On a sunny day on Kiev’s leafy Kreschatik Street, giggling teenagers line up outside the ice-cream stands and the ubiquitous street photographers arrange proud couples in romantic poses on the main square. Only a few elderly people, eyes downcast, beg at the edges of the crowd. They are chiefly ignored.
To all appearances the city is carrying on business as usual, much like a rundown version of the West. But Kiev, like all of Ukraine, is struggling against a Soviet-era mentality as thick as the Berlin Wall and even more unyielding. The majority of people, trying to survive in the midst of economic turmoil, turn to black-market dealing that side-steps punitive taxes and outmoded bureaucratic regulations.
In spite of its waning popularity in some parts of the country, political independence has been hard won. Dominated by Russia since the eighteenth century, Ukraine fought fiercely but un-successfully to preserve its identity after the 1917 Revolution. Soviet planning devastated the country, dismantling the burgeoning agricultural economy and starving to death six million people.
After the Second World War Moscow redoubled its efforts to control the rich expanse of land that forms one of the largest countries in Europe. By the 1960s the Ukrainian Communist Party was among the most dedicated and conservative of the Soviet empire.
Geographical and political closeness to Russia created problems that lasted after independence in 1991. With an economy suddenly unchained from the centralized Soviet system, Ukraine sank into a severe depression, convincing many they should reunite with Russia. Repairing the massive damage of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe also wreaked economic havoc as Moscow’s aid dried up.
Today divisions in the country are striking, with some Ukrainian speakers in the west supporting militant nationalists and Russian speakers in the east and south opting for closer union with Russia.
The lush seacoast resort area of Crimea, former play-ground of the Soviet élite, is now one of the poorest parts of the country, in conflict with Kiev and embroiled in its own internal power struggle – it elected its own president on a platform of re-union with Russia. He has now been deposed by Kiev. Mean-while Russia and Ukraine are still bargaining over the division of the costly former Soviet Black Sea Fleet based at Sevastopol and the surrender of Soviet nuclear weapons.
Endowed with natural beauty, enormous natural resources and a highly educated population, Ukraine has great potential for raising living standards. But the challenges are also daunting. While drawing aid from the IMF to support his reform program, President Leonid Kuchma must convince a largely conservative parliament to support the very changes the politicians oppose. And while meeting IMF targets he must also try to rebuild a social safety net which is frayed to the breaking-point. Perhaps it is not surprising that, when asked if he was glad to be elected president last July, Kuchma answered glumly, ‘No’.
AT A GLANCE
LEADER: President Leonid Kuchma
ECONOMY: GNP per capita $3,700 (US GNP per capita is $22,240).
PEOPLE: 52 million. 22 per cent are under 16 and 67 per cent live in urban areas. Population growth rate was the lowest in the former USSR.
HEALTH: Infant mortality 14 per 1,000 live births (US 9 per 1,000)
CULTURE: Mainly Slavic, divided between 72% Ukrainians and 22% Russians, with a Tatar minority in Crimea.
Sources: UNICEF; State of World Population 1994; Ukrainian Department of Health; Ukrainian Department of Finance; The Economist; Human Development Report 1994; Microsoft Encarta 95.
Never previously profiled
A tiny élite and criminal mafia control large amounts of wealth; most people live at subsistence level.
At least 95 per cent. The collapse of the economy may start to damage these high rates, though.
Struggling to recover from centrally planned Soviet economy. High dependence on Russia, IMF and Western aid.
Media uncensored, poli-tical spectrum runs from communists to extreme right-wing nationalists.
POSITION OF WOMEN
Communist equality ideal never realized. Women educated but poorly paid with worst jobs, highest unemployment, lowest political representation.
70 years in 1992, but starting to fall with the economic downturn and the spread of poverty.
NI star rating
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995