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Ukraine: Analysis From Washington -- Multiple Pasts To Blame

Washington, 1 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Leaders in the post-Soviet states are increasingly discussing the future in terms of the various pasts -- Soviet, pre-Soviet and post-Soviet -- that their countries have experienced.

That approach simultaneously gives debates there a peculiar quality and appears intended to deflect responsibility for what is taking place now.

On Monday, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma became the latest to do so. In a speech on the eighth anniversary of Ukraine's independence and at the beginning of his campaign for reelection, Kuchma blamed his country's current economic woes on the continuing impact of the Soviet past.

"Ukraine became independent at a time when the Soviet Union's decay was at its peak," he said. And that left Kyiv with economic difficulties that it has not yet been able to overcome. As Kuchma put it, "we've done a lot to protect our state but have not managed to protect our people."

Kuchma's opponents, including parliamentary speaker Oleksandr Tkachenko, suggest that the blame for Ukraine's problems now should be placed on the policies of the period since independence in general and on those of Kuchma himself in particular.

And still others have suggested that Ukrainian difficulties in moving toward a market economy reflect cultural patterns that extend far into the pre-Soviet past, patterns that neither the Soviet nor post-Soviet Ukrainian leadership have been able to break.

On the one hand, such statements reflect little more than the imperatives of political campaigns everywhere. Incumbents are rarely willing to take responsibility for current problems, preferring instead to present them as the result of larger or older factors over which they have little or no control.

And challengers are inevitably interested in glossing over these larger constraints in their efforts to portray the current leadership they hope to oust as bearing total responsibility for all the ills the electorate faces.

But on the other, these statements reflect a deeper reality in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet space. During the Cold War, intellectuals in these countries and the West speculated about the "sources of Soviet conduct," with some writers blaming everything on the communist system and others suggesting that an older history was to blame.

The classical statement of this debate was made by the French sovietologist and historian Alain Besancon in his 1974 article "The Russian Past and the Soviet Present." In that much-cited and frequently-translated essay, Besancon not surprisingly suggested that Soviet actions reflected both the imperatives of Russian history and the decisions of Soviet leaders.

But his greatest insight perhaps was his insistence that Soviet leaders often unconsciously dressed up in Marxist language ideas and impulses that in fact arose from the Russian state tradition, thereby confusing both themselves and their adversaries as to why they were acting the way they did.

And that tendency, Besancon speculated a quarter of a century ago, meant that post-Soviet countries would have to grapple not only with the Soviet past but with the Sovietized pre-Soviet past as well as they sought to define themselves in the modern world.

Now, as the comments of Kuchma and his opponents in the upcoming Ukrainian presidential race suggest, the leaders of these countries have still another past to deal with as well -- the increasingly long if still very short past separating them from the Soviet period itself.

But regardless of which past leaders in Ukraine or the other post-communist countries seek to blame for their current problems, the new electoral process and debates ensure that none of them can avoid personal responsibility for making decisions either about the past or about the present and future as well.