Ukraine must transform itself to become a genuine European nation
An interview with Leonid Kravchuk, the first President of Ukraine.
Forgetting the current situation in Ukraine, can you recall the beginning of the 1990s? What Ukraine did you want to see when you were leaving office twenty years ago?
I believed that Ukraine would become a European state. As a person who functioned in the communist regime for such a long time, I knew how hard it would be to solve all the economic, political, and mentality problems, and that it wouldn’t be easy to carry out the necessary reforms. But I believed that the people in power would believe in the same things. Unfortunately, it happened otherwise. We did not go in a European direction. Instead, some attempts to bring back features of Soviet politics and the Soviet economy took place. It has become one of the reasons for conflict in society. The cause of what we have been observing recently is ingrained in those times. Those reasons have been not fought off; quite the opposite, they have deepened and broadened. We can now see the effects and the communist ideology has left behind very deep imprints, which are still observable today.
It has often been mentioned that the Orange Revolution was a lost opportunity. Is there a possibility that Ukraine would not be where it is now?
If Viktor Yushchenko had realized all of his ideas, appointed tasks, and kept the promises he made at Maidan during the Orange Revolution, everything would have changed. Unfortunately, Yushchenko was not able to organize people to carry it out. This is why we always repeat that the chances and possibilities connected with the Orange Revolution were squandered. The process of transformation didn’t move; it stopped, and in some areas even reversed. But the second Maidan was already a fulfillment of what was not realized during the first one.
Europe was considered as a norm in Poland during the 1990s. We strove to bring in “European normality.” At the end of last year in Kyiv and other cities, protesters chanted pro-European slogans. Do Ukrainians see Europe as a norm now? Do they want to build the future of Ukraine on the foundation of European models?
Ukraine does not speak with one voice. The eastern part of the country is oriented mainly towards Russia and eastern values. The West and the center of Ukraine are oriented towards European values. There is also another division – historical: left-bank Ukraine leans more towards Russia, the territories at the right bank – towards Europe. That is why there is no uniformity in Ukraine.
But I can tell that President Poroshenko is taking up a clear, pro-European position. Politicians, the elite, and youth, whose eyes are pointed towards Europe, are gathering around him. Social research shows that most Ukrainian people are oriented towards Europe. European standards and norms were a fantasy for many people during the 1990s. They didn’t know what Europe was. They are now starting to understand and are therefore choosing what is better.
What does Europe actually mean for Ukraine?
Europe is a totally different dimension for Ukraine – different values, a different life; a life where freedom and law rule. This is very important for us today. In Europe, a human being is the highest value. For my generation – people of the former system – the highest value was the party. Ukrainians now see that Europe means a completely new and different life. But we first have to change ourselves to achieve it.
It could be totally different – as the story of Anna, the daughter of Yaroslav the Wise, who married the French king, Henry I, shows. She took two books with herself when she went to Paris. She was the only person within the French king’s environment who was able to read and write. Ukraine was one of the centers of European life at that time. But then everything changed. This is why we cannot talk about “returning,” as Poles do. We have to change ourselves to become a genuine European nation. However, this will take a long time. I don’t think we will be able to give Ukraine a European shape in just a few years. Law, freedom, market economy, values: these things will all take a very long time. But most importantly, we are on this path. The Bible says: the one who goes forward will arrive at the end of the road.
Are Ukrainians ready to follow this road?
We are aware of that fact that we are barely starting, but we believe we will succeed. From what I see today, the actions of new authorities and Petro Poroshenko, I can say that if there is no cataclysm and we eventually end the war with Russia – or more precisely, Russia ends its aggression towards Ukraine – we will get to the end of that road. Today, the most important thing is to stop Russian aggression and to end the war against Ukraine.
But Europe has to support us. A uniform attitude towards Russian aggression will help Ukraine. Meanwhile, the countries of Europe approach the situation differently. Germany and France hold a different position than Great Britain. In my opinion, Poland represents the most stable and coherent judgment of the situation and is realistically helping Ukraine. However, it was western leaders’ mistake to exclude Poland from the truce talks, which besides Russia and Ukraine, Germany and France are participating in. For historical reasons, Poland knows best the situation in Ukraine, Russia, and the former Warsaw Pact countries.
Was Poland’s exclusion from the talks the dictate of Vladimir Putin?
For sure it was not Ukraine’s will. It is a fact that Putin is taking advantage of the western countries. I was surprised when I heard Angela Merkel’s declaration that Viktor Medvedchuk, the leader of the “Ukrainian Choice” movement, will be somehow taking part in the negotiations. Even more so because I am convinced that Merkel has never met Medvedchuk. This surely means that Putin gave her the idea.
Translated by Zuzanna Hylla
Piotr Górski is an editor at Res Publica Nowa and coordinator the Free Speech Partnership program.
Tetiana Khaver is a former intern at Res Publica Nowa.
This interview was written within the Free Speech Partnership of Res Publica Nowa and supported by the Visegrad Fund. We would like to thank The Centre for East European Studies at the University of Warsaw – organizer of the XI Warsaw East European Conference – for the possibility to conduct the interview.