From Perestroika to independence

Leonid Kravchuk (Permission by Jan van Steenbergen)

Leonid Kravchuk (Permission by Jan van Steenbergen)

Gorbachev’s perestroika at first had little effect on Ukraine. Mass demonstrations against Soviet rule began only in 1988. In September 1989, the opposition moderate nationalists (“national democrats”) of Rukh held their first congress. In the same month, the hard-line Communist Party boss was removed. Leonid Kravchuk, who was willing to make concessions to the Ukrainian nationalists and forge an alliance with Rukh, replaced him as party leader. It was at this time that Ukrainian was declared the sole official language.

Full independence

After the collapse of the attempted hard-line coup in Moscow in August 1991, Ukraine moved to claim full independence, confirmed by referendum on December 1, 1991, with 90% voting in favor. On the same day, Kravchuk was elected the first president of independent Ukraine. He played the decisive role in the decision, made later that month by the heads of state of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, to abolish the Soviet Union. Everyone accepted that “there can be no union without Ukraine”— and Ukraine did not want a union.

Nationalized military forces

In contrast to the Baltic states, which sought to expel Soviet military forces, and Belarus, which accepted their continued presence under Russian control, Ukraine “nationalized”— or took control of—almost all military forces that were on its territory when the Soviet Union was abolished. However, nuclear weapons were given up under Russian and Western pressure. Officers were given the choice of swearing an oath of loyalty to Ukraine or leaving the country.