What’s On What does the path Ukraine has taken over the last 20 years look like to you?
Leonid Kravchuk It’s a steep and stunning road in the mountains, always escalating and often interrupted by boulders, which Ukraine has had to bypass, knowing that it could fall at any moment.
WO If we look at the transformations Ukraine has incurred since 1991, what, in your opinion is the most crucial?
LK Many of these transformations can be seen in the new generation which incorporates a drastic division of society: the rich, cruel and immoral and the poor, unprotected and miserable. If the latter is taken to court, judges often appear to rule in favour of those with money and power. What frightens me is that this situation has already become systemic, and Landik beating that innocent girl is one of the most recent examples.
WO Nevertheless, Ukrainians seem to be very passive today. They tolerate things which should not be acceptable…
LK That should come as no surprise. Ukrainians have been brought up to obey. In my time, any thought or deed inconsistent with the party was severely punished, either by exclusion or dismissal. Young Komsomol members that had long hair, just as your cameraman does for instance, would have been stopped on the street and had a cross cut into his head. I’ve seen these things with my own eyes! People have been taught to kneel in this country, which is why I often hear, “What can I do? I have no power to make decisions!” What do you expect from someone who considers himself worthless to the country?
WO Perhaps such people don’t deserve a democracy then, a better life or European standards?
LK This is also how I think. A human being thinking he is insignificant is little more than a slave. Such slaves will then go and vote for a package of buckwheat without realising they are selling out the futures of their children and grandchildren.
WO Having been born into difficult times and steeped in party lore for so long, how did it even occur to you and those in power at the time that Ukraine should be an independent state?
LK I was born in the region of Rivne, which back then belonged to Poland. My family was poor and didn’t have much property, but we worked for a Polish neighbour who owned a lot of land! I would often be punished just for going to pick a cherry! Ever since then I have been disgusted by humiliation and injustice. This feeling was reinforced when I was studying in Moscow and picked up some unpublished works by Ulyanov-Lenin. Immediately I saw a contrast between the happy curly-haired boy from my book of ABCs and the cruel calculating man who saw no problem in annihilating millions of people. Then, working in Kyiv, I happened upon the Ukrainian Holodomor archives of 1932-33. As I turned the pages, I could feel myself getting dizzy. It was at that time I realised that the Soviet regime had no future – its goal was simply to demolish.
WO This, however, was still a long way off of Ukraine’s independence. When did you see an opportunity for change?
LK It is difficult to name the exact moment. I cannot say I was ready for Ukraine’s independence when propaganda and publicity were just taking off in the Soviet UNI0N. However, the Soviet republics were working on an agreement at the time, initiated by Horbachov, to strengthen the federation. I quickly understood that no serious changes were going to be made: they only meant to change the facade, leaving the system’s essence untouched. The crucial moment came when the State Committee of Emergency Situations was formed in Moscow, bringing the country right back to the tight ties of the previous regime. It was through this process I realised Ukraine had a fair and historical need for independence.
WO What were your next actions? And were they rationally considered or intuitively motivated?
LK My actions were both rational and intuitive. I did not know what independence was or what democracy meant and I certainly didn’t know what the result would be. But I was aware of the power of the system. The Soviet UNI0N was not going to let Ukraine out of its embrace so easily, and even though the constitution said every nation had the right to self determination, up to separation, these were only words and no one knew how to accomplish this in practice. It was for this reason I worked a lot with the other republics so that we could announce our independence simultaneously. This way I felt there would be little success, if any, in pulling Ukraine back into the Soviet clutch. Millions of Ukrainians supported this idea also, which was something I felt very strongly, and was later confirmed by a referendum: 90% in favour.
WO We can all be quite proud Ukraine gained its independence in such a civilised and peaceful way. However, many say that independence was handed to Ukrainians: they did not have to fight for it and therefore do not appreciate it.
LK I’ve heard such claims before and my position is the following: if we can build an independent democratic state in 30 years, as opposed to 15, without losing 10 million lives due to civil war in the process, then I’m ready to wait.
WO Looking back, were you sure you would win? And what was most difficult about being the First President of Ukraine?
LK (smiles) I was sure I would win the elections. And about the difficulties? You know, everything was difficult! But the most fascinating thing, which I’m very proud of today, is that I know this country: there is no region I have not visited personally! If you mention the Donetsk region or the Azovstal factory, for example, I can see the area and its people very clearly. When referring to Ukraine and its citizens, however, it is very divided. In terms of geography, we are a country of three sections: east, west and centre. If we look at mentality, however, there are further divisions still: there are the Soviets who still cherish the thought of turning everything back; there are the so-called true or dedicated Ukrainians who think everything should be Ukrainian, forgetting in the meantime that this is a multi-ethnic state; and there are modern Ukrainians. This last group recognises that the world today is globalised, and while they use that to their advantage, they have not forgotten who they are. This is the largest of the three and is the one I put all my hopes on.
WO What do you think could unite these three groups?
LK Only the struggle for a democratic, civilised, legal and successful Ukraine.
WO What occupies the days of the First President of Ukraine today?
LK I’m head of the Constitutional Assembly of Ukraine, which unites the best and most experienced professionals in Constitutional Law. The country can be strong and successful only if the Constitution itself states that its first priority is its people.
WO Do you have any regrets?
LK I have no regrets about the past or the present, but I do have some about the future. What I would like to see is the Ukraine I was dreaming about in Belovezhska Pushcha. But I see what goes on. And as I’m 77 now, I have come to accept that I will not see this Ukraine.
WO How do you deal with that?
LK When I feel bad I take a four-volume edition of Herful Bidstrup cartoons – read and laugh! I love spending time with my dogs – the more I know people, the more I love dogs! Just seeing their sincere devotion sends all thoughts of politics out of my head! Seeing the barbaric treatment homeless animals face, I become inconsolably angry – the same way I get when I see politicians fighting over this country – and so I’ve also joined the movement against cruelty to animals.
WO Aside from your official obligations, how do you plan to celebrate 24 August?
LK We have a tradition in our family where we all get together and I try to recall a story I haven’t yet told. The meetings I have had as President with people like Mitterrand, Jacque Chirac and Queen Elizabeth, for example, are ones I like remembering.
WO What message would you pass on to young Ukrainians who are the same age as Ukraine today?
LK I would like to say do not be indifferent! When I see young people refusing to vote I get quite upset. You need to realise that you vote for the country you are building. To those who have chosen to study or work abroad, I say come back! A child should not leave its sick mother and Ukraine today is that sick mother. She needs you! And finally, I would say stand firm on tolerance, culture, law and self-dignity.