave people existed at all should caution against the sort of reckless ethnic stereotyping that would class all Ukrainians as pathological anti-Semites. But the fact is that anti-Semitic attitudes have been widespread in Ukraine, as they have been in Russia and in most countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Official statistics indicate that some half-million Jews still live in Ukraine, and though emigration—high since the 1890s—continues, it is now largely for economic reasons rather than fears of anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, Ukrainian historians will have to do more to examine the damage anti-Semitism has done to Ukraine if their work is to command the respect of objective historians.

The studies collected in State and Institution Building in Ukraine, edited by Taras Kuzio and others, and the monograph by Paul J. D’Anieri, Economic Interdependence in Ukrainian-Russian Relations, contain much information on two of the most crucial aspects of post-independence Ukraine, its institutions and its economy.

The essays in the Kuzio volume least affected by an eagerness to theorize, such as Sherman Garnett’s “Like Oil and Water: Ukraine’s External Westernization and Internal Stagnation,” are far more useful than the half-baked speculations that abound in some of the others. D’Anieri, who documents the unsurprising conclusion that Ukraine’s economy is heavily dependent on Russia’s, accepts the mistaken view that Ukraine must choose between “satellite status” to Russia and a bristling, implicitly hostile “independence.” But viewing external economic ties as an impediment to political independence ignores the current economic reality. Globalization has rendered full economic independence impossible for any nation.

Both Russia and Ukraine need to enter the world economy and allow economic ties between them to continue, weaken, or strengthen for economic rather than political reasons. Both Russia and Ukraine must overcome their common Soviet heritage of a command economy and allow companies to compete freely if they are to prosper. Neither can do so in the full sense if it pursues the goal of maximizing separation rather than that of increasing the economic benefits of foreign trade and investment.


Even as they stumbled badly in efforts to reform the economy, Ukrainian governments have handled their relations with Russia with skill, as is demonstrated by the 1997 Russo-Ukrainian treaty that settled the most important issues in a manner satisfactory to Ukraine, including the status of Sevastopol and the division of the Black Sea Fleet. Ukraine has managed to achieve its fundamental foreign policy aims by retaining its independence, developing friendly relations with major powers and neighboring countries, and avoiding any hint of Russian control. That success would be difficult to discern from much of the foreign comment, which postulates that “Russian imperialism” is the principal threat to Ukraine’s independence and statehood.7

From several recent collections of essays on Ukraine’s foreign relations, we can conclude that much of the advice foreign “experts” have given Ukraine on “national security” would have done more to undermine the Ukrainian state than to strengthen it. A policy of unrelenting hostility to Russia (often the central theme of foreign policy advice) would only have divided the citizens of Ukraine and weakened its potential for independent statehood. Ukraine is fortunate that its governments, at least since 1994, have largely ignored such advice.

Those who see Russia as a predatory imperialist power usually rest their case on three claims: that Russians are not psychologically reconciled to Ukrainian independence; that Russia has used its economic power to “resubjugate” Ukraine (for example, by cutting off natural gas deliveries); and that Russia is making imperialist claims against the city of Sevastopol. As Anatol Lieven explains in detail, none of these allegations proves that Russia has imperialist intentions.

Most Russians do not understand why Ukrainians would want a sepa-rate state, and some fail to appreciate that Ukraine has a distinctive culture. Nevertheless, hardly anyone in Russia would attempt to force Ukraine into a union. So long as the people of Ukraine do not want to be in Russia, Russians understand that they are better off without them, however regrettable they may consider the Ukrainian attitude to be.

As for “economic pressure,” there is no evidence of a systematic campaign by Russia to use economic power to control Ukraine. Russia, of course, seeks trade on favorable terms, as does Ukraine. Problems in one country quickly become problems in the other; the Russian financial collapse in August 1998 led to a devaluation of the Ukrainian hryvnya and a surge of inflation. But most disputes have to do with the timely payment of bills, or poor quality products, or other commercial matters. The Russian natural gas monopoly and the electric power network have suspended service to Ukraine when unpaid arrears mounted, but any public utility in the West would have done the same, and probably sooner. The only difference was that, for a time, Russia provided Ukraine with energy at below world market prices. There is something perverse about accusing Russia of imperialism for refusing to continue to subsidize Ukrainian energy consumption or the personal enrichment of those Ukrainians who control the gas distribution network. One of Ukraine’s “energy barons” told a Russian interviewer last year, “All rich people in Ukraine made their money on Russian gas.”8

The city of Sevastopol, built around a naval base on the Black Sea coast of the Crimean peninsula, has been the subject of bitter debates between politicians in Ukraine and Russia since the Soviet Union collapsed. Historically, the Crimea was never considered part of Ukraine, but in 1954, Nikita Khrushchev, eager to strengthen his political base in Ukraine, ordered the peninsula transferred from the RSFSR (the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic) to the Ukrainian SSR. At the time, the transfer was a purely symbolic gesture. Both Ukraine and Russia were under the firm control of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union; “sovereignty” of the various union republics was a constitutional fiction. But while the Crimea was placed under Ukrainian jurisdiction, administrative control of Sevastopol was retained by the USSR government in Moscow, not transferred to Kiev. This is the basis for assertions in the Russian Duma that Sevastopol should not be considered a part of the 1954 territorial transfer.

Feelings run even higher in Sevastopol than in Moscow. It is a city of naval people, active and retired, who have intense feelings of Russian patriotism and pride in what they feel is a glorious tradition. Some of Russia’s most important battles were fought in its defense, notably during the Crimean War when the Tsar’s soldiers repelled the infamous charge of the Light Brigade, and during World War II when the city held out for months against a Nazi siege.

Nevertheless, the issue of Sevastopol’s status has been exaggerated and distorted by both sides. Some Ukrainians consider the Russian Duma’s resolutions that Sevastopol is properly Russian a grave threat to Ukrainian statehood; but the Russian government has never lodged a claim to Sevastopol and has repeatedly reaffirmed its recognition of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity. Moscow has also refrained from encouraging Crimean separatism and from trying to use ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine as a disloyal fifth column. In view of its own vulnerability to separatism in Chechnya and elsewhere, no rational Russian government is likely to try seriously to change the borders inherited from Soviet times.

For the Russian public as a whole, attachment to Sevastopol is not so much an irredentist claim as a question of simple justice. Why, they ask, should they consider the Soviet absorption of the Baltic states illegal and void, yet accept Khrushchev’s opportunistic transfer of Crimean territory as legal and binding? Why, they ask, does the principle of self-determination apply only to people who are not Russian? How can territory that had never been considered part of Ukraine suddenly become “sacred and inalienable,” just because of a pseudolegal act by an unrepresentative government?

There are answers to some of these objections—most residents of the Crimea (though not of Sevastopol) voted in favor of Ukrainian independence in December 1991—but the argument is one neither side will win since it is based on emotional, not legal, grounds. But it is also a dispute that neither side is going to fight over. It does not threaten Ukraine’s independence.

Both Russia and Ukraine have now ratified a treaty that allows Russia to lease the naval base for twenty years while Ukraine retains sovereignty and will use part of the port for its por-tion of the Black Sea Fleet. In July, Ukraine joined Russia for the first time since the breakup of the Soviet Union in celebrating Black Sea Fleet Day. Both Ukrainian President Ku-chma and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, a vocal advocate of “Russian Sevastopol,” attended the ceremony. Luzhkov was quoted as saying that he believed that Sevastopol would eventually be returned to Russia, while Kuchma stated flatly, “Sevastopol is and remains Ukrainian.” The dispute will thus continue, but with little if any effect on actual events.


To my knowledge, no recently published book provides a comprehensive explanation of what has gone wrong with Ukraine’s government and economy. But Anders Åslund of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington offered a convincing analysis at a conference in June.9 He pointed out that the Ukrainian government initially concentrated on “nation-building”—which meant creating a bureaucracy as large as possi-ble, provided it was “national”—rather than moving decisively to transform the Soviet-style planned economy into a market system. As a result, a self-perpetuating monster developed. Instead of encouraging production and efficient distribution, the system that emerged offered a few insiders—mainly managers and bureaucrats from the pre-independence Communist nomenklatura—fabulous profits based on government subsidies, official regulations, legal monopolies, and high-interest government debt available only to a favored few.

State intervention in the economy has been both ubiquitous and arbitrary. New businesses may require as many as twenty approvals to ob-tain a license, and none is easily available without paying bribes. Foreign trade has remained under state control, providing lucrative outside income for the bureaucrats who issue licenses and easy inside income for the businessmen permitted to export commodities acquired at subsidized prices.

The Ukrainian economic barons, furthermore, have themselves become part of the government, occupying seats in parliament or senior positions in ministries. The result is a system with a strong vested interest in blocking any liberalization that would favor productive economic activity over theft, corruption, and insider deals. As Åslund put it, “Ukraine is ruled by a trinity of the government, businessmen and parliament, all living off and for corruption and rent seeking.”10

Immediately after his reelection, President Kuchma gave few signs that he was prepared to break with the policies that led to what he subsequently called Ukraine’s economic and political stagnation. He nominated for another term the prime minister, Valery Pustovoytenko, a crony from Kuchma’s earlier career in Dnipropetrovsk who, during his two and a half years in office, had done little to foster reform.

But then, in early December, Kuchma made a rapid tour of Moscow, Brussels, Paris, and Washington, and met with both President Clinton and Vice President Gore. While in the foreign capitals he made public pledges to embark on a “strict program” of reforms and to launch what he called a “true war against corruption.”

When Kuchma returned to Kiev, his parliament refused to confirm Pustovoytenko as prime minister, and Kuchma promptly nominated Viktor Yushchenko, the chairman of the Ukrainian State Bank, to succeed Pustovoytenko. Yushchenko has been credited with astute management of the Ukrainian currency, and, of all the senior Ukrainian leaders, he has been considered the most capable executive and strongest supporter of market reforms. His nomination received an overwhelmingly favorable vote in the Ukrainian parliament.

Furthermore, before the end of the year, President Kuchma announced several other major steps to break with the past. These included a decree abolishing collective farms, one reducing ministries and other central executive bodies from eighty-nine to thirty-five, and one requiring the privatization of some 2,200 enterprises this year—more than four times the number privatized in 1999. Independently, the Ukrainian Constitutional Court ruled that capital punishment violated the Ukrainian constitution and ordered an immediate end to executions, thus meeting one of the demands made by the Council of Europe.

The moves to simplify government and privatize state enterprises were doubtless prompted by the International Monetary Fund, which has made a $370 million loan conditional on a sharp reduction of government controls on the economy. Whether the announced changes prove to be abortive, as many declarations of intent have in the past, remains to be seen.

Following the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, President Kuchma initiated moves designed to tame the recalcitrant Ukrainian parliament. On January 15, he issued a decree calling for a referendum April 16 on confidence in the current parliament, and to amend the constitution to reduce the parliament’s size by a third and to grant the president authority to dissolve it under certain conditions.

The speaker, Oleksandr Tkachenko, denounced the referendum, as he had the earlier decree to abolish collective farms, and resisted an attempt by pro-Kuchma representatives to remove him as speaker. As a result, 241 of the 450 deputies left the parliament building and convened elsewhere, plunging Ukraine into a constitutional crisis. Tkachenko was deprived of a quorum, but refused to recognize the authority of the majority, arguing that only the speaker could legally convoke a parliamentary session.

This crisis was still unresolved at press time, but it seemed that President Kuchma, with the powers of the executive branch and the support of a majority of parliamentary deputies, held the upper hand and could prevail without resorting to the violent measures Yeltsin used against the Russian Supreme Soviet in 1993. But even if Kuchma defeats the pro-Communist “leftists” in parliament, reform will not come easily or automatically. Government policies since independence have not produced a middle class of entrepreneurs and managers who know how to work in a market environment and who would be natural supporters of economic liberalization. Therefore, even if President Kuchma seriously wants to encourage a market economy, he may not have the constituency to bring it about. Unless the Ukrainian authorities are able to reverse the steady deterioration of living standards and to deal more effectively with corruption and criminal activity, Ukraine’s problems will continue to fester and could eventually threaten its independent statehood.

If this should happen, it is not likely to be a result of Russian machinations. Ukraine’s national security does not depend on its foreign or defense policies but on the ability of its leaders to create a nation with institutions worthy of its citizens’ respect.

—January 25, 2000


Different people differently define what is “Ukrainian” and what is “Russian.” Nikolai Gogol is a quintessentially Ukrainian writer so far as subject matter is concerned (even when he places his stories in St. Petersburg), but he wrote in Russian. Mikhail Bulgakov also wrote extensively about Ukraine, and was himself from Kiev, but wrote in Russian. Isaac Babel, a Jew from Odessa, most of whose stories are set in what is now Ukraine, wrote in Russian.

I would consider all three a legitimate part of the Ukrainian cultural heritage (and most Russian speakers in Ukraine would too), but most Ukrainian nationalists would exclude them. They would consider only literature written in the Ukrainian language, by writers such as Taras Shevchenko (who also wrote in Russian), Ivan Franko, Mykola Khvylovy, and Oles Honchar, as legitimate expressions of Ukrainian culture. The problem is not unique to Ukraine, of course. Was Franz Kafka a German, Austrian, Jewish, or Czech writer? Or maybe all four? Some Czechs will claim him for Czech literature (and I think they are right) and some will accept as Czech only works in the Czech language.

The basic problem is that present-day Ukraine is neither a homogeneous unit nor one with anything like a unified history. Almost any generalization one wishes to make is a distortion of the truth, since each needs to be further elaborated: which region one is talking about, which ethnic group, whether it is the people in the cities or on the farms, in which century (or maybe in which part of which century), and on and on.

Present-day nationalists, of whatever stripe, tend to project backward their claims and perceptions of the present. But this is not valid. There was, right up into the eighteenth century, no clear perception of Russian or Ukrainian nationality (in the modern sense) on the part of the people in that part of the world. They may have been peasants who spoke the dialect of their locality (and identified themselves by their religion and that locality, not with a present-day state) or they may have been members of the Polish nobility, who owned most of the land to the west of Kiev, or quasi-autonomous Cossacks who lived to the east of Kiev.

In addition to the nobles, peasants, and Cossacks, there were the Jews, a very important element in the population with a complex relationship with both nobles and peasants and eventually one of hostility to the Cossacks, who were sometimes used by tsarist authorities to conduct pogroms in Jewish settlements.


This Issue

February 24, 2000