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Report of meeting on 19th February 2004 at St Ethelburga’s Centre
Roland Smith, British Ambassador to Ukraine from 1999 until 2002, spoke on the subject of “Ukraine Phoenix”. He said he had chosen the title because Ukraine was an ancient country but one which had only very recently again become an independent state. Ukraine should also be thought of as a borderland between different worlds – that was the meaning of its name.
Ukraine was bigger than France, with a population of about 48.5 million, which however was tending to decline. Three-quarters of the population were ethnic Ukrainians, while Russians were the biggest ethnic minority – although the distinction between an ethnic Russian citizen of Ukraine and an ethnic Ukrainian whose first language was Russian was not a very clear one.
Kievan Rus had been an important independent state in the tenth century, and baptism of its people as Orthodox Christians in 988 had been one of the decisive events in the history of Eastern Europe. But subsequently there had been long periods of foreign domination, and only in 1991, with the end of the Soviet Union, had the modern independent state been established under President Kravchuk. Kravchuk had been replaced by President Kuchma, former director of a ballistic missile plant, through an election in 1994. Kuchma had been re-elected in 1999.
The Ukrainian constitution provided for both a directly elected president and a prime minister who required the approval of parliament. But parliament did not work very well because most political parties were weak, and members of parliament frequently changed their allegiance. After the 2002 election, it had looked for a short time as though an alliance of reformers led by former Prime Minister (and Central Bank Governor) Victor Yushchenko might have a parliamentary majority, but instead the pro-presidential forces had held on to power. The present Prime Minister was the former governor of the Donetsk oblast, Victor Yanukovych. He, Yushchenko, and the Communist leader Symonenko, were seen as the main contenders for the presidential election in the autumn of this year. The Constitutional Court had recently ruled that Kuchma would be eligible to stand again, but he had said he would not do so, and appeared to be aiming instead at limiting the future power of the presidency, possibly with a view to retaining the real power himself by becoming prime minister.
On attaining independence, Ukraine could have become a Nuclear Weapon State, as one of the successor states of the Soviet Union. But it had chosen not to do so – all nuclear weapons had been dismantled or transferred to Russia, and Ukraine had acceded to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Ukraine had inherited a major arms industry from the Soviet Union, and was a significant military exporter – there had also been several allegations of illicit exports, for example of a military radar to Iraq. Its own military forces were weakened by years of under-funding.
The country had an unusual military relationship with Russia, whose Black Sea Fleet continued to be based at Sevastopol, which was in Ukraine. At the same time, Ukraine had declared its aspiration to join NATO. It was active in the Partnership for Peace, held annual military exercises with the UK and Poland, and played a significant role in peacekeeping – there were over 1500 Ukrainians serving in Iraq.
Ukraine was at peace with all its neighbours, and had resolved virtually all issues regarding the delimitation of its borders. It had also not suffered from any serious internal inter-ethnic conflict, contrary to some predictions made at the time of independence. It thus constituted a bulwark of stability and peace in a significant area of Europe.
The economy had experienced major problems after independence. The country was dependent on imported energy from Russia, and when these began to be charged at world market prices, the adjustment had been very difficult for Ukraine. There had been hyper-inflation (over 10,000% in 1993), although the currency had subsequently been stabilized – this had been Yushchenko’s major achievement as Central Bank Governor. Unemployment was high, especially taking into account concealed unemployment. There was a great deal of poverty, and there had been a significant fall in expectation of life for men. There had been an enormous increase in HIV infection. However, after shrinking sharply during the 1990’s, the economy had begun to grow again from 2000 onwards. But there had been a failure to attract significant Western investment, not least because of the problem of corruption; and the enlargement of the European Union up to Ukraine’s western borders would bring new problems for the Ukrainian economy.
The human rights record had been at best patchy. The death penalty had been abolished. But the problem of corruption affected much of society, including the judiciary. There were many allegations of the misuse of the state apparatus to promote sectional interests, the electronic media were dominated by pro-presidential forces, and there was serious interference with the freedom of the rest of the media, of which the murder of the journalist Georgiy Gongadze (regarding which there had been allegations of presidential involvement) was only the most egregious example.
For the future, much would depend on the outcome of this year’s presidential election. Britain and other Western European countries had a strong interest in trying to ensure that this was conducted in as fair and democratic a manner as possible.
Questions and Discussion
1. How much Russian influence is there in Ukraine today?
Ans: The Russians have bought up a good many Ukrainian commercial enterprises. But the language is a key indicator. Whereas Belarus abandoned the attempt to make its own language an official language, and has reverted to Russian, in Ukraine, Ukrainian is the only official language. The independence of Ukraine is recognised as a fact by Russia. But the influence of the Confederation of Independent States (CIS) is important, and Russia wants Ukraine to be bound closely into this.
2. What about Ukraine’s hopes of joining NATO and even the EU?
Ans: Ukraine has stated publicly that it wishes to join both, though it recognises that in each case a long period of preparation is bound to be needed.
3. Why did Ukraine not get the whole of the Soviet Black Sea fleet?
Ans: Russia of course has a Black Sea coast, so needs some naval assets in the Black Sea. You could argue that since Russia got a share of the Black Sea fleet, Ukraine should have got some share of other former Soviet fleets. But the result would have been absurd, and in fact Ukraine could not have afforded to finance even the whole Black Sea fleet.
Is there recruitment of younger officers into the Ukrainian military today, or are all the officers still left over from the Soviet era?
Ans: The Ukrainian Ministry of Defence is almost wholly staffed by the military, and these officers are mostly old enough to have served in the Soviet forces. To this extent defence policy is shaped by the ‘old guard’. This situation will not change quickly. But younger blood is gradually coming in. Over time, the Partnership for Peace will have its effect in changing attitudes. Britain has played its part through joint exercises, and by bringing Ukrainian officers here for training courses.
5. What about the organisation of agriculture? After all, Ukraine was a bread-basket.
Ans: In principle farming has been privatised. In practice many of the old members of ‘collectives’ still work together. There is a big need to teach private farmers how to run their own farms, and deal with the financing of them. The UK has helped to run schemes for this purpose. In the end Ukraine will once again be a major food producer.
6. Is there any migration of the Ukrainian diaspora back into Ukraine?
Ans: As an example, there are many Ukrainians in Canada, and some Canadian businessmen of Ukrainian origin have tried to go back, but they have mostly not settled. More Ukrainians are still coming to the West than vice versa.
Is Ukraine really a ‘phoenix’, given its failure to join NATO or the EU? Is there a danger of irridentism, given the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Poles in Lviv etc?
Ans: On the whole, Ukraine is a relatively peaceful country, without much ethnic conflict. At the period you are talking about, many ethnic Ukrainian were also moved from Poland into Ukraine. Ukraine is a phoenix because it has re-emerged as an independent state. At present it does not give us much to worry about, and it is in our interest that it should succeed as an independent country, since the alternative might be the re-creation of the Russian Empire, which would be bad for Europe.
8. Is there much internal pressure for a more democratic arrangement in Ukraine?
Ans: Yes, and the 2004 Presidential election is very important here. A lot of Ukrainians understand the working of democratic systems, and the value of human rights etc. But there are lots of vested interests, which prefer the current, rather inadequate level of democracy. Nevertheless there are grounds for moderate optimism in this respect.
9. What about the problem of Moldova?
Ans: I had no responsibility for Moldova, but the situation there is of considerable concern to Ukraine, since it is a neighbouring state. Transdniestria has staged a breakaway, and is an area where there are a lot of Russian troops, but also an area afflicted by criminals and mafia-like gangs. The rest of Moldova has close ties to Romania. In the worst case, Moldova could break apart, which would be destabilising.