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The Washington Quarterly 25.1 (2002) 175-192

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Ukraine's Bid for a Decisive Place in History

Carlos Pascual and Steven Pifer

For much of the last millennium, Ukraine as a state was more a vision of its people than a political reality. Rule came from abroad and initiative was repressed--until 1991. In that year, Ukraine split from the Soviet Union and gained its best chance to establish itself as a sovereign and independent state. Across the nation, millions of people formed a human chain in a call for freedom. Ten years later, Ukraine has established its independence and strengthened what was, in the early 1990s, a fragile nation-state. The character of that independent Ukraine is still evolving: how free a society, how strong its democratic values, how competitive its economy, how deep the rule of law, how much a prisoner of corruption?

Accomplishments and disappointments have filled the last 10 years. For most of that time, the Ukrainian people suffered a crushing economic contraction that wiped away their savings and cut their incomes by more than half. Yet as a nation, Ukraine held together, as if by some innate belief, produced through a thousand years of Ukrainian culture, that being Ukrainian meant something. Ukrainians often felt disappointed that the West did not help more. The West often resented that Ukraine did not make more of its assistance. Ten years later, we need to understand these clashing perspectives and use that knowledge to advance a shared goal of Ukraine as a democratic, market-oriented, and prosperous European state.

If any lesson has been learned, it is that Ukraine's future is its own to define. Outsiders can help or hinder, but their impact is marginal. The principal choices are Ukraine's to make. Never before has Ukraine been able to make this claim. Never before has Ukraine shouldered such responsibility for itself. [End Page 175] Politically, there is really no middle road. Ukraine must either walk with the civilized world as a responsible democracy, or its indecision will isolate it. Indications are that Ukraine's leaders understand this choice and are taking sound steps in their foreign policy, but in the long term, the success of Ukraine's foreign policy will depend on domestic choices--the political and economic character of the Ukrainian state. These traits will fundamentally shape Ukraine's possibilities as a partner in the Euro-Atlantic community.

From a U.S. perspective, this article charts some of the lessons of the past and issues for the future. Ironically, the next 25 years are perhaps easier to predict than the next 10 years. Imagining a state as large as Ukraine, given its history and culture, and with such natural and human resources, as anything other than European is difficult. The big question is which path Ukraine will take to reach that goal--an easy path or a difficult one. The choices that Ukraine's leaders make now will determine that path and will have major consequences for the Ukrainian people.

A National Transformation

How to assess Ukraine and its prospects depends on how one understands the process of change during the past 10 years. One must recall that Soviet Ukraine was no more than part of an authoritarian, oppressive empire. The state controlled every economic entity from defense monoliths to corner bread stores. Corruption was a way of life: petty corruption to get by; wholesale corruption enriching the privileged few. Suppression was the watchword for politics. There were no press freedoms, only one party, and no semblance of civil society. Human rights and religious freedoms were routinely trounced. Moscow defined political and economic life. The needs and interests of the state--as a handful of people at the top determined--were more important than the neglect of the people.

From this starting point, building a modern Ukrainian state was a monumental challenge, and monumental successes have been achieved. In 1996, a new constitution officially revoked Ukraine's Soviet constitution. In 1997, Ukraine and NATO signed a "Distinctive Partnership" agreement. Today, Ukraine annually engages...


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