Reflections on the 30th Anniversary of Independence of Ukraine (Part I) Interview with Dr. Serhii Plohii

Reflections on the 30th Anniversary of Independence of Ukraine (Part I) Interview with Dr. Serhii Plohii

Serhii Plokhii is the Mykhailo Hrushevsky Professor of Ukrainian History at Harvard and the director of the university's Ukrainian Research Institute. The author of numerous books, including "The Last Empire," which received the Lionel Gelber Prize for the best book on international relations, and "Chernobyl," which was awarded the Baillie Gifford Prize for non-fiction, Plokhii lives in Burlington, Massachusetts.

Foreword by Nadia K. McConnell , USUF President

Every year we celebrate or commemorate various anniversaries. Even if marked with some kind of event or article these anniversaries seem to be almost marked by rote. However, it is very important to take the time and reflect on their meaning and significance.

Among the many anniversaries this year U.S.-Ukraine Foundation celebrates the 30th anniversary of Ukraine's Independence, the Referendum Vote on December 1st and our own official celebration of 30 years work.

During the months ahead we will feature articles or webinars to recall and appreciate different times in both our work over these past 30 years and the meaning of Ukraine's Independence. Last month we held the first webinar of this series, on Ukraine's Declaration of Sovereignty and Founders of Ukraine's Independence, principally leaders of Rukh Ivan Drach and Myhailo Horyn. You may use this link to view this Webinar.

This week we feature Part 1 of an interview that I was privileged to have with Dr. Serhii Plohii. An abridged version in Ukrainian can be found in the Ukrainian Women's league of America magazine, Our Life.

In this interview we explore, in my opinion, the number one significance of Ukraine's 30th Anniversary, that being it is 30 years. Never before has Ukraine been independent for more than a few days or a few years. Something for all to ponder, most certainly appreciate and celebrate. Including Mr. Putin who just can't get over it and wants to cling to his fantasy that Ukraine is not even a state.

Nevertheless, Ukraine has been an Independent Democratic State for 30 years. Likewise it is time for leaders of the West to accept this reality and stop treating Ukraine as some pawn in their geopolitical deliberations. The people of Ukraine have made this reality and are willing to defend their rights of an independent and democratic nation.

Happy 30th Anniversary of Independence of Ukraine!

Enjoy the first part of the interview with Dr. Serhii Plokhii




Nadia McConnell: Dr. Plokhii, Ukraine soon celebrates the 30th anniversary of its Independence. Looking back, what do you see as the greatest achievements and greatest failures of these 30 years of independence?

Serhii Plokhii: I think that both successes and failures become quite clear when you look at the modern map of Ukraine. That is, Ukraine has existed on this map for 30 years after the Declaration of Independence and the Referendum on Independence.

This is the major achievement. It exists as a state, it has its nation that is being formed and continues developing, even if this process of nation’s formation is still far from completion. The shortcomings that we see there is the fact that Crimea is a part of Ukraine de jure, but not de facto. Similarly, a part of Donbas is lost. These parts of the map show great failures of the period of independence related to the fact that during 30 or 25 years before 2014 Ukraine failed to create a strong national identity that determines people’s relationship with the state, their desire and preparedness to protect their country. Creating an economic system that people would consider fair has not happened too. Remember the same old issue of power of the oligarchs. The situation in the Donbas is a result of both the weakness of ​​Ukrainian national identity in certain regions, and also of a people’s protest against economic vulnerability in which they found themselves. These are two main problems that exist in Ukraine today and are reflected on its map.

N.M.: Indeed, this is a very important achievement - that Ukraine finally is on the map, with its territory and borders that Putin is trying to attack. After all, for a very long time people have nurtured the idea of ​​Ukraine when it had no state dimension. We must be aware of it and appreciate such an achievement.

Regarding the problem of oligarchs and corruption, what ways to solve this problem do you see to avoid division of the society and destruction of the Ukrainian economy, since oligarchs control most of it?

S.P.: I believe that a better organization of economy to make it free and fair and the process of de-oligarchization are important tasks facing Ukraine. I don't think anything can be solved in a revolutionary manner. Ukraine's loss of Donbas is caused, on the one hand, of course, by Putin's actions; but on the other hand, it was also a manifestation of rejection of the oligarchic model by a large part of the population, especially in Donbas. As a result, Donbas transformed into an economic desert. This clearly demonstrated that revolutionary, proletarian ways of making changes in the spirit of 1917 Bolsheviks’ revolution is absolutely useless and brings nothing good but ruinsUkraine.

Changes should take place gradually and be backed up by respective legislation. Oligarchs own the largest assets in Ukraine so transformation of the country's economy will be destructive unless oligarchs themselves become a part of this transformation process. For this reason legislation should create conditions making it advantageous for oligarchs to give up some influence in order to preserve their main assets in full or in part. I like to joke: I am for the oligarchization of the whole country. I mean, let there be 10 or 15 thousand so-called oligarchs, and it will allow us to solve the problem of oligarchic influence in Ukraine. We need such legislative field that would allow the average business to grow up to this level. And that would ensure real competition. In my opinion, an effective way of de-oligarchization is to ensure real economic competition and market economy.

N.M.: This is not just an interesting idea, but a wise one too: that we should not "fight" oligarchs, but give everyone the opportunity to increase their wealth. Promote development of a strong middle class in Ukraine so that more people could contribute to the country's economic development and success. Obviously, Ukraine's development strategy should have more emphasis on this opportunity.

And how would you describe the development of Ukrainian civil society over these 30 years, especially in the period after the Revolution of Dignity?

S.P.: I’d say that Ukrainian society over the past 30 years has tried to understand how it should live in these new circumstances under existence of its own state. What is it like to live in your own house? This was different from ever before, and society lacked skills or knowledge of independent living. It used to have a dream – and that dream was shared by only one part of the society. Now the whole society - who dreamed, and who did not dream about it – all ended up sharing this new house. They needed to understand what it consists of, understand what was there on this territory, to begin creating a new identity - together, together as one society. It was a very difficult process, plus it had to be done in circumstances when old economy actually collapsed and the new one has not yet emerged.

There is a site called Digital Atlas of Ukraine that visually presents results of our research projects in the form of electronic maps. One of the projects there was about views of people from different regions of Ukraine about Ukraine's attitude to Russia and what Ukraine’s relations with Russia should be. The picture in the nineties was the hardest. At the end of the 1990s, the percentage of people who actually supported Ukraine’s independence or believed that relations between Ukraine and Russia should be like the one of two separate states separated by borders, was the lowest. At the same time, during that period Ukraine was at the lowest point of economic crisis. But since the 2000s, the society has begun to emerge, and the economy has begun to emerge as well. In 2013-2014, we found ourselves in a situation that only few could imagine in 1991: when a large part of Ukrainian population was willing to risk their lives to preserve a concept called Ukraine, and not only a concept, but the country’s state institutions, territories, borders and so on. Many people have sacrificed their lives for it. It was a difficult path. For many it was a surprise that such a volunteer movement appeared and there were people ready to defend Ukraine. It was no longer a question of defending just language or just culture because language and culture were only components of the overall motivation that drove people, their self-mobilization was cross-linguistic and cross-cultural.

In 2014 and in the crucible of this 2013-2014 conflict, it was time of formation of not just a state with its institutions, but of a community - a nation or part of a nation – that believed that this state was not something accidental or insignificant. A process took place of maturing of the nation and developing of Ukrainian self-consciousness. Although the wave of this patriotism and mobilization went down a few years later, it has not fallen down to the levels of before 2013.

I think year 2014 is as important in the Ukrainian history as year 1991. In 1991, Ukraine gained statehood, in 2014, in my opinion, Ukraine gained a new majority of people who associated themselves with the Ukrainian nation and considered this country as their home. However, not everyone shared this believe and therefore we see the map as it is now. There is a significant percentage of people in Ukraine who even today do not believe that the events in Donbas are a war with Russia. So, this process of formation is far from its completion and it can be reversed too. The country, however, passed a very important turning point.

N.M.: Comparing 1991 and 2014, I remember how the Rukh impressed me with its ability to unite not only different political forces, but also different ethnic groups. All ethnic groups of Ukraine, including Russians, were represented in its leadership and coordination councils. Now, although you say that there are still people in Ukraine who do not support its statehood or do not believe in it, let us remember that the volunteers and soldiers who rose to defend Ukraine also came from different ethnic groups. Many of them speak Russian. But nevertheless they feel being a part of Ukraine. It seems to me that you underestimate these important changes in Ukrainian society. In my opinion, these changes are already irreversible.

S.P.: I believe that formation of Ukraine as an independent state and as Ukrainian nation are irreversible in historical perspective. This issue has been solved. The question remains about the borders of Ukraine. We didn't think about it before 2014 but today we have to think about it. And questions remain about the effectiveness of this state: how well it will be able to represent and protect the interests of the people. However whether there will be Ukraine or the Ukrainian nation is no longer a question: it has already been answered, first in 1991 and then in 2014.