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Four Years Old, Ukraine Improvises Its Identity

By Igor GreenwaldSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 24, 1995


AMID the fireworks and songfests marking the fourth anniversary of Ukraine's independence, a race will be run here today to celebrate the occasion. Fittingly, it is a half-marathon.

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Ukraine, which has an anthem and a flag but no constitution, has miles to travel toward true statehood.

And just now, the people who have done most to push it toward that goal are looking for their second wind. Nationalists united briefly in their desire to free the country from three centuries of Russian rule. But when the Soviet Union splintered, so did they.

Whether the Soviet empire stays split depends in no small part on the fortunes of these activists. Ukraine's current government has so far met their demand to keep Ukraine out of Russia's broad shadow. But the one-time Soviet bureaucrats who now hold power are recent and halfhearted converts to the nationalist cause.

The fact that they are in power at all says much about the nationalists' problems. In 1991, their broad coalition, Rukh, had the communist apparatchiks running scared. Today, yesterday's heroes watch from the sidelines as the reborn communists steals their slogans and turns them into government policy.

Back then, the nationalists could only dream about some of the strides Ukraine has made since: the shift from Russian to Ukrainian language in education, the turn from Moscow to the West in foreign policy. Of course, back then they dreamed they would be the ones setting the pace.

''The period of political romanticism passed once Ukraine declared its independence. It's very easy to toss off slogans, much harder to turn them into a reality,'' says Mykhailo Horyn, one of the national movement's founders. ''To say that Rukh was riding high, that it could have taken power, I think that was impossible. Rukh wasn't a party.

''We have a large group of Ukrainian intellectuals and businessmen, but very little experience in public administration. To create a national elite in two or three years is virtually impossible. Now we are learning to rule. We are learning to make decisions in Kiev and not in Moscow,'' Mr. Horyn says.

Among the pupils are about 60 nationalist deputies - from several different parties - in Ukraine's parliament. So far, they have learned that they count for little in a 338-member body dominated by the barely-reformed communists.

Nationalists have done better with the country's first two elected presidents: Leonid Kuchma and his predecessor, Leonid Kravchuk. Both shunned nationalist ideas in their campaigns only to adopt many of them once in office.

By and large, those ideas have little in common with the murderous passions now shaking the Balkans. The Ukrainian National Assembly, a far-right party with a penchant for torchlight parades, has a militarized wing, three deputies in parliament but few friends among other nationalists. Many of the mainstream parties are led by former Soviet dissidents who did time in labor camps for monitoring human rights abuses. They preach tolerance for all ideologies and ethnic groups.

These leaders are not good at tolerating each other. Many have left Rukh to start their own tiny parties. Attempts to unify have run into the same unwillingness to compromise that once so frustrated the Soviet security police.

Divided and conquered

Rukh, the largest nationalist party, can claim just 50,000 members. Horyn's Ukrainian Republican Party has 13,000 supporters, which puts it ahead of most others. It is seeking union with the Democratic Party, but the wedding has yet to take place, Horyn grumbles.

To find out why, you have to go to the Democrats' headquarters in an anonymous construction trailer next to a building site. ''To unite means one party would have to end its existence, and that would be a shame. After all, we've been at it for five years now,'' says Hryhoriy Kutsenko, head of the party's secretariat and, as it happens, a former political prisoner.

Mr. Kutsenko calls his 4,000-member group ''a club.'' The building site next door may turn into a building before the ''club'' becomes a real party.

The nationalists are the first to acknowledge that they are not yet ready to take power. Ivan Lozowy, Rukh's director of international relations, hopes the party can triple its current 29 seats in parliament at the elections that will follow adoption of a constitution.