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Broken dreams: Ukraine marks 20 years of independence

by Anya Tsukanova

KIEV, August 21, 2011 (AFP) - Ukraine on Wednesday marks 20 years since its declaration of independence from the USSR with its sovereignty intact but its people still far from the dream of creating a prosperous society anchored in Europe.

A tumultuous two decades has seen prime ministers jailed, punches slung in parliament and the iconic "Orange" uprising that spectacularly ousted an elite who would later return to power in a modernised guise.

For many Ukrainians, independence has been a crushing disappointment with the country mired in corruption bad even by ex-USSR standards and hit by a bitter west-east divide that even raised fears about the state's future viability.

Symbolically, Independence Day itself will be no harmonious party, with mass street protests expected against the arrest of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the main foe of President Viktor Yanukovych.

In a sign of the economically tough times, Yanukovych scrapped a military parade on independence day that would have cost 180 million hryvniya ($22 million).

"We got infected with some of the viruses of democracy, although they seem to come here with mutations," novelist Andrei Kurkov, Ukraine's best known writer abroad, told AFP.

"Freedom of speech became freedom of spam. Freedom of economy became corruption. And even democracy itself turned into an independence from the law," said the author of "Death and the Penguin".

Leading Ukrainian historian and philosopher Miroslav Popovich added: "Ukraine languishes on the edge of the third world."

But for all the gloom, the country of 45.7 million can still boast the agricultural wealth that earned it the name of the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, one of the freest media and most dynamic society in all the ex-USSR.

Ukraine's parliament the Verkhovna Rada adopted the declaration of independence on August 24, 1991, a decision that was then overwhelmingly approved in a referendum in December.

Independence day sees Tymoshenko under arrest amid a fractious abuse of power trial, former prime minister Pavlo Lazarenko sitting in a US jail serving a money laundering sentence and ex-president Leonid Kuchma investigated over the murder of journalist Georgy Gongadze in 2000.

Western hopes that Ukraine would be a bulwark against Russian influence evaporated amid a confused foreign policy that has swung from neutrality to vehemently pro-EU, to pro-Kremlin and back to neutrality within a decade.

The 2004 Orange Revolution was seen at the time as a historic breakthrough that would create a fully democratic state which would one day join the EU.

Hundreds of thousands poured into the streets of Kiev to protest rigged elections awarded to Yanukovych -- without even breaking a window as Ukrainians like to boast -- and forced the annulment of the polls and a re-run.

This brought to power the passionately pro-Western administration of Viktor Yushchenko, who made a point of rarely speaking Russian in public and targeting NATO membership for his nation.

But political infighting that seemed to come from the pages of an East European absurdist play rather than serious politics rapidly cracked those dreams and Yushchenko ended his rule with single digit popularity figures.

None other than Yanukovych defeated Tymoshenko in the bitter 2010 presidential polls, which with breathtaking irony were declared by most Western observers to be the freest presidential elections ever held in the former Soviet Union.

"The Orange Revolution was the greatest achievement and the greatest failure," said Kurkov.

"Half the population was mobilised to take part in the political fate of the state but this army of the willing was betrayed by its commanders," he added.

No politician has managed to heal Ukraine's geographic divide which has left the Ukrainian-speaking, nationalist West with quite different ideas about the country's future than the Russian-speaking East where the Soviet Union is more fondly remembered.

Corruption has blighted the country to an extent that 10-15 percent of the budget ends up in the pocket of corrupt officials, according to Yanukovych. Meanwhile, 61 percent of GDP is thought to be controlled by its 100 richest men, oligarchs with considerable political influence.

"Before (independence) this country did not exist. And declaring independence cannot in a single moment change the mentalities and realities of our lives. So sometimes it seems that the expectations were not justified," said Taras Voznyak, editor of the Lviv-based cultural journal "Ï".

"It would be great if we could have been adults straight away and get a huge Mercedes. But unfortunately for now we have to make do with a toy car," he added.


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