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Journal of Democracy 12.4 (2001) 57-64
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Ten Years After the Soviet Breakup
Sovereignty and Uncertainty in Ukraine
As they emerged from the wreckage of the old Soviet Union, all the non-Russian republics confronted the same triad of mighty tasks: consolidate statehood, reform the economy, and establish democracy. The test was and is formidable. Each republic has had to lay a firm foundation for sovereign statehood and overhaul a Moscow-run command economy while learning to conduct its political life according to internationally recognized principles of freedom and democracy.
As the largest of the non-Russian republics, Ukraine has always been a bellwether of sorts. Its success at handling these three simultaneous "revolutions" and posing a counterweight to Moscow has been crucial in preventing the resurgence of Russia as an imperial power. As it passes its tenth anniversary as an independent state, Ukraine presents a mixed picture of achievements and setbacks.
When Ukraine declared its independence and took its place among the self-governing countries of the world on 24 August 1991, the prognosis for success on all three fronts was not very favorable. At the time, many analysts thought that Ukraine's strongest suit would be economic reform. A much-quoted Deutsche Bank study pointed to the country's well-developed industrial base, its mineral wealth, and its resourceful, highly skilled people as reasons to think that Ukraine would soon become the leading economic performer among all the post-Soviet economies.
By contrast, many commentators rated the likelihood that Ukraine [End Page 57] would maintain its independence as rather low. Ukraine's last prolonged experience as an independent state had been in the seventeenth century. Unlike the Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians, who had enjoyed a period of independence between the world wars, nearly all of Ukraine's people had no memory of anything but life in a Russian-dominated state. (The only exceptions were the Western Ukrainians who had lived under Polish rule during the interwar period.)
Compared with non-Slavs such the Armenians, Georgians, and Azeris, and even the Turkic peoples of Central Asia, Ukrainians were also at a disadvantage in terms of defining a coherent national identity. With a language, religious traditions, and culture so similar to what is found in Russia, nationally conscious Ukrainians were hard-pressed to convince many of their own compatriots--let alone a skeptical outside world--that Ukraine could carve out its own independent identity as a state, even though it was the most populous of the "hidden nations" of the Soviet Union.
Contrary to these expectations, the eve of its tenth anniversary finds Ukraine a securely independent state, enjoying a sovereignty that has never come seriously into question. Ukraine traced the same trajectory as most of the other post-Soviet states by rapidly creating the institutions of statehood where previously there had been none. In addition to forming a separate judicial system and government, including a fully functioning foreign ministry, Ukraine moved quickly to establish its own army and navy, national bank, and currency, declared Kyiv its capital, and wasted little time in gathering around itself all the usual trappings of independent statehood.
Meanwhile, the breakup of the Soviet Union was causing alarm in influential Western circles. The boundaries that had marked out the 15 constituent republics of the USSR became the national frontiers of the new states. Worried that the ethnic-Russian minorities now "trapped" in other states and separated from their homeland would rise up against their new non-Russian rulers, or that Russia itself would go to war to defend its nationals in what Russians had begun to call the "near abroad," some feared that the whole vast region might soon be ablaze with armed strife. All eyes were on Ukraine. As the old USSR's second-most populous republic, and one with a 22 percent ethnic-Russian population, hundreds of Soviet-era nuclear missiles, and a long shared frontier with Russia, its situation seemed especially critical. How would the new-old borders hold up? How would the two major ethnic groups get along?
The Crimean peninsula, which...