Hopeless Ukraine (part 2)

You have to pay for your independence or somebody else will pay for it.

Ukraine is one of the former Soviet republics that gained independence in 1991 as a result of the weakening and subsequent collapse of the USSR and not because the Ukrainians fought for it. A referendum on the Act of Declaration of Independence was held on 1 December 1991 and an overwhelming majority (92.3%) of voters approved the Ukrainian independence from USSR.

I also voted for independence then and remember my attitude to the referendum - it was something new, completely incomprehensible, but surely worth of trying.

The Ukrainians could not use the independence that had fallen into their hands for their own benefit. More precisely, they haven’t known that independence was never for free so Ukraine never got it. Russian leaders generously fed the Ukrainian elites after the secession from USSR and did not let the Ukrainian nation get off the Russian oil and gas needle. However, it is not just the fault of "bad" Russian authorities. They always have been like that and always will be. The Ukrainian elites starting with the presidents of "independent" Ukraine for sure received money from Russians, thus betraying (or rather, selling) the interests of their people and their country. Of course, I haven’t been there when the money was handed over, but the question of supplying of oil and gas for the entire country had to involve the top officials.

People of Ukraine have never thought about all that, they just wanted to stay warm in winter and have a fuel for their cars. This is probably why there has been a strong pro-Russian lobby in Ukrainian parliament for 30 years of independence and some citizens of Ukraine have been voting for it all that time.

Thus the Ukrainian nation was divided into parts from the very beginning of the existence of “independent” Ukraine. Russian authorities corrupted Ukrainian elites, which gladly sold them the Ukrainian independence. Ukrainian people (me including) have never paid attention to all that.

As opposed to Russia, in Ukraine there have always been several warring clans at the helm of the country. It is called a “democracy”. They form government and opposition, and switch places time after time. This is very mobile structure with multiple transitions of people and flow of money back and forth, and Russians have always been taking advantage of it. Whereas in Russia an important issue must be resolved only with the first person (Mr. Putin, who may not agree for any money), in Ukraine one can always approach to the opposition and the issue will be resolved for reasonable money when the opposition gains power. It is only a question of money and time and Russians have always had both.

There is a very good rule – “If you leave, leave forever”.

That’s exactly what Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia did in early 1990-s, but their national elites stayed with the people and did not make a deal with Soviet authorities. They have started real separation from USSR in a very correct way - from declaration of independence followed by diversifying their oil and gas suppliers. The USSR objected.

For example, Lithuania was the first of 15 Soviet Republics which adopted the declaration of independence in March 1990 and in April 1990 the USSR imposed an economic blockade by ceasing to deliver supplies like raw oil to Lithuania. Not only the domestic industry, but also the population started feeling the lack of fuel, essential goods, and even hot water. The Soviet Union also sealed the republic's borders and blocked Lithuania's bank accounts. Although the blockade lasted for 74 days, Lithuania did not renounce the declaration of independence.

In January 1991, the Soviet government led by Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to overthrow the legally elected Lithuanian government by force and sent to Lithuania special troops and tanks. 14 unarmed people died in the confrontation with the Soviet soldiers, but Lithuanians did not give up and ultimately won. The Soviet Union was distinctly weakening, and the changes were in the air … The Soviet troops did not crack down violently on the protests in Lithuania also due to a wave of outrage in Soviet society caused by the actions of the authorities and personally Mikhail Gorbachev. There was a march in Moscow (!!) of around 4,000 supporters of Lithuania on January 14, 1991, and a week later there were about 100,000 of them. Soviet Union recognized Lithuania's independence in September 1991 and dissolved in December 1991.

Now Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are independent subjects of European political life, members of different alliances (NATO, EU, Schengen, eurozone). All three are classified as high-income economies by the World Bank and maintain a very high Human Development Index.

The Ukrainian elites (because they are the ones who make decisions for the whole country) were split, corrupted and hadn’t addressed the independence issue, so the energy dependence on the heir to the USSR (Russia) remained. Russians have been using it since1990s to keep Ukraine and other former Soviet republics (Belarus, for example) in their orbit and even influence intransigent Western European countries.

After the exit from USSR, Ukraine had a convenient geographical location with access to the Black Sea, rich natural resources, a developed industrial base, probably the best fertile farmlands in Europe, educated, hard-working population of about 50 million people, the world's most beautiful women and even the nuclear weapons inherited from the USSR. Leonid Kravchuk - a communist and former Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian SSR - became the first president of the new independent Ukraine in the end of 1991. Nothing special happened during a few years. Ukrainians got used to live separately from USSR, but the impression then was that nothing had changed.

The second presidential election was held soon - in 1994. Leonid Kuchma, a former director of large Ukrainian plant “Yuzhmash” won the presidency. I also voted then and not so much for Mr. Kuchma, but out of curiosity – whether a communist and incumbent president could really lose? The communists haven't lost during last 70 years. Mr. Kravchuk has lost the election and to the surprise of many did not cling to power, but simply stepped down.

In December 1994, Leonid Kuchma signed the Budapest Memorandum. According to it Ukraine pursued full nuclear disarmament, giving up the third largest nuclear weapons stockpile in the world and dismantling or removing all strategic bombers on its territory in exchange for various assurances. Other signatories were Russia, Great Britain and the US. Twenty years later I learned from a dictionary that the word “memorandum” was just a “note for not to forget something” and the US, GB and Russia’s signatures meant nothing. Ukraine unilaterally disarmed and because of that in particular failed to resist Russian aggression in Crimea and Donbass in 2014.

And then the "Kuchma era" began (1994-2004).

Ukrainian output kept on declining, the government printed a lot of money to finance the needs of the country (and itself too) and hyperinflation came. I remember that probably in 1994 on Friday evening in the spring there was a rate of 1USD = 7500 karbovanets, and the next Monday it was already 19500. I earned about $100K on inflation then, which was a lot for Ukraine. At that time I perceived inflation like a bad weather just like many Ukrainians (and Americans also) did, but over time I realized that the inflation was created by the National Bank, and I was just lucky to earn some money while a lot of people lost.

Meanwhile, aggressive capitalism was unfolding in the country. State enterprises were actively bankrupted and privatized by descendants of Communist Party, Komsomol and KGB, yesterday's communists all of a sudden believed in God and began to preach (publically) biblical values, clans that existed since Soviet times - "Kyiv", "Dnepropetrovsk", "Donetsk" - began to create endless parties and rushed for power in the country.

Army, plants, factories and collective farms were selling off property inherited from the USSR, cooperatives and organized crime appeared… Groups of criminals or sportsmen offered to all new-born businessmen "protection" from other racketeers for money. Those who disagreed were forced to pay (beaten, sometimes tortured or killed). Police did not interfere and was often on the bandits' payroll.
Unemployment rose sharply, a lot of people began to visit Poland to trade the goods for local currency (zloty), which could be exchanged for USD. One could earn $200-300 per trip, which was enough money for a family to live on for couple of months. In Ukraine marketplaces and street vending flourished as well, and a lot of people began to drink alcohol and smoke there.

There was an impression that the country was left to its fate. Everyone was surviving on one’s own. People actually forgot about the existence of their government, but the government hadn’t forgotten about making money from their people.

The authorities began to pay attention to the tax collection (the USSR took away really almost everything earned and taxes existed only formally), introduced a value added tax, the police came to their senses, subdued the bandits and began to extort money from the population. Many bandits have already made good money and went into politics for more money and parliamentary immunity. Tax police was established and after the bandit pressure of the early 90's, came the tax police pressure which lasted till now. For example, the taxmen offer you to pay off in cash for their favourable tax audit (then) or to buy your business from you for nothing (now). If you refuse they may take it away "legally" with the help of the court, and you can be put in jail for not paying taxes.

A new Constitution of Ukraine was adopted in 1996, which turned Ukraine into a semi-presidential republic and established more stable political system. It is interesting that parliamentary deputies – the proteges of different clans - could not agree on a new Constitution and Leonid Kuchma literally locked them in the Parliament building for the whole night on June 27-28, 1996 to produce a paper.

In 1999, a landmark event for the degradation of Ukrainian statehood and morality occurred: the obscure death of Viacheslav Chornovil on March 25, 1999 in a car accident right before the next presidential election in Ukraine (October-November 1999).

Viacheslav Chornovil was a famous Soviet dissident (he was imprisoned and exiled a few times), journalist, and politician, who co-founded “The People's Movement of Ukraine” in early 1990-s. Mr. Chornovil was very popular with the people and a strong competitor to incumbent President Kuchma in coming presidential election. A lot of people were saying at the time that the car crash had been deliberately staged. However, the top officials in almost any country are outside the jurisdiction, and the Ukrainians could not (or didn’t want) to call their leaders to account for that.

Thus, the incumbent President Kuchma and the communist Petro Symonenko met at the presidential elections in Ukraine in October-November 1999. The memory of the communists was very fresh in the nation and Ukrainians (me including) predictably voted for the lesser evil - Mr. Kuchma - for a second term.

Now I think the whole history of Ukraine would have unfolded differently if Vyacheslav Chornovil had been the president. He was a real personality and a great patriot of Ukraine.

Now, many years after these events, Ukrainians keep voting not for the best of a few “good” candidates, but for the less “bad” one. Americans first encountered this phenomenon probably in 2016. Really, whom to vote for if you don't like both candidates?

Once I realized that voting for the "lesser evil" is stupid because in that case you get the "evil" anyway. And then, the legally elected "evil" is taking over the country, so why did you vote? And who do you blame after for your troubles? It is better not to vote at all.

At the end of the 1990s there was a big construction boom in Kyiv. Kyiv City State Administration was headed by former first deputy chairman of a major construction holding company of Ukraine Oleksandr Omelchenko in 1996, who also became a mayor of the city in 1999.

Real estate prices went up sharply. For example, in 1996 I bought a $15K apartment in one of the residential districts of Kyiv and sold it for $96K in 2004. The center of the city was built up with skyscrapers in ugly way from my subjective point of view. There were a lot more people and cars in Kyiv, many more traffic jams, and people began to quarrel with each other.

I began to fall out of love with my beloved city.

(to be continued)

P.S. Dear Reader! I am very much interested in your opinion on the subject of this article. Please, write a comment or ask a question if you want to clarify something.
Igor Chykalov
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