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Portnikov: Ukraine’s development will resume after crisis caused by Zelenskyy

Vitaly Portnikov: A population that does not fight hard for independence cannot at once start building a state. True state-building efforts in Ukraine began only after the Maidan of 2013-2014. Photo:
Vitaly Portnikov: A population that does not fight hard for independence cannot at once start building a state. True state-building efforts in Ukraine began only after the Maidan of 2013-2014. Photo:
Portnikov: Ukraine’s development will resume after crisis caused by Zelenskyy
Article by: Angelina KOVANDA
Translated by: A. N.

Today’s 40-year-olds have lost the chance to see a truly sovereign and successful Ukraine. If they are lucky, the generation of those who are now 10 years old will see it. It depends on how their parents will vote. We build a state for our children and grandchildren, not for ourselves. By voting for populists, we hinder this process. Journalist and political observer Vitaly Portnikov says in an interview he gave to the Ukrainian publication

Today, Ukrainians are only starting to determine what our statehood should look like. There are contradictions in the society here. People represent the path of the country’s development differently, Vitaly Portnikov believes. For some, the state is, first and foremost, an identity, like a shelter for those who want to be Ukrainian. For others, it is an economic formation that should bring prosperity to its citizens. There are also those who are aware that these options need to be combined. They want to build a classic European power that would be the refuge for Ukrainian-ness. And they understand that it has be economically prosperous, non-corrupt and democratic. Ukraine’s successful future lies precisely in combining these factors. After all, without identity, the question arises: why do we need independence at all? Why can’t we be part of the Russian Federation? The country-refuge of the Ukrainians must develop effectively as a socio-economic organism. Efforts must be made to do this.

What are the achievements in the way of development of the Ukrainian state for 28 years?

– A large part of the society has emerged that is aware of the need to build a state for the Ukrainian people, a democratic and European one. Such people do not make up the majority of the population. But when independence was proclaimed in 1991, most future Ukrainian citizens did not understand what it was. A few months prior, they had voted in favor of the so-called renewed Soviet Union.

There was almost no economic restructuring in Ukraine. It was the most conservative population in the USSR. This was because of the repression, the Holodomor, the victory of the Bolsheviks in the Civil War. In our post-Soviet conditions, most of the current population of the former Soviet republics are descendants of the winners in that war for power after the monarchy was destroyed in Russia. The defeated, whose descendants could have been the builders of the modern Ukrainian state, have practically disappeared from the face of the Earth. They were destroyed during the Civil War, the following occupation of Ukraine and further repressions. This led to degradation of the population. The consequences are noticeable even today. They are affecting elections all the time.

Is awareness of the people’s need to have its own state irreversible?

– Yes. But we do not know in what borders the Ukrainian state will exist within in the future. We always treat a country’s territory as a constant. However, historically, European countries have often changed their borders according to the circumstances and moods of the population. Today, we actually control a smaller area than in 1991 because of the occupation of Crimea and Donbas. It is possible that the Russian Federation will take over our other lands. Then the future independent Ukraine will be territorially different. Most of our population, especially those who do not really want to be Ukrainian, will become Russian.

The formation of an independent Ukraine is irreversible. But it may be in other borders, with a different population and different ideas about its future.

We need politicians who will be willing to sacrifice their ratings to effect reforms

What should we do first of all to accelerate the final achievement of Ukraine’s independence?

– It is necessary to continue to strengthen the cultural, historical, and linguistic national identity. Without this, there is no need at all to build an independent Ukraine. We can just end the war and become part of the Russian Federation. After all, there is no difference between Ukrainians without an identity and Russians. Russian-speaking Ukraine is very close to modern Russia.

The second task is the work on restoring the territorial integrity of the country and ending the war.

The third one is economic and social reforms. Conditions for growth should be created. These reforms need not be popular. They can lead to a temporary decline in the standard of living of the population. We need politicians who can sacrifice their poll ratings to effect such reforms. Without this, Ukraine will forever be an outsider to the global economy. We have already fallen behind so much that we are unlikely to be a rich country. However, we can be a state that lives by the rules.

What opportunities have we lost [by avoiding reforms] for the 28 years [since Ukraine became independent]?

– A million of them. However, it is not certain that they are lost irrevocably. In 1991, we had Soviet population, which did not comprehend how to build an independent state at all. The Ukrainian independence at the time was not the result of real political achievements of citizens. This was a consequence of the collapse of the Soviet empire. We received a historic chance. But a population that does not persistently fight for independence cannot at once start building a state.

True state-building efforts began only after the Maidan of 2013-2014 [EuroMaidan]. With the victory of Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his party “Servant of the People” in the elections, this process was put on pause. The construction of statehood will begin again after an imminent acute political and social crisis. Zelenskyy’s presidency will inevitably lead to one. The population has to get a “vaccine” from populism. In terms of such imminent trials, Zelenskyy’s government will be positive.

Where does the Revolution of Dignity stand within the modern history of Ukraine?

– It is impossible to interpret not combining it with Russia’s subsequent military aggression. If the aggression did not take place, the Revolution of Dignity would have been just another uprising, which the Ukrainians arrange fairly regularly. They do not lead to radical social and political changes. After the Maidan, the Kremlin did not withstand the nerves and demonstrated Russia’s true attitude towards Ukraine. This gave the Ukrainians a real chance to build a true statehood. Even in the future this process will be conceptually linked to the Russian attack on Ukraine and the understanding that the Russian Federation is not a brotherly country.

What is the biggest threat to Ukraine?

– It is the Ukrainians themselves, that part of the nation that is not ready to build a full-fledged statehood. For them, the national identity is of little value as compared to their economic well-being. This makes further development of Ukraine quite hard, slows it down.

Our statehood is conditioned by the historical process. However, any vote for populists eliminates the possibility of creating an independent, sovereign, successful country. Those who are 40 today have already lost the chance to see such Ukraine. If they are lucky, the generation of those who are now 10 will see it. It depends on how their parents will vote.

Ukraine remains a typical post-Soviet political formation

How has civil society changed since 1991?

– Back then it was a small bud. And now there are a lot of people who really feel like citizens of their country. They are active and ready to fight for the future. Their number will increase every year. But they will never become the majority of the population.

Ukrainian soldier. Photo:

Have power and political culture changed?

– There is less progress here. Ukraine remains a typical post-Soviet political formation. Our citizens are still infected with paternalistic sentiments. To change this, we need radical economic reforms. Then a class of owners will be formed in Ukraine who have something to lose. Today, the majority of the population owns nothing. Such people cannot build a state. They have nothing to protect. Without a radical economic change, we will remain a third-world country with a poor and irresponsible population.

Have we managed to break out of Russia’s sphere of influence? In political, cultural, and informational sense.

– The political break was quite significant. However, there remains still a large proportion of citizens under Russian influence. The results of the last election showed this. If Crimea and Donbas were not occupied and could vote, the traditional division of the population of Ukraine would have been preserved. One half focuses on the West and the civilized world, while the other half – on Russia. Some of those who chose the pro-European vector did so only because they were better off living there. They do not share Western values. This is a big problem. We need to work with these people proving to them that values ​​are the main thing. They lead to a good life. We need to convince the pro-Russian part of the population too. Try to pry them out of the embrace of the “Russian world.” It is not the fact that it will work out. One day it may be necessary to state that pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian citizens are simply not capable of building a single state. I have an assumption that sooner or later we will be forced to draw such a conclusion. Then the territory of Ukraine will decrease.

It is necessary to look soberly at the future. The soothing conversations of politicians about a united country make no sense when people do not share common values, and some of the population still consider Russia the homeland. This prevents the state from moving forward. Unless we make a decision, we will always be a buffer zone between the Russian Federation and the civilized world. In this case, Project Ukraine is doomed to failure.

We have to become an ordinary European country that will allow the population to be Ukrainian. This is the only mission of the State of Ukraine.

Do we have an elite? Who is this? What is its role?

– No, we do not, because it appears only when people have something to protect in terms of identity and property. We do have people who have political status and occupy important positions. They are replaced by others. The elite is a consequence of social, political and economic processes that have not yet taken place in our country. First and foremost, it is the formation of a layer of owners. So far, only four oligarchs – Rinat Akhmetov, Ihor Kolomoyskyi, Viktor Pinchuk and Dmitro Firtash – can be named elite. They appoint presidents, deputies, agree among themselves on the political situation in the state. In these four figures, the elite ends and the role-players begin.

Cultural figures in Ukraine, who are also considered elite, do not enjoy the confidence of the majority of the population. In civilized countries, such people are moral authorities. And in Ukraine, they are just ones who are engaged in intellectual activity. To be true elite the society should invest them with a level of authority, so they would not just be people who write books or sing well.

What is the greatest potential of our state?

– We can become an ordinary European country that will allow the population to be Ukrainian. This is the sole mission of the State of Ukraine. France, Germany, Poland and other countries perform the same function. Well-being, economy is a derivative of that.

Do Ukrainians have any special national traits?

– All peoples are exactly the same. Ukrainians are no better or worse. So-called special features are fiction. The difference is only in the political, historical and social conditions of their development. Therefore, we have a country that is still a museum, a monument to the past. Most of our compatriots are exhibits of the 18th century. Therefore, we must do everything to make our children part of the modern world.

Could historical lessons of the past be a guide in the process of building Ukrainian independence?

– Ukrainian history is now developing in the same way as it did in all the European states. It is impossible to study the mistakes of the time. Today’s Ukrainians need make them themselves to learn state-building and create an independent, democratic country. Even if this path of error and defeats will cost us a terrible price, we have to go through it. Without this, there will never be Ukrainian statehood.

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Translated by: A. N.
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