Thirty years ago, on December 1, 1991, an overwhelming majority of Ukrainian citizens – more than 90 percent – voted yes in a national referendum that asked whether Ukraine should be an independent country. On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of that referendum, The Ukrainian Weekly asked attorney Bohdan Shandor, who was in Ukraine during that momentous time, to document his recollections of the period leading up to, during and after the historic vote.
Mr. Shandor, a former two term president and board member of the Ukrainian American Bar Association (UABA), served at the invitation of the Verkhovna Rada as one of 57 official international observers of the referendum.
The following is the third and final article on the topic. Part 1 described events leading up to the referendum, and part 2 covered the events of December 1, 1991, and immediately afterward. Part 3 concludes the series by exploring the long-term impact of the referendum on Ukraine.
On Monday morning, December 2, 1991, I was invited to attend a press conference with Foreign Affairs Minister Anatoliy Zlenko. At this point, Leonid Krawchuk was the president-elect and Mr. Zlenko was the spokesperson for the new government. Mr. Zlenko had been trained in Moscow’s elite diplomatic schools, spoke five languages fluently and was by any measure a diplomat’s diplomat. Journalists from all over the world were present in the press room at the Foreign Affairs Ministry. Mr. Zlenko was seated at the main dais and to his right was Mr. Krawchuk. I was standing behind Mr. Zlenko, to his right, and I could see a video recording of the conference. Mr. Zlenko fielded questions in English, Ukrainian, French and Spanish.
The wording of the referendum simply asked, “Do you support the Act of Declaration of Independence of Ukraine?” Mr. Zlenko reported to the press that the referendum had officially passed with an overwhelming 90.3 percent of the vote in favor of independence. The over turnout was also remarkable, with 84.1 percent of eligible voters taking part in the election. Every oblast of Ukraine, as well as all Crimea, voted in favor of independence from the Soviet Union.
Mr. Zlenko also noted that all of the observer groups said the referendum and election were held in a manner consistent with the principles of fair and democratic elections and that formal reports supporting this conclusion would be submitted later in the day to the Central Election Commission. Mr. Krawchuk was elected with a plurality of 60.8 percent of the vote, a very impressive victory given the field of six candidates. There was a feeling of euphoria and relief throughout Kyiv and certainly throughout Ukraine.
In his prepared remarks, Mr. Zlenko stressed the following key points: insofar as international status, Ukraine will accede to the position of the Ukrainian SSR in international bodies; Ukraine accepts its allocable share of debts of the Soviet Union and its allocable share of assets of the Soviet Union; Ukraine will maintain its own armed forces; Ukraine accedes to the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty; Ukraine’s intention is to be non-nuclear and dismantle nuclear weapons on its territory consistent with on-going discussions with U.S. Sens. Richard Lugar and Sam Nunn; Ukraine will sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the START Treaty; the nuclear weapons on the territories of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan should be brought under the joint control of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan; Ukraine is a European country and aspires to be a full-fledged member of the European community; and, Ukraine makes no territorial claims against its neighbors and fully expects that its neighbors will respect Ukraine’s territory and sovereignty.
Mr. Zlenko also announced in his remarks that the first country to recognize Ukraine as a sovereign independent country was Poland. This came as a surprise to everyone who had expected it to be Canada, which followed Poland less than an hour later. Surprisingly, the third country to recognize Ukraine was Russia via a statement issued by then-president Boris Yeltsin. The United States did not recognize Ukraine until December 26, 1991, and then only after Mikhail Gorbachev had the day before taken down the hammer and sickle flying over the Kremlin and declared the end of the Soviet Union.
Following the press conference, our observer group gathered in Serhiy Holovaty’s office in the Verkhovna Rada to draft an official statement to the Central Election Committee. Mark Helmke, the former communications director for Sen. Lugar, travelled to Kyiv with a laptop and portable printer and volunteered to be the scribe. After several hours, we produced a concise but all-inclusive statement for the Central Election Commission titled, “Statement by the official Observer group representing the combined Ukrainian lawyers’ associations in the United States, Great Britain, Canada and France to the all-Ukrainian referendum on December 1, 1991.”
The document was signed by the following individuals on behalf of the Ukrainian American Bar Association: Bohdan Shandor, Leonard Mazur and Mark Helmke; Adrian Jankala on behalf of the Association of Ukrainian Lawyers in Great Britain; Stephane Dunikovsky on behalf of the Amicale Des Juristes Ukrainians de France; and Daniel Bilak on behalf of the legal group of the Ukrainian Canadian Business and Professional Association. I volunteered to personally carry the report to the Central Elections Committee for filing later that afternoon.
On the evening of Monday, December 2, I was invited by Mr. Zlenko to join him and Canada’s Member of Parliament Alex Kindy at a television studio for an interview on the outcome of the referendum. Since I was not a government official, I was both surprised and awed by the invitation. Both Mr. Kindy and I were asked specific questions about our observations and our conclusion on whether the referendum and election were fair and democratic. Mr. Zlenko also stressed that the voting was peaceful throughout Ukraine and without any disruptions or incidents.
On Thursday, December 5, 1991, I had the honor and privilege of being present in the gallery of the Verkhovna Rada for Mr. Krawchuk’s swearing in ceremony as the first president of a newly independent Ukraine. The Rada was filled with members of parliament, representatives from other former Soviet republics, invited guests and special guests on the floor of the Rada itself, including an area set aside for invited clergy of the major faiths of Ukraine: Orthodox, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim. After all that I had seen during the prior week, I had no doubt that Ukraine’s heart was with democracy. Mr. Krawchuk took the oath of office and placed his hand on a copy of the Constitution of Ukraine. During his inaugural address, Mr. Krawchuk referred to the successful referendum and the absence of any civil or ethnic strife.
The night before my departure for the United States I decided to take a walk around the streets of Kyiv, which were very dark. I kept thinking of the tasks facing the newly independent country of Ukraine. Surrounding me were government ministries and countless offices but I knew that the people working in those offices had little if any experience working in a democratic government. I was also concerned about the fragile alliance between the Communists and Rukh that had led to the independence vote.
I weighed the following situation facing Ukraine. As of December 1, 1991, Ukraine had no banking system, no treasury, no currency, no real Constitution, no tax authority, no army, navy or air force, no police or security forces not beholden to Moscow, no independent judiciary, no postal system or even postage stamps, no system for foreign investment, no hard currency reserves, no immigration or customs laws, no embassies or consulates, no Ukrainian educational curriculum; and so on and so on. At that moment, I honestly felt that Ukraine’s chances of surviving for five years was at best 50/50. If asked, I would have said surviving 10 years was 40/60 against, and 15-20 years was 30/70 or 20/80 against reaching those milestones. And to make it for 30 years? I would have said the chances were highly unlikely at 10/90. My conclusions were not because I did not want to see Ukraine survive and thrive, but because of how much work was needed in Ukraine. Yet, here we are 30 years later and I have happily been proven wrong.
While Ukraine today is facing terribly difficult times, I believe that on the occasion of this 30th anniversary, Ukraine needs to take stock of where it is and celebrate its achievements over the last three decades.
A fundamental attribute of Ukraine is its commitment to democracy and the rule of law. Ukraine is without question the most democratic country of all the former Soviet republics. During the last 30 years Ukraine has had six presidents. Belarus and Kazakhstan have had one apiece, while Russia has had one and a half.
Democracy is the glue that binds Ukraine to the west, the EU and NATO, and it is at the core of Ukraine’s relationship with the United States. When asked about the differences between Russia and Ukraine, I answer that history and tradition distinguish the two countries and people. During the last 500 years, Russia has had at best 20 years of democracy. Ukraine can trace its historic roots of democracy to the Constitution of Pylyp Orlyk in 1710, the Cossack tradition of democratic election of its leadership, and the Ukrainian Republic of 1918. That love of democracy is what binds Ukraine to its allies in the west and what makes Ukraine a key strategic partner of the United States and other democracies the world over. Let us never forget what makes Ukraine special.