• Ucraina
Ucraina1 2 3 4 5 6


versione italiana


(published in the monthly nesmagazine “Galatea”, November 2001)

Ten years after independence, Europe is still far

Ukraine, a half nation

Frontier and conquest land, the scene of all the battles that affected the mother and stepmother, Russia, Ukraine has not yet chosen its identity, and remains suspended between East and West, between democracy and dictatorship, between misery and nobility. Journey into the shadow line that prevents an Europe "from the Atlantic to the Urals"

Kiev central station seems a theater waiting for a grand opening. The anniversary of independence is going on stage: August 24, 2001, ten years of post-Soviet history. There is a feverish coming and going of workers, masons, technicians, some puzzled travelers, onlookers looking around (some are clearly tipsy), bored cops. You move from the old track with old-fashioned cars to futuristic bright steel shelters, including dust, fresh paint, telephones still wrapped in plastic. Work in progress, but you could say "tests of the nation": Ukraine seems to want to shrug off the patina of decadence that surrounds the imperial look of the enormous palaces, pompous monuments of real socialism, the wide boulevard, the bridges over Dnieper River, which make Kiev a beautiful and imposing capital. In two weeks (before and after Independence Day) you pass from the train times written in chalk on a blackboard, updated, and declaimed by an employee who seems to be a schoolteacher, to electronic display with notices written in Ukrainian, Russian and English. But the inefficiency and arrogance of officials of the railways, who do not know a word of any language other than Ukrainian (or Russian), is completely unchanged. Making a train ticket, or simply finding the track is a remarkable, almost maddening job. It is hard to call abroad, send a letter, change and withdraw money. Yet modernity, at least in Kiev, seems to prevail: there are computers and cell phones, satellite dishes and luxury cars, flashy advertising and fashion clothes. For this reason, Ukrainian reality seems designed especially to power a bitter humor like that of Dovlatov (journalist in Soviet times, then a writer in the U.S.), author of the amazing "Compromises". The many compromises that the poor Soviet, now just Ukrainian citizen, must reach still now with a dull, militaristic, often corrupt to the core bureaucracy. All in all it is better with the police, there is very little police around, wherever there is an atmosphere of calm and you feel the cloak of oppression described by many correspondents, too much gloomy when they talk about this country. Bureaucrats' mentality spreads all the service sector, and that is definitely larger than the gap in our post-industrial societies or of "advanced services". On the other hand, an Ukrainian worker in four is a farmer, then there are the mines and heavy industries (many of which are converted military factories). And here is not about business class, but about "oligarchs", just as in Russia. The political class got hold of many of collective resources and strategic areas (first of all energy now telecommunications), it took advantage of the large devaluations of national currencies and the ruble followed the end of the USSR for great speculation (putting the booty safe in Western banks), sometimes it launched into illegal activities. The result is clear: passive and weak civil society on the one hand, little sense of the State on the other. Ukrainians seem people in a queue, obediently waiting to be abused and exploited by everyone who should work for them (judges, police officers, postmen, telephone operators, and so on). A petty corruption like a banana republic, in a German order. Impeccable uniforms and scoundrel behavior, since the border with Hungary. Distinguished old ladies picking up the beer bottles from the bar tables. Other distinguished ladies who give you the company of "Ukrainian beautiful girls". Ukrainians get drunk without mess. At the big parade of the independence day, organized with great fanfare, almost no one applaud. The markets are crowded but silent. The stadium of the glorious Dynamo Kiev is virtually unattended (you can reach the field, because there is none) and the ticket offices are closed two days before a "Champion's League" match. At night, most of the capital remains without lighting to save energy. In the morning, before nine, there are very few people around. In other words, this nation seems to suffer from a latent collective depression. I wonder if this explains a strange world record of Ukraine, the deaths by ictus. Surely other statistics (which are similar to those of many former Soviet republics) better describe the discomfort of Eastern Europeans. In Ukraine they have few children, the zero growth is already an accomplished fact for years, as well as the progressive aging of the population, which has begun to decrease ( Ukrainians are currently 52 million, not counting those in the Diaspora). Ukraine is at record levels (just behind the United States and Russia) for the number of divorces. And strangely it is one of the countries in the world with more women than men (the ratio is 100 to 88). Ukrainian women. Tall, blond, athletic, walking alone with a safe pace, between pride and dissatisfaction. Ukrainian trend points strongly on sexy: high heels, dizzying slits, abundant neckline, bare navels. Cinderellas are dressed like femme fatale, waiting for a Prince Charming to bring them away, in a more glittering world, a richer future. Away from a country they judge sad, even if the worst of the economic crisis is behind them, Ukraine has an economically painful th recovery, and the human development index is more than decent (52 place in the world, on par with Mexico). But the sadness of "Little Russians" (as anciently Ukrainians were called) comes from afar, from a tragic past of submission and the inability or the failure of rebellion. Ukraine is geographically split into two by the mighty Dnieper River basin, and this line divided it between Russia and Poland in 1667. Namely, conquered by a nation (Poland) destined to turn several times to be subject to divisions, always between German and Russian appetites. But Ukrainian nationalism, recited by the poet Taras Shevchenko in the nineteenth century (the most popular hero here), has always been loser, unlike Polish one. A darkly Slavic nationalism, steeped in anti-Semitism, as correctly Gad Lerner noted in his recent reportage about Ukraine: the dream of an independent nation "had to fight against too many enemies, finally finding in Jews the most comfortable target". Even the October Revolution sacrificed Ukraine on the altar of realpolitik: People's Republic, proclaimed in 1917, had an ephemeral life. Lenin was to save the fragile Bolshevik regime from German invasion, and he closed the eastern front by signing the humiliating Treaty of Brest- Litovsk: the country was completely divested to Kaiser Wilhelm's Germany. The end of World War I transformed Ukraine in the real field of battle between the Bolsheviks and the White generals for two years, with the final victory of the first and the creation (1922) of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, of which Ukraine was founding member. The alliance with Russia in the name of Communism is part of the political historical DNA of Ukraine and it largely explains the current situation and the deep differences with other former Soviet republics. There was not a real historical precedent of independence, even briefly, such as in Georgia, where the independence movement was created directly by the constitution of 1918. Nor we can say that the Sovietization occurred with a military conquest, as the Baltic republics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), annexed to the Soviet power in 1939. There were not even the ethnic and cultural differences that somehow saved the Soviet republics of Central Asia. No, Ukraine paid so much, it always paid, it knew all the misfortunes of Russians without having the (limited) benefits. Thus, the advent of Stalinism and the end of the NEP (New Economic Policy, the policy of compromise desired by pragmatic Lenin to overcome the ravages of civil war) caused to Ukraine incurable wounds. Here, in the fertile black soil, known as the "breadbasket of Europe", kulaks were concentrated, small and medium landowners, against which the wrath of Stalin fell. To collectivize the land and give priority to forced industrialization kulaks and bourgeoisie were listed as enemies and killed, deported, starved to death. Millions. Ukraine in the Thirties lost its entire ruling class, and most of the active population. The drama of this wretched nation was not yet finished: the Nazi occupation in 1941, the country suffered the tragedy of World War II on the bloodiest front ever (no state had so many victims like the Soviet Union). About six million Ukrainians died during the conflict. A fatal bond, the one with Russia, with communism. Here the regime was more repressive and harder than elsewhere. Every resurgence of "dissidence" was canceled by the secretary of the Communist Party of Ukraine, Vladimir Sherbitsky, a loyalist of Brezhnev. In Kiev or in St. Petersburg (Putin government's forge), the KGB was the hardest and most reactionary of all the USSR. Gorbachev's perestroika never arrived in Ukraine, and Sherbitsky remained quietly in his place until 1989. The only real crack in the monolithic Soviet regime in Ukraine came from Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. The shameful concealment of the truth, admitted only after the reaction in the West for the famous radioactivity "cloud" that threatened all Europe, led to the birth of the first real opposition movements in the country. There were three key questions posed by critics of the communist regime: the independence from Moscow, religious freedom and the improvement of living conditions of workers. These three instances reflected the different souls of Ukraine, and still constitute factors of alliance or division in a very confused political scene. Ukrainian nationalism was born and took root especially in the western regions and cities. Its stronghold was and remains Lviv, where a strong historical influence of Poland is. Here, the Ukrainian Catholics (also called Uniate, or Eastern Catholic Rite) openly challenged the regime in 1989, getting, together with the Ukrainian Orthodox church (as opposed to the Moscow Patriarchate), recognition of Gorbachev. Instead, east of Dnieper, where Russian presence is stronger, the protest was carried out by the miners and workers, as social demands. But dividing the country into two (the poorer and agricultural anti-Russian, anti-Communist and most Catholic west; the richest industrialized most Orthodox east, a friend of Moscow) is a so easily schematic to be false. In fact, Ukraine failed to make any clear choice, either in terms of leadership, either in terms of people. In the spring 1991, seventy per cent of Ukrainian voters voted "yes" to Gorbachev's proposal for a renewed federation (in which Ukraine would have greater autonomy). During the August coup in Moscow, which would have marked the end of the Soviet Union, the leader of the Communist Party of Ukraine Kravchuk hesitated to take a stand. When Yeltsin got the better of coup leaders, the Soviet Ukraine finally decided to declare independence. And in the presidential elections of December Kravchuk, despite being the last leader of the Soviet Republic, was elected with an overwhelming majority (62 percent), helped by divisions of an opposition side that presented five candidates. What's more, Ukrainian Communist Party, banned in late 1991 (following Russian policy), is in 1994 elections and wins hands down. Meanwhile, Kravchuk called a technician at the head of the government, Leonid Kuchma. Kuchma is an engineer who has conducted a missile factory for years. As head of the government he must pursue difficult economic reforms. He is a pragmatic determined man, considered close to Moscow, more than President Kravchuk, who represented the nationalist wing within the Communist Party. In presidential election of 1994, Kuchma and Kravchuk come to the run-off, the cat and the fox: at the end Kuchma wins, and he start a dispute with the parliament to increase his already large institutional powers. After a long wheeling and dealing they finally get the approval of the new constitution in 1996, which accentuates the character of presidential republic. Before then, they managed with the old Soviet institutions, especially with aberrant results for the independence of the judiciary. At the time of the USSR in fact, Justice was the instrument at the service of political power to implement the crackdown: the citizen of Ukraine today is careful not to bring his issues before the court, and this increases the space for illegality. And precisely the issues of justice holding court, in Ukraine in recent years. The political life is more stagnant than ever. President Kuchma, elected in 1999, dominates the situation and points strongly to the third consecutive presidential term. The Communist Party remains the strongest, as far from an absolute majority. The rest is a mix of parties that fail to form a credible coalition in parliamentary elections in 2002. Indeed, the divisions are multiplied: the Rukh, which led the democratic opposition in the late eighties, and represents the most serious alternative, is effectively split into three factions. There are then four socialist parties, three Social Democrats, a second Communist Party and various nationalist groups (although only eight parties passed the electoral threshold of 4 percent in the last election). Then there are the so-called "independents", who basically represent themselves and the college that elected them: they are 136 (in practice the relative majority) of 450 MPs, mostly businessmen, who have money to pay for election campaigns and they are always ready to change the jacket (like the others for that matter). Alberto Stabile, a correspondent for "Repubblica", calculated that, from 1998, there have been 528 steps from one grid to another. These MPs are the real supporters of Kuchma (who has no party behind him) and they would sell themselves for a fee ranging from 10 thousand to 30 thousand dollars, plus a "monthly" wage of two or three thousand dollars. In this swamp, passively endured by Ukrainians, the rock of "Gongadze affair" fell. Georgi Gongadze, a native Georgian, was a journalist of 38 years unknown to the masses, attacking the"oligarchs" with his investigations published on a website. Died in September of 2000, he was found decapitated a few months later, and it was quickly realized that this was an "excellent" murder. You could understand this for the slowness of the judiciary, which has done everything to cover up the investigation and close the case. And when a bodyguard of Kuchma, Melnychenko, a refugee in the United States, pulled out of the recordings of the threats of the President to Gongadze ("Get rid of him..."), the opposition took to the street. The clash with the police was particularly violent, the demonstrators tried to attack the parliament. You had never seen anything like it around here, and the chaos in quiet Kiev attracted the attention of the western media thinking about a popular uprising, an insurrection against the president-tyrant, like Milosevic in Belgrade. Nothing of that. To really shake Ukrainians it takes more. Within a few weeks the calm was back, and maybe it's better that way. Because changing a president, does not change a nation (which, over all, elected that President). As posting all Kuchma charges does not guarantee freedom of the press. The whole system must be reformed, and above all people must change their mentality. Some political leaders seem to understand it, first of all, Viktor Yushchenko, a former central bank governor and former prime minister, convinced reformer, who is ahead in the political polls of the moment, and could represent a viable alternative of Kuchma in the upcoming presidential. Leading the protests were mostly Alexander Moroz and Julia Timoshenko. The first is the leader of the Socialists, who have more moderate positions than the communist regarding state-run of the economy and the alliance with Russia; he already presented himself twice for president, losing (the last time on the ballot). Julia Timoshenko is an oligarch of the gas sector, and the manner of her management assures the sympathies of the Western financial world. But she comes from a powerful but corrupt elite, and the accusations against her (and against her husband, who was arrested and recently released) are really a lot. The political battle is conducted as following: accusations, allegations, revelations. A few ideas and a lot of press (or headlines). The latest scandal, in order of time, is about the revelations of an alleged bribe to Kuchma by former Prime Minister Pavel Lazarenko, currently in the U.S., already accused of money laundering in 1998 and arrested for trying to enter Switzerland with a false Panamanian passport. Lazarenko is linked to "Kyivstar", a major mobile phone companies in Ukraine. Once again, the policy seems to be the continuation of business.. This is the general picture of ten years of independence. Perhaps that is why there is not a great enthusiasm in celebrating independence, despite the triumphal parade (from tanks to floats, from rocket launchers to the collective choreography) and although Kiev has also been restored in record time. We go away from Ukraine with the desire to reach the border, to find a less apparent and more real "normality". The dream of an Europe "from the Atlantic to the Urals" (as defined by De Gaulle) is still far away. Just as the coveted border with Hungary. Europe as we know, for now, it stops there.
Cesare Sangalli