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30 years of independence: how Ukraine’s political landscape changed

Independence Day Parade in Kyiv, Ukraine. 24 August 2021. Photo: Youtube
30 years of independence: how Ukraine’s political landscape changed
Article by: Olena Makarenko
Edited by: Alya Shandra

If Ukraine was a real person, then on its thirtieth birthday it could be described as talented and free, but at the same time infantile. While Ukraine’s recently-born civil society and ordinary people deserve the credit for the first two descriptors, the country’s political scene still lacks responsibility, ideology, and, to some extent, independence. How has Ukraine’s political life evolved over the last 30 years and where it is now?

While formally the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, in fact, this event stretched out over many years. The preconditions for the collapse of the USSR matured gradually, and the development of the newly-formed countries was greatly affected by their past in the repressive superpower. In many aspects, Ukraine is still overcoming its Soviet legacy.

The childhood: Communists, birth of oligarchs

Communists supporters at Maidan, 2014. Photo: Andriy Bashtovyy (RFE/RL)

In the first years of Ukraine’s independence, the Communist Party managed to keep its influence. First and foremost, communists prevented Ukraine from declaring the restoration of its independence — a reference to Ukraine’s ultimately unsuccessful bid for independence after the collapse of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires. These struggles of 1917-1922 ended as most of Ukraine’s contemporary territory was engulfed by the USSR and Poland. 

When the USSR collapsed, ideological bolsheviks still occupied the positions of lawmakers. They would never agree to the term restoration, which suggested that Ukraine’s Soviet period resembled occupation. Therefore, as decisions had to be made fast, pro-Ukrainian forces agreed to a compromise by proclaiming the independence of the country. 

Furthermore, Communist directors retained their seats at the big enterprises, and the party was still represented in parliament. In particular, the Communist Party of Ukraine, which succeeded its Soviet predecessor, was registered in Ukraine in 1993. 

During the 1994 and 1998 parliamentary elections, this party managed to form the biggest faction in Parliament. They lost their primacy only during the 2002 elections, coming in second, not first. 

Over Ukraine’s 30 years of independence, the Communist Party was among just a few political forces with a clear ideology. However, even this ideology was more a facade than real convictions, a tool for getting votes by exploiting nostalgia for the Soviet Union. Another strong ideological force was the People’s Movement of Ukraine which played important role in Ukraine’s state building. In 1998, the national-democratic People’s Movement of Ukraine as a party managed to get to parliament with 9.40% of votes. Later, it suffered division. [This paragraph was edited and supplemented].

Until now, Ukraine’s other big political forces remain rather oligarchic projects. 

Also, in Ukraine’s current composition of parliament, neither right nor left-wing parties are present. The Communist party was banned after Euromaidan and the right-wing Svoboda did not beat the electoral threshold.  

Together with independence, Ukraine received new opportunities, a huge material legacy, and an open question what to do with it. 

The leadership of Ukraine at the time of the 1990s aimed to preserve the Soviet system under the conditions of a market economy. In the Soviet planned economy, material resources were distributed centrally by the state. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine inherited large enterprises, institutions, organizations, and lands that the country was not able to maintain.

Questions appeared about who should own and manage it. This is how the process of privatization started. 

Privatization did not lead to the emergence of an influential layer of small and medium-sized enterprises; it did not become a source of income for the state budget. And during the process, former Soviet Communist party elites managed to return to power, being integrated in the new government. The chaotic and illicit process of the accumulation of private capital led to the creation of large financial-industrial groups which were closely related to government structures. Oligarchs emerged out of these groups. 

The collaboration between the state and oligarchs during this period became the foundation for Ukraine’s modern oligarchy.

Oligarchs became the de-facto ruling class, influencing every area in the country. First and foremost, political life.  

Teenage years: censorship, Orange revolution, and decadence

2004 Orange Revolution. Photo: from  Olena Makarenko

The level of democracy of that period can be best viewed through the example of the media. Among other things, Ukraine’s Soviet inheritance included censorship. While in the first years of independence, Ukraine saw a genuinely free press, media freedoms gradually rolled back in later years, with censorship receiving an updated format. 

It was 2001-2004, during the presidency of Leonid Kuchma, when the so-called “temniki” were popular in Ukrainian media.

The word “temnik” comes from the word “tema” (a topic). “Temniki” were documents sent to Ukrainian editors with pieces of advice resembling orders on how to cover particular topics or whether to cover them at all. In 2003, Human Rights Watch published its research on this hidden censorship. It revealed that temniki required positive coverage for then-president Leonid Kuchma, then head of his administration Viktor Medvedchuk and the members of the SDPU(o) – Social Democratic Party (united). Negative or ambivalent information about them was minimized or absent. At the same time, the news should present oppositional politicians and parties negatively or ignore them completely. The government of that time denied its involvement.

And then the Orange Revolution happened. While the political elites prepared the ground for a successor, Viktor Yanukovych, providing him victory at the 2004 presidential elections through enormous violations, Ukrainian people chose another candidate — the pro-democracy candidate Viktor Yushchenko — and came to the streets to protest the official results of the elections. 

The Orange Revolution became a life-turning event that gave the Ukrainian people an understanding of their power and their influence. As well, the above-mentioned temniki, in general, ceased to exist. However, particular political forces put all their efforts into dividing society. In their rethorics, representatives of Yanukovuch’s Party of Regions divided Ukraine into an orange camp with the capital in Kyiv, and a blue one, following the colors of their party, which dominated in the eastern regions. 

As well, using their media resources, these political forces promoted the narratives of alleged oppression of the Russian language, that the industrial Donbas worked hard to feed the whole country, and most importantly that the Party of Regions stood up for the people of Donbas. Its large-scale corruption and mafia clans did not make it to the agenda.  

The documentary investigation The Other Chelsea. A Story from Donetsk (2010) by German director Jakob Preuss shows the real face of the representatives of the “blue camp.” While not taking some foreigner (the director) seriously, the characters casually gave themselves away. For example, in one scene the main character, who was a secretary of the Donetsk city Council, was talking about his achievements in the construction business. In another scene, justified himself by saying that he left business when becoming a state servant and that even if his company does construction, it takes place not in Donetsk itself, but in the countryside. 

After Yanukovych became president in 2010, the screws in almost all areas of life were tightened. There was not much to tell about that period except of the country sliding into the abyss. Yanukovych’s inner circle pressured the businesses in Ukraine, reaping their own personal benefits, the media and cultural life promoted Ukraine’s mental integration with Russia, Yanukovych and his minions fully exploited resources of state power — like courts and the law enforcement system — to strengthen their power. 

Becoming mature: Euromaidan revolution, birth of civil society, and postmodern 

Euromaidan Revolution in Lviv. Photo: Halyna Tereshchuk (RFE/RL)

Society’s discontent with this state of affairs culminated in the Euromaidan Revolution. While formally it sparked due to Yanukovych’s reversal from the Eurointegration’s path, soon it raised into a nationwide protest against Yanukovych’s regime in general. 

During the Euromaidan, Ukraine was born again. Its civil society formed and became a key player of state-building. Additionally, Russia’s previously concealed claims on Ukraine’s independence became clear since Ukraine is now fighting a war against its former metropoly. 

The country woke up and finally started to solve its problems that have been accumulating during the previous years. Despite the dramatic changes the country experienced during the last eight years, its political alignments essentially remained the same. Oligarchs and politics form an unholy alliance. The only change is that the Communists are no longer key players in the country’s life. The party had functioned until nowadays, despite the government’s attempts to forbid it. The party tried to take part in the 2019 parliamentary elections, but the Central Election Commission refused to register candidates from the party, motivating it by the decommunisation law adopted in Ukraine after the Euromaidan Revolution. 

The successor of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, the Opposition Platform for Life, is the second biggest faction in the current parliament. The party has openly pro-Russian views. 

Big pro-Ukrainian forces represented in parliament, as well as the Opposition Platform, are rather oligarchic projects. So far, Ukraine has neither come up with a definition of who oligarchs are, nor with a clear strategy against this phenomenon. However, corresponding laws are currently being debated now.

Ukraine’s civil society has already matured enough to influence democratic transformations in the country. For example, Ukraine’s NGOs were key drivers of the long-awaited judicial reform — in June 2021, parliament adopted a legislative package to finally relaunch it. Key ideas of the reform were advocated by representatives of civil society. Previously, Ukrainian NGOs prompted changes in media, elections, public administration, and other areas. As well, civil society was one of the key actors launching Ukraine’s anti-corruption reform when new anti-corruption agencies were introduced. 

However, what civil society has not managed to do until nowadays is to create a strong grassroots party that would hold out in parliament for more than one term. 

Representatives of civil society are present in the composition of the current parliament within different parties. As well, the Voice party was considered to be a grassroots party made of changemakers of the mentally new generation which appeared after Euromaidan. According to the party, it was funded by several businessmen. However, by the middle of the current parliament’s term, the party has already suffered from inner conflicts, division, and keeps losing its influence. 

Another party composed of civil society representatives, Samopomich (Self-Help), which got more than 10% of votes during the 2014 parliamentary elections, did not manage to overcome the needed 5% threshold and enter parliament in 2019. It gained only 0.62% of the votes. 

One of the reasons why grassroots parties can’t get into parliament is money since small parties cannot compete with large political projects supported by oligarchs. Apart from the money, oligarchs help political forces through media coverage. 

Year after year, international election observation missions working in Ukraine point out that the diversity of the media landscape is limited due to a substantial concentration of media ownership and the economic and political interests of their owners. 

Halyna Chyzhyk, a prominent representative of the young generation of Ukrainian activists who started her fight for reforming Ukraine’s corrupt judicial system in her mid-20s, voiced a statement which many other activists share.  It could be another reason why a strong grassroots party has not been born so far. Chyzhyk believes that she can influence reform processes more as a civic activist than she would have been able to in any position in the government or in the parliament.

According to the Freedom House Nations in Transit 2021 report, civil society in Ukraine remains “the principal guardian of Ukraine’s democratic development,” “despite the lack of state support and continued intimidation of activists.

Among the negative 2020 trends, the report notes 

  • Active resistance to major reforms;
  • President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s changes among key political staff, from the government to the Prosecutor General and the President’s Office. 

“Most of these promising reformers were replaced by controversial personalities associated with different informal interest groups,” the report says; 

  • The significant achievements of Ukraine’s special anti-corruption institutions were negated by a judiciary that worked to undermine the basic state principle of checks and balances.

To summarize Ukraine’s character, by its thirtieth birthday, the country has made and continues to make mistakes, but still is moving forward and becoming better. Happy Birthday!

Edited by: Alya Shandra
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