By August 1991 Ukraine had accumulated significant nationalistic potential. Bearing witness to this were the Declaration of State Sovereignty of 1990, the results of the March 1991 referendum on renewing the Soviet Union, and the emergence of new political parties, which was sometimes even happening with the approval of the republic’s leadership. For exiting the USSR. and gaining full independence, the only thing left to do now was take the final step. The putsch starting in the night of 18-19 August provided every chance needed for this. Presented in this historical piece by Europe Insight is a chronicle of the final days and political leaders’ tactical manoeuvres.
On the night of 18-19 August 1991, representatives of the Soviet government who did not agree with Michael Gorbachev’s reforms created the State Committee for the State of Emergency in the USSR (GKChP or State Emergency Committee). On 19 August 1991, a state of emergency was declared in Moscow and the activities of all political parties and organisations were suspended. Troops loyal to the GKChP were deployed in the capital.
At that moment the authorities of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic (USSR) took a wait-and-see position. Early in the morning of 19 August General Valentin Varennikov, Commander-in-Chief of Ground Forces and Deputy Minister of Defence of the USSR, arrived at the capital of the republic as a GKChP representative to negotiate with the Ukrainian leadership. According to him, he met with quite a sympathetic reception and the Ukrainian SSR. leadership had no plans to resist.
According to a participant in the events, former USSR People’s Deputy Alla Yaroshinskaya, “In those days neither [Leonid] Kravchuk (then Chairman of the Supreme Council of Ukraine – Ed.) nor [Konstantin] Masik (then Deputy Chairman of the Ukrainian Council of Ministers – Ed.) nor [Stanislav] Gurenko (then Head of the Ukrainian Communist Party’s Central Committee – Ed.) could possibly imagine that in three days’ time this whole terrible venture would collapse under pressure from Yeltsin and his government.”
But General Varennikov’s mission was just as short-lived. “On 20 August the Minister of Defence of the USSR. called me from Kiev to Moscow to help with the restoration of order,” the general stated in his memoirs. The Ukrainian ruling elite was left to itself.
On 19 August, Leonid Kravchuk appeared on national television and urged his fellow citizens to maintain calm and order, and “not to make rash conclusions” about the unfolding events. Also extremely streamlined and vague was the statement of the Presidium of the Supreme Council of the Ukrainian SSR.—only made after nearly two days of discussion on the evening of 20 August and published on 22 August. The population was encouraged to do everything to avoid destabilisation or the aggravation of the social-political situation, to refrain from strikes, rallies and marches (as the GKChP also demanded), and to successfully carry out all agricultural work and winter preparations. Under pressure from the democratic forces, only one provision about the GKChP having “no political force on the territory of Ukraine” was included.
But far from all of the Supreme Council deputies shared the position of Kravchuk and his circle. The opposition parties, represented by the parliamentary factions People’s Movement of Ukraine “Rukh” (15 seats, leader Viacheslav Chornovil) and Narodna Rada (125 seats, led by the academic Ihor Yukhnovskyi) did not recognise the GKChP and demanded an extraordinary session immediately be convened. But they were a clear minority in the 443-seat Supreme Council.
Intercepting the initiative
As soon as it was obvious to the members of the Presidium of the Supreme Council that the GKChP’s venture had failed, the convening of an extraordinary session was announced on 22 August. Two paths now lay before the nomenclature of the republic. Representatives of the upper echelon could either become “martyrs for the idea” and share the fate of the State Emergency Committee or try to lead the growing democratic movement and preserve their power and privileges. The latter option seemed preferable, taking into account the characteristics of the internal political situation. The lack of broadly famous democratic leaders (like Václav Havel in the Czech Republic or Lech Wałęsa in Poland) made this task easier for them and eliminated undesirable competition.
Leonid Kravchuk thus decided to support the initiative on the declaration of independence previously proposed by the opposition. Demoralised by the conspiring events, the parliamentary majority represented by the group “For Soviet Ukraine” (239 deputies, or the Group of 239 led by Oleksandr Moroz) also turned out unequivocally in favour of it—despite being made up of Communists.
The Supreme Council met on 24 August 1991. Discussed at the meeting was the Act of the Declaration of Independence of Ukraine prepared by the well-known deputy-dissident Levko Lukyanenko. The initial version of the text did not even speak of a “declaration” but of the “revival” of Ukrainian independence. But this wording was rejected by the people’s deputies as it inevitably triggered associations with the time of Symon Petliura and the Ukrainian People’s Republic (1917-20).
To prevent any delays with the act’s adoption, it was decided to change the wording. Levko Lukyanenko himself, explaining the concession, stated that it was necessary to act fast because the Communists “could change their minds and ruin everything”. Leonid Kravchuk personally read the text from the podium, and then announced the results of the vote under the applause of those present. The overwhelming majority (346 persons) supported the Act of the Declaration of Independence of Ukraine and the resolution on holding a referendum to confirm this act on 1 December. Only one deputy voted against it – Albert Korneev, Deputy Chairman of the Commission on Questions of State Sovereignty. Three others abstained.
Keeping hold of power
On the morning of 25 August, People’s Deputy of Ukraine and “Rukh” founding member Viacheslav Chornovil, commenting on the events, stated: “We’ve done something. Very important. We struggled a long time for this and were put in jail. But somehow—together with the Communists. And this does not bring me peace or a sense of joy.”
“From the moment of the declaration of independence, only the constitution, laws, state decrees and other legislative acts of the republic are in force on Ukrainian territory,” it stated in the Supreme Council resolution. The difficulty lay in the fact that the entire legal and regulatory framework remained Soviet. The only thing that changed was the name of the country—the Ukrainian SSR became Ukraine.
In the opinion of Nikolai Shulga, Ukrainian researcher and Deputy Director of the Institute of Sociology at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, “all of the higher bodies of power and organs of local authority remained in the hands of the very same people who controlled them before. And the Verkhovna Rada continued to consist of the same composition of deputies as a month, and a year, before. No personnel changes took place in the Cabinet of Ministers or within the ministries either.”
The prime minister of the Ukrainian SSR., Vitold Fokin, later made the following statement: “I happened not only to be the prime minister of independent Ukraine but also the last chairman of the council of ministers of a Ukraine that was Soviet and socialist. I took up the baton as if from my own self.” “The only thing that changed was the words proclaimed by their leaders in the names of the authority,” concludes Nikolai Shulga.
The referendum of 1 December 1991 became the final stage in the legal confirmation of Ukraine as an independent state. Over 90.3% of the citizens participating in the vote supported independence. Held simultaneously with the referendum were presidential elections, which cemented the old elite’s maintenance of power. Among the seven candidates, Leonid Kravchuk predictably won, garnering 61.6% of the votes and bypassing his main rival, opposition candidate Viacheslav Chornovil.