1991 coup standoff in Kyiv
Twenty five years ago, on August 19th, 1991, the world woke up to news of the Moscow coup. Ukraine, than still a Soviet republic, used the upheaval to make its own way to sovereignity
Hello this is Ukraine Calling. A weekly roundup of what’s been happening in Ukraine, with a focus on a main issue. I’m Marta Dyczok for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv, and here are the headlines that caught my attention this week.
It’s been a week of mixed news. This episode of Ukraine Calling airs on the day that marks the 25th anniversary of the 1991 Moscow coup. It led to the collapse of the USSR and changed the course of history. Later in the show we’ll bring you an interview with Oleksander Tkachenko, who covered the story back then as a journalist. And Harvard historian Serhii Plokhii, who explains how the roots of the current crisis in Ukraine can be traced back to 1991.
But back to the present. One of the main stories that dominated the news in Ukraine, and other countries, was also about roots of crisis. Ukraine hit the international headlines when various media outlets began reporting on the relationship between Paul Manafort and Victor Yanukovych. Manafort, who is Donald Trump’s campaign chairman, also has a history of working as an international PR consultant. It seems that one of his former clients was Victor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s now fugitive former President.
Ukraine’s newly formed Anti-Corruption Bureau reported that it had uncovered Manafort’s name in a series of documents they are going through. The documents are handwritten ledgers of secret payments made by Yanukovych and his Party of Regions. In those legers, Manafort’s name appears between the years of 2007 and 2012, as having received a total of $12.7 million in payments. These payments were reportedly part of an illegal, off the books system, that included Ukrainian politicians, offshore shell companies, Washington lobbyists, a Russian oligarch close to President Putin, and perhaps more. As Manafort denied that he had ever worked for the Ukrainian or Russian governments, the New York Times ran a photo of the building that housed Manafort’s office in downtown Kyiv. On Thursday, Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Bureau began posting scanned images of the documents on their webpage
According to a Bloomberg report, Ukraine’s economy is expanding. Although the report described the overall recovery as lackluster, the latest figures are better than they have been since 2013. Between April and June, GDP rose 1.3% as compared with the previous year. There are still problems, such as what they called ‘a lack of urgency in tackling corruption,’ which is contributing to the holdup of the IMF loan. Another upbeat report appeared in the Ukrainian Business Journal. They interviewed outgoing US Ambassador Jeffrey Pyatt, who said ‘the next chapter for Ukraine will be economic,’ and highlighted IT, energy, and commodities as areas of strength. For those who may not know, IT is the third largest component of Ukraine’s GDP, and Ukraine is one of the biggest IT countries in Europe.
e-filing Began 15 August
On Monday, a new e-filing system was introduced for state employees to report their incomes in Ukraine. Listeners may remember that Ukraine Calling reported on preparations for this in earlier episodes. The move is a requirement from Ukraine’s international partners, as a measure for battling corruption. However, there was a lot of domestic criticism about the way in which this was introduced. The data protection system was not certified in advance. Civil society groups and some politicians were very vocal in saying that this will allow officials to submit fictitious income statements that cannot be verified later. In response to the criticism, the Chief of the State Fiscal Service of Ukraine, Roman Nasirov, who is overseeing the process, said that the system would be improved within two months, after which he would submit his resignation.
War continues in the east. Every day the media reports about continued attacks and shelling against Ukraine. This week there were also reports about fears of impending provocations, that more heavy weapons banned by the Minsk Agreements were moved from Russia onto the parts of Donbas that the Ukrainian government does not control. And over the past seven days, six Ukrainian soldiers were killed, and 36 were wounded.
Updated History Curriculum
Hromadske Radio reported this week that the history curriculum for Ukrainian children is once again being updated. During the Yanukovych government, Education Minister Dmytro Tabachnyk had ordered textbooks to be re-written, in a way that Ukrainian history was presented as integrated with Russian history. This is now being reversed by a working group that aims to have a new curriculum ready for September. Ukraine will be taught as a separate entity again, with Crimea as part of the historical narrative.
In the Rio Olympics, Ukraine was in 23rd place after thirteen days of competition. It had won eight medals in total: two gold, four silver, and two bronze. Oleh Verniaev won Ukraine’s first gold on Tuesday, in men’s parallel bars in gymnastics. Yury Cheban won the second gold in men’s canoe sprint on Thursday. With that win Cheban holds onto the title of Olympic champion for four more years – he had taken the gold for Ukraine in London in 2012. However, some commentators in Ukraine are noting that Ukraine’s overall performance in international sport is slipping over time.
Freedom of Speech
A few weeks ago Ukraine Calling reported on the car bomb killing of journalist Pavel Sheremet in downtown Kyiv. After that, a number of articles appeared in western media outlets, raising concerns about the deterioration of press freedom in Ukraine. This week, one of Ukraine’s top media analysts, Nataliya Ligacheva, gave her assessment. She argues that context is needed to understand the full picture. That while there are issues of corporate pressures, self-censorship, and low levels of societal trust towards media, overall Ukraine’s media landscape is diverse, and presents a wide range of information and opinions. Here are links to all the articles.
Twenty five years ago, on August 19th, 1991, the world woke up to news of the Moscow coup. A group of hard liners had seized power in the Kremlin, declared a state of emergency, and an end to the reforms Mikhail Gorbachev had started in the USSR. Ukraine was then still part of the USSR, and working on reforms of its own, including moving towards independence.
Since this week’s episode of Ukraine Calling airs exactly the same day, we’ve decided to take a look back at those events from two different perspectives.
Dyczok: Oleksander Tkachenko is today the CEO of one of Ukraine’s largest media corporations, 1+1 Media Group. Back in 1991 he was a young journalist working for Ukrainian state television (because all television was state owned back then), and he was one of the first Ukrainians to report for a western media outlet. He was working for Reuters. Mr. Tkachenko, thank you very much for joining us.
Tkachenko: I appreciate this, thank you.
Dyczok: Could you please tell our listeners, let’s go back to 1991. What was it like reporting on the coup, a crackdown, from within the Soviet Union, working for a western media outlet?
Tkachenko: It was one of the rarest opportunities to report something. Because on state television during these three or four days of the coup, there was no opportunity to report what was really going on in Ukraine. So for me it was an opportunity to remain a journalist. And in fact Reuters became the first news outlet that reported on voting in Verkhovna Rada [Ukraine’s Parliament] during those days. And I’m proud that I was the person who did it.
Dyczok: So you broke the story!
Dyczok: Amazing! Now at which point, because you mentioned that you reported when Ukraine voted for independence when the coup failed, at which point did you realize, did you feel, that the coup was going to fail? It was very tense for a few days. There were tanks on the streets of Moscow.
Tkachenko: One day I was in the yard of Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s Parliament, and I suddenly saw two helicopters flying overhead and they flew away and did nothing. So I realized with all the opportunities if nothing happened from the military side, it wouldn’t. So there were no real tensions, apart from nervousness among the democratically oriented population about what would happen. But when I saw that they [the military] did nothing I realized that it would be a peaceful end to the coup.
Dyczok: That’s quite a difference scenario from what we saw in Ukraine in 2014. Can we look at any parallels? Is there anything that we can learn from the events of 1991 that are relevant for Ukraine today, when it’s had part of its territory annexed, and is on the receiving end of a war?
Tkachenko: Its two completely different situations. Because in 1991, Ukraine voted first in parliament, and secondly, after that in December, voted in a referendum for independence. It was a peaceful breakdown, a legal decision of the majority of the Ukrainian people to become independent. Now we have military intervention by Russia, annexation of Crimea, and its [Ukraine’s] fight for independence in a physical way. Because in 1991 it was an occasion that came as a result of the coup in Moscow. Now it’s a real fight for a free, European oriented Ukraine.
Dyczok: One more question, if I may. You broke the story of Ukraine declaring independence for Reuters, and you mentioned earlier that you could not report what was happening in Ukraine on Ukrainian media. What’s the role of journalism and journalists in the current crisis in Ukraine?
Tkachenko: In the current crisis?
Tkachenko: Ukrainian media has become really independent and free, there is no doubt that we have free media in Ukraine now. A lot depends on Ukrainian journalists. Because during the revolution of dignity, because of the many media outlets who reported what was going on, we had a successful resolution of the crisis. Not peaceful, because of the deaths of many people, but I mean legally a resolution of the crisis. And now, during the period of war, the support [informational] of media about what’s going on, about reforms, about struggling in a war with Russia, helps Ukrainian people to realize how we can continue to fight for the revolution of dignity, how we can continue to fight against corruption. And at least have optimism for what we will be facing [have] in the future.
Dyczok: Mr. Tkachenko, thank you very much for joining us, sharing your unique insight, and once again congratulations on that scoop back in 1991.
Tkachenko: Thank you.
Prof. Serhii PLOKHII
Dyczok: Serhii Plokhii holds the Harvard University Chair of Ukrainian Studies, named after an eminent historian Mykhailo Hrushevs’ky. He wrote an award-winning book “The Last Empire. The final days of the Soviet Union.” And in that book Professor Plokhii reframed the way we see the collapse of the Soviet Union back in 1991. Professor Plokhii, thank you very much for joining us. Can you briefly tell our listeners what your book reveals about how the USSR collapsed that we did not previously know.
Plokhii: Thanks for your invitation, it’s a pleasure to talk to you again, and to a wider audience. My book argues against a number of dominant narratives here, in the US, in North America, and also in Eastern Europe. According to the American narrative, it’s President Reagan or maybe President Bush who really ended the Cold War by causing the collapse and disintegration of the Soviet Union. The story starts with President Reagan going to Berlin, standing in front of the Berlin Wall and saying “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” and the rest followed. I looked at all available documents, in particular, the documents now available in the Bush Library, and got a very different story and a very different narrative of what was happening on those last few months of 1991. According to those documents, the American administration of President Bush was doing everything in their power to prolong the life of the Soviet Union, and it was only in late November when the news reached Washington that there will be an overwhelming vote for Ukraine’s independence that the decision was made to change the policy, abandon it, and stop the support, cut the lifeline for President Gorbachev and his Union project in Moscow.
Dyczok: We are now approaching the 25th anniversary on the failed coup in Moscow in August 1991. In the wake of that Ukraine declared independence and the events you have just described followed. How important was Ukraine in the collapse of the Soviet Union?
Plokhii: Ukraine was extremely important. The fact that is widely known in Ukraine itself, but largely forgotten in Moscow and Washington and all over the world. It was a few days after the Ukrainian referendum when more that 90% of voters supported the declaration of independence, leaders of the three Slavic republics gathered in Belarus and decided to dissolve the Soviet Union. A few weeks after that Gorbachev resigned and President Bush declared American victory in the Cold War. All of that, as a direct result of that overwhelming vote for independence in Kyiv and the rest of Ukraine. The question that people normally do not ask, either in Ukraine or outside of it, why Ukraine became so important and so crucial? And President Yeltsin, President of Russia at the time, provided an answer to that question more than once in communications with President Bush. Without Ukraine, he said, Russia would be outnumbered and outvoted by Muslim Republics in that new structure that would be called a “renewed union” after Ukraine’s exit. So, Russia saw no reason to continue with the Soviet Union without Ukraine, the second largest state in terms of economy and population, a Slavic state, to be part of this imperial project. Once Russia was not interested, the rest of Republics, including Central Asian republics that relied on Russia for the economic support, were not interested in the union either. Gorbachev had to resign as there was no state for him to rule any more.
Dyczok: Ukraine was already moving towards independence in 1991, but the coup seems to be an important turning point that speeded things up and led to the result that it did. Could you comment how the events of 1991 are relevant today, given what has happened in Ukraine in the last two years – annexation of Crimea, outbreak of war in Donbas. Is there some sort of a relationship there?
Plokhii: There is a relationship. The disintegration of the Soviet Union happened as a result of a number of factors, but first of all in a position that Ukraine took after the referendum. Ukraine’ goal was true independence. Russia had a very different view on that. Yeltsin was thinking about a confederation in which there would be a façade of some joint state, and Russia would be running that state from behind the façade. When President Putin addressed the Russian legislature on March 18, 2014 with his famous, or infamous “Crimean speech”, he said that when the Soviet Union was dissolved, he believed and others in Russia believed that the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) is just a new form of joint sovereignty, a different form of a Russian state. And that’s not what happened. So from the very beginning since 1991 there were different visions in Moscow and Kyiv on what should come out of the CIS. The Soviet Union pro-forma stopped to exist in December 1991, but it is only then that the real struggle began over what would become of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Ukraine wanted it as a form or structure that would help a so-called civilised divorce. Russia looked at it as a new imperial project where Russia would still run other republics, not as part of the Union but with stronger and enhanced sovereign prerogatives and capabilities. The roots of the current crisis should be sought in 1991. And as was the case in 1991, the future of the Soviet Union for Russia was not desirable without Ukraine. Now the reintegration project, of economic, political and military reintegration on the post-Soviet space by Russia is incomplete without Ukraine. The reasons are the same: the second largest economy, and second largest by population. Slavic peoples, culturally close to the Russians. Russian thinking in Moscow from that point of view has not changed much since the fall of 1991.
Dyczok: You mentioned that Russia and Ukraine had very different visons of their future in 1991. Ukraine is about to celebrate the 25th anniversary of its independence. You have just written a new book about Ukraine, “The Gates of Europe.” Can you tell the listeners what that book is?
Plokhii: In many ways it is a story that covers two and a half millennia of east European history. But also in terms of its last chapters it is a continuation of “The Last Empire” in the sense that I go into the 1990s and the current crisis – Russian annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Donbas. Ukrainian independence is an outcome of an alliance of a number of forces. And those forces include national democrats, largely based in western Ukraine, who acted more or less like reformers in Poland and the Baltic states. Then there was the party elite led by Leonid Kravchuk. There were liberals in big industrial cities like Kharkiv, Kyiv and Dnipropetrovsk. And there was a workers’ movement, largely based in Donbas. These were 4 main players who came together to form an independent Ukraine. What that meant in the long run was that sometimes it was very difficult to make decisions, but also that created a political culture of negotiation and compromise. That became the foundation of the Ukrainian democracy that is certainly much stronger, despite all its problems, that the type of democracy which evolved in Russia, or the absolute collapse of democratic institutions in Belarus. The roots of that different political culture are in the ways in which Ukraine acquired its independence in 1991. Now, unfortunately, many things have changed and came to an end in early 2014. Today Ukraine faces the fact that an independence which was won at the ballot box and the democracy that came peacefully in the last years of the Soviet regime, all of that has to be defended with arms. It’s a new situation, Ukraine is in a situation of war, even though it is not that noticeable on the streets of L’viv or the streets of Kyiv. But it’s, a real war and a real threat to the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine. And unfortunately violence became part of the Ukrainian political scene, that’s what we have seen in the last 2 years. Ukraine is now really in the new stage of its struggle for independence.
Dyczok: Professor Plokhii, thank you so much for putting current affairs into a historical perspective, both 25 years and 2 millennia. I hope our readers and listeners will have a chance to look at your new book, “The Gates of Europe.”
Plokhii: It was a real pleasure, thank you.
Culture and Music
This week a new series of photo ads appeared in downtown Kyiv. Portraits of young Ukrainians with three words underneath: UA Born Free. The first one I saw is my favourite. A handsome man with kind but strong eyes, with his arm around the neck of a horse. Next I saw a woman wearing a Red Cross helmet over her knitted hat and scarf around her neck. It looks like a shot from the winter of the Euromaidan, an interesting contrast to the green leaves on the tree next to the poster. There’s also a soldier in a relaxed pose, but holding an automatic rifle. And a smiling woman in a contemporary embroidered chit outfit dancing in a field of wheat. Again, an interesting contrast to the urban landscape where the ad is placed, on one of the central streets of Ukraine’s capital, where cars are rushing past.
With all the reports about continued shelling and fears of war escalating in the Donbas, I thought I’d play you a song this week by the Crimean Tatar band Seyran 762 called Panika Yok, which means, Don’t Panic. For this song and more see Hromadske Radio’s weekly music show, Pora Roku.
The mood in Kyiv is full of anticipation. New benches are being installed on the main street, Khreshchatyk. Mariins’kyi Park, which is next to Parliament, looks almost ready for a celebration. The elegant tsarist era building has been behind scaffolding for years, but over the past few weeks the fences have started coming down and revealing a face lift, and gardens have been re-planted. Ukraine is preparing to celebrate its 25th birthday next week, despite the daily news of Russia ramping up war against it, and internal political squabbles about who is honest and who is not. We’ll be following these and other stories. Tune in next weekend for a new episode of Ukraine Calling. I’m Marta Dyczok in Kyiv. Let me know what you think, our e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening.