Ukrainian Independence: Easy Come, Easy Go

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine marks 16 years of independence on August 24th. Although the Cossacks had managed to fight off encroachments on their freedom from Poland, Russia and Turkey for a couple of hundred years, the closest thing Ukrainians had to a modern state before 1991 was a brief, three-year stint following the Bolshevik Revolution.

Fireworks on Independence Day 2006

It took the collapse of the Soviet Union, just as it had taken the downfall of Czarist Russia, for Kyiv to reassert its authority over the lands of Kyivan Rus.

The medieval kingdom on the Dnipro River, which Ukrainians look to as their beginning, was itself on the verge of disintegration before the Mongols leveled it in the 13th century.

For the past 16 years, the country has been given a new lease on life, with connections to European Christendom stronger than ever.

European concepts of freedom, however, differ significantly from the Cossack ideal.

The ability of Ukraine's leaders and people to embrace the former rather than the latter will ultimately be the greatest assurance of their continued independence. So far, the record has been mixed.

One measure of freedom long cherished in the West is freedom of speech.

In the modern world, this primarily equates to an independent media and the ability of private citizens to organize public protests.

Since Viktor Yushchenko became president in 2005, Ukraine has scored high marks in this area.

Promising his people European integration, Yushchenko was swept into power by throngs of street protesters during the country's Orange Revolution.

Not only did Ukrainians express their will in the purest democratic form, but their revolution was more peaceful than many less fateful demonstrations recently held in Europe, such as anti-global rallies.

Ukrainians, in fact, were so proud of their Orange spectacle, that they have taken every opportunity to repeat it ever since.

The lines between the Orange and blue have become blurred, but that doesn't stop politicians of all persuasions from continually trying to re-ignite revolutionary fervor among the masses in their incessant battles with one another.

The result has been record public apathy and the transformation of the capital's public squares into permanent political tent camps.

Ironically, public apathy and obfuscation of issues was a key weapon of Yushchenko's predecessor and Ukraine's second president, Leonid Kuchma.

Controlling the nation's television stations, Kuchma and his supporters could make the most passionate of protests in the capital look like a three-ring circus of malcontents to the majority of the country's citizens sitting in their living rooms in the provinces.

Media that refused to tow the official line were shut down over trumped up violations, while journalists were subject to violence.

Before the Orange Revolution, the rallying cry of the opposition was murdered Ukrainian journalist Georgiy Gongadze, who had published articles critical of Kuchma and his cronies before being found beheaded in late 2000.

Now, Ukraine's media is a lot freer.

Yushchenko himself had his family dragged through the mud by homegrown paparazzi soon after taking office, but reporting remained unfettered.

In fact, as with the street protests, many feel that Ukraine’s better-than-ever media freedom is being abused.

Gone are the days, when television stations received their stories from the presidential administration.

Instead, many journalists still take orders from the highest bidder.

The Cossacks also enjoyed the freedom to serve as mercenaries for one, then another of the great powers that surrounded them.

As a result, they ended up losing all their freedoms.

Already there are signs that the rich and powerful are reining in rambunctious writers. Ukrainian tycoon Rinat Akhmetov has put his money where his mouth is, threatening lawsuits in European courts.

The few Ukrainian media not already owned by an oligarchic clan can barely afford to defend themselves in court.

An independent judiciary, another major pillar of true freedom, is also sorely lacking in Ukraine.

It was the Supreme Court that ensured Yushchenko got a fair chance during his struggle for the presidency in 2004.

Earlier this year, the country’s Constitutional Court showed itself too divided by partisan politics to resolve a legal crisis rooted in that same struggle for power during the Orange Revolution.

It was as if the democratic gains of the street protesters were being slowly eroded.

In fact, rule of law has never existed in Ukraine.

And it’s not just a matter of poorly written legislation and even more poorly paid judges.

The average Ukrainian scoffs at the obligation to pay taxes or even cross the street in the right place.

Call it a legacy of the Cossacks if you like. The net result is the same.

If Ukrainians – its leaders or its people – cannot rule themselves, then someone else will do it for them. Laws are for everyone, and free speech is a responsibility as much as a right.

In the 16th century, Ukraine was surrounded by Muscovy, Poland and the Turkish empire.

There was no place to hide and few allies to depend on for mutual security.

Today, the country is largely sandwiched between the European Union and the remnants of the Soviet Union.

Being strong and thus independent is as important as ever if Kyiv wants to preserve its medieval inheritance.

In addition to a responsible media and working legal system, Ukraine has to equally ensure a free market.

Recent moves by the government of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych to restrict grain and gas sales hurt the country’s food and energy security.

Just like the squabbling sons of Yaroslav the Wise, Ukraine’s so-called oligarchs are endangering their own interests and the independence of their country while seeking short-term, selfish goals.

According to a recent poll, only just over 50 percent of Ukrainians consider August 24th a real holiday, while around 42 percent think it's just a day off.

With that kind of attitude, one wonders whether Soviet apologists who accuse the West of engineering the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Ukrainian independence, were right.

According to the same poll, over 67 percent of Ukrainians are proud of being Ukrainian, with only 13 percent saying they would like to emigrate to another country.

This is more encouraging. But patriotism is not enough.

A poll taken in 1600 would have likely produced similar results.

If Ukrainians really value their independence, they would do well to ponder from whence it springs.

The Cossacks were nothing if not fighters, but that didn’t give them a state.

Instead, independence for Ukraine has been the product of external circumstances, a gift without a giver.

Easy come, easy go.

Source: Eurasian Home