While it might be largely forgotten now, March 1990 – 30 years ago – was a milestone on Ukraine’s path toward independence. It was a pivotal month in Ukraine’s transition from a captive nation to an independent state, an important testament to the dramatic changes that were taking place in the Soviet Union. It was also a month during which the U.S. Congress accelerated its engagement with Ukraine. Nonetheless, it also showed the limits of that engagement and of Soviet liberalization. Let me explain.
Three decades ago this month, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic held elections to its legislature that starkly differed from the fictional elections that had been held throughout the preceding 70 years of Soviet rule. While far from perfect, they were competitive; they were real. These elections helped to break the monopoly of the Communist Party. They were a genuine expression of the Ukrainian population’s quest for democracy and self-determination – a critical step towards independence.
The Ukrainian SSR Supreme Soviet elections were held on March 4 with runoffs on March 18. They were hotly contested, with some 3,000 candidates running for 450 seats. A surprising two-thirds of those seats were forced into runoffs. For the first time in a long time, Ukraine experienced political pluralism. Notwithstanding many irregularities in the election process, the Democratic Opposition bloc garnered nearly 100 seats. Some of the winners included prominent former political prisoners Vyacheslav Chornovil, the brothers Mykhailo and Bohdan Horyn, and other Rukh leaders, such as Ivan Drach and Volodymyr Yavorivsky. The presence of these newly elected democratic, pro-Ukrainian forces provided impetus to further changes in the direction of national self-assertion. A mere four months after taking office, they were able to adopt the historic July 1990 Declaration on State Sovereignty in Ukraine.
I had the opportunity to become one of the few international observers to watch these elections – well, at least the second round held on March 18. How that happened was not a smooth process. Not surprisingly, the prospect of pluralistic elections in Ukraine was getting considerable attention in the U.S. – and not only in the Ukrainian American community. It was also getting attention in the U.S. Congress, which had a solid bipartisan track record even back then of defending the rights of Ukrainians. Attempting to take advantage of the Soviet Union’s growing openness and liberalization, we at the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) a.k.a. the U.S. Helsinki Commission, where I worked as a policy advisor, made a request to observe the voting. The CSCE is a U.S. government agency composed largely of senators and representatives.
In early 1990, the commission received a formal invitation from four elected Ukrainian deputies of the USSR Supreme Soviet to observe the March 4 elections. What followed were weeks of mixed signals and interventions from the State Department. Finally, the U.S. military plane we were to take was cleared to enter the Soviet Union and land at Kyiv Boryspil airport. However, in the last minute, Moscow denied visas to what would probably have been the largest congressional delegation to ever visit pre-independence Ukraine.
The commission chairman, Sen. Dennis DeConcini, and co-chairman, Rep. Steny Hoyer (currently the majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives), issued a press release criticizing the denial, with Rep. Don Ritter, who was to have led the delegation, stating that the denial of visas was “incongruous with the steps being taken with respect to democratization” and asking whether this was an attempt to keep the people of Ukraine isolated, as had so often been the case in the past.
Moscow also denied two other congressional delegations that were attempting to observe the elections in the Baltic Republics – clearly fearing a congressional presence there as well. These visa denials to official congressional delegations illustrated that there were limits to the closer relations that had been developing between the U.S. Congress and Moscow. Relations between Congress and the USSR Supreme Soviet had been warming up in the late 1980s, with U.S. congressional delegations flying to Moscow and Soviet delegations coming to the United States. These meetings were truly groundbreaking – open meetings discussing human rights, with the participation of not only Soviet officials, but emerging civil society, including former Soviet dissidents. Indeed, it was during the first such congressional visit to Moscow in November1988 that I had the privilege to meet with leading Ukrainian dissidents, many of whom had only a few years earlier been languishing in the Soviet gulag.
But going to Ukraine and the Baltic states, where the movement towards self-determination was strongest, was a step too far for Moscow.
On the bright side, a commission colleague and I were able to observe the second round of the elections two weeks later, on March 18. We entered the Soviet Union on regular tourist passports, rather than using our diplomatic passports as we would normally do on an official visit. I have no doubt the Soviet authorities knew who we were and where we worked, but decided to let us in – perhaps due to the criticism they received for blocking our earlier delegation.
These were the first of more than 30 elections I was to observe in nine countries in the region during my Helsinki Commission career, many of them in Ukraine. It was a thrill to not only observe Ukrainians for the first time voting freely, but to meet and meaningfully interact with the members of the opposition Democratic Bloc and leaders of Rukh – whom I consider the founding fathers of the modern Ukrainian state. They were moving Ukraine in a qualitatively new direction towards freedom and independence.
As my colleague and I wrote in a Helsinki Commission public report soon after returning from observing: “The primary issue appearing on the Democratic Bloc’s agenda is the question of Ukraine’s relationship to the rest of the Soviet Union. With the emergence of multiple parties, it is likely that there will be greater pressure for Ukrainian self-determination, leading to independence.”
There were voices at the time who did not agree with our assessment, but that is indeed what happened, with Ukraine at long last gaining its independence the very next year.
Orest Deychakiwsky if Vice Chair of the Board of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation. This column originally appeared in The Ukraine Weekly.