Ukraine has earned its rightful place in Europe

It has not been pleasant or easy to form nation states from subjugated Soviet republics

Mary Dejevsky

The Independent

28 December 2004

Russia, the US, Europe: we have all of us been guilty of the same conceit - that the Ukrainian election was somehow about us. We made it into a contest between East and West, right and wrong, democracy and dictatorship, freedom and captivity. We summoned up all the ghosts of the Cold War, and had them dance before us one last time.

But the Ukrainian election was never about us, it was about Ukraine and what sort of country it wanted to be - and Sunday's vote gave a decisive answer. It sees itself as a democratic, European nation-state and, by conducting its electoral dispute through constitutional and political channels, it deserves to be treated like one.

This is not the first time in recent memory that Ukraine has been sorely underestimated by condescending outsiders. Thirteen years ago to the month, I was trudging around the polling stations in the city of Lviv - then officially still marked on maps in its Russian form, Lvov - to report on Ukraine's referendum on independence from the Soviet Union, one of the decisive chapters in the disintegration of the Soviet empire.

Then, as now, Lviv, was one of the most nationalistic cities in the country. Small children were decked out in the yellow and blue of Ukraine's national flag, and their parents lifted them up so they could cast the ballot paper into the box. "It is your future we are voting for," they said with misted eyes.

Just as last month, in the aftermath of the annulled second round of this presidential election, there were forecasts that the country would split in two: the expectation was that the west of the country would vote for independence, while the east would vote to stay Soviet. Then, as last month, the Americans and the Russians both overplayed their hand. The first President Bush gave what subsequently became known as his "chicken Kiev" speech, telling Ukrainians that their best interests lay in not destabilising the post-war settlement (by voting to separate from Moscow.) Soviet Russia, in the person of then President Mikhail Gorbachev, issued similar warnings to Ukraine about the cataclysmic risks of going it alone.

And then, as now, Ukrainians took their fate into their own hands. The west and the east of the country both voted, overwhelmingly, for independence: they were Ukrainians first and pro-West or pro-Russian second. After Sunday's re-run second round, Ukraine remains one country. It may assume a more federal structure, but it will not split, and the east will not be absorbed into Russia.

Anticipating defeat, after the polls closed on Sunday night, the more Russophile candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, said that he would work to form a strong opposition. And recognising reality, President Putin said last week that he was confident he could work with whichever candidate Ukrainians elected. So far, so good: this is how democracies are supposed to work and how foreign leaders are supposed to respond to them. Let us hope this climate of constructive realism lasts.

Whether or not it does, however, Ukraine's month-long electoral trauma has provided a useful corrective to an assumption with which we have become all too comfortable. When the Soviet Union evaporated on 25 December 1991, it left remarkably few violent conflicts in its wake. One reason, now noted and favourably contrasted with the behaviour, for instance, of the former Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, was that neither Mr Gorbachev nor his erstwhile rival, Boris Yeltsin, exploited the ethnic Russians beyond Russia's frontiers for their own political purposes. Nor is there any evidence that this has changed under Vladimir Putin.

This left millions of Russians with a choice between making the best of their new citizenship or trying their luck in a country - Russia - where few of them had ever lived. Russia's weakness may have left it with no choice but to abandon its former citizens, but doing so may have prevented half a dozen or more civil wars.

That the dissolution of the Soviet Union was essentially peaceful, however, does not mean it was pleasant or easy for those involved, or that forming, or reviving, nation states from subjugated Soviet republics is at all simple. In many of these new states, indeed, the process is not only nowhere near completion, but has hardly begun. Georgia may have accomplished its "rose" revolution, but this was its second attempt to throw off an undemocratic regime, and success for President Saakashvili's modernisation efforts is not guaranteed.

Moldova and Belarus await new efforts at post-Soviet democratisation, while all the Central Asian republics still have the same leaders they had in the late Soviet years. In Azerbaijan, the presidency passed from father to son, with scant popular resistance. Any political reforms have been conducted within strict limits designed to keep the existing regimes in power.

With the exception of the three Baltic states - whose accelerated admission to the EU was essentially an act of contrition on the part of Europe for a great historical injustice - Ukraine is, in fact, the first former Soviet republic to have given its people a real choice in an election and ushered in a new regime through the ballot box.

The question whether Ukraine is anything more than a vast buffer zone between Russia and Europe was asked many times during the long weeks of this exciting, and disconcerting, election. With Viktor Yushchenko's conclusive election to the presidency, we have the answer: if Ukraine was not a nation before, it certainly has earned the right to that status now.