Posted by: U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John F. Tefft
“Only in your own house can you have your truth, your strength, and freedom.”
“In view of the mortal danger surrounding Ukraine in connection with the state coup in the USSR on August 19, 1991,
Continuing the thousand-year tradition of state development in Ukraine,
Proceeding from the right of a nation to self-determination in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and other international legal documents, and
Implementing the Declaration of State Sovereignty of Ukraine,
The Verkhovna Rada of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic solemnly declares the Independence of Ukraine and the creation of an independent Ukrainian state – UKRAINE.”
– Act of Declaration of Independence of Ukraine, August 24, 1991
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
-American Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776
This year marks 20 years of independence for Ukraine. I’m proud to be here representing the United States during this important anniversary. Ukraine has gone through a long and difficult historical journey to achieve independence as a modern nation. It’s easy to be distracted by the immediate problems and daily challenges that Ukrainians face, but we should always remember that Ukraine’s existence as an independent nation is a triumph of the human spirit.
Americans proudly remember the events that led to our own independence, including a revolutionary rallying cry for human freedom, the Declaration of Independence. Although independence is sometimes ultimately achieved by force of arms, as in the American Revolution, it’s the power of ideas that truly spurs people into action. Thomas Jefferson’s immortal words in the Declaration of Independence gave voice to the nascent desire of a people to be free and equal on their own terms with the other nations of the world.
The events surrounding Ukraine’s independence were also dramatic and revolutionary. The August coup in Moscow could not stem the tide of history, and the parliament of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic declared independence on August 24, 1991. On December 1, 90% of Ukrainians upheld that declaration. More than 80% of eligible voters turned out to make their voices heard. A majority in every region voted for independence, from Lviv to Donetsk, Crimea to Kharkiv, Odessa to Dnipropetrovsk, and everywhere in between.
Looking back at Ukraine’s history reveals a people torn between competing empires, enduring savage external assaults in the 20th Century, including the Holodomor and the Nazi invasion, and searching for a dignified life as an equal and sovereign nation. Many Ukrainians emigrated, including to America, where they form a politically influential Diaspora. Great national poets and writers such as Taras Shevchenko, Lesia Ukrainka, and Ivan Franko kept the flame of the Ukrainian language alive, despite decades of official policy designed to crush the spirit of the people by denying them their mother tongue. That flame ignited into a brief period of independence under the Ukrainian Republic from 1918 to 1921, but the brief realization of the dream didn’t endure, and the hopes of the people were suppressed again. It took 70 years for those hopes to reappear on the world stage. In 1991, it became clear that the dream of Ukrainian independence had merely been driven underground and had never disappeared from the hearts of the people, as expressed in the words of 19th Century poet Pavlo Chubynsky and the Ukrainian National Anthem, “Ще не вмерла Українa” – Ukraine has not yet perished.”
Some of our local embassy employees have shared their memories of that tumultuous time. For example, one can vividly recall following the events of the coup in August 1991 while his first child was being born. With one ear on the BBC reports of the coup and the other on the delivery room, he welcomed his daughter into the world at the same moment as independent Ukraine was reborn. He remembers going door to door as a high school teacher, reminding people to turn out to vote. Most people were strongly in favor of independence, he recalls, with some saying that Ukraine could turn out like other former parts of the Russian Empire such as Finland, while some older people said it would lead to disaster.
The U.S. recognized independent Ukraine on December 15, 1991. The first U.S. Ambassador was Roman Popadiuk, a career diplomat of Ukrainian descent. The early days were not easy, with a search for space for the embassy. The recently-opened U.S. Consulate in Kyiv had been located in an apartment building, with the consular officers living in the neighboring apartments. The embassy moved to its current location at 10 Yuriy Kotsyubynsky Street in December 1991. The American and Ukrainian staff discovered large empty rooms, and in one of them, a bust of Lenin that had been left behind.
The embassy staff at that time witnessed the establishment of the Ukrainian Government. It’s hard to imagine that there was a time when the Ukrainian ministries were few and very basic in organization. Once, when an assistant had to arrange a meeting with the Minister of Defense, she called the number given to her by the Foreign Ministry. A male voice answered the phone, and she asked to speak with the minister’s assistant, but the voice said there was no one. She told him she had to arrange a meeting with the minister. The man replied, “I am the minister. I’m the only person in the building.”
Since that time, we’ve operated with parts of the U.S. diplomatic mission working out of separate locations around Kyiv, but later this year, in a sign of America’s enduring commitment to Ukraine, we will combine our operations in a new embassy compound. This state of the art facility will allow us to fulfill our mission of improving bilateral relations more effectively, including providing more comfortable and efficient space for visa applicants.
U.S.-Ukraine cooperation has grown over the years. Our commitment to Ukraine transcends the specific government in power on either side. We value our people-to-people relations with Ukrainians highly, just as we value our official government-to-government relations. Our relationship is based on shared interests and values, as exemplified by the U.S.-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership, signed in 2008. The charter includes not just cooperation at the official level, but also numerous educational and cultural exchanges. Americans and Ukrainians have gotten to know each other on a personal level by the tens of thousands during the last 20 years, and both countries have benefited.
One of Ukraine’s most significant accomplishments as an independent nation was removing the Soviet-era nuclear arsenal from its territory, which was completed in 1996. Ukraine’s leaders displayed wisdom and foresight in making that crucial decision, and helped to create a more secure region and world. The current administration has shown similar leadership in nonproliferation by agreeing to remove all of Ukraine’s highly-enriched uranium.
The U.S. has observed the development of Ukraine’s democracy with great attention. No country or democratic system is perfect, and as we work to improve our own democracy at home, we take a keen interest in supporting the development of democracy abroad. We have seen multiple elections in Ukraine since 1991. In 2005, there was a new burst of freedom as Ukrainians demanded, and achieved, a free and fair election to select their president. Again in 2010, we saw a presidential election that was free and fair, meeting international standards and seemingly confirming Ukraine on its path to a democratic and European future. So it was with significant concern that we noted the flaws in last year’s local elections, flaws which the current administration itself recognized at the time. We want to see Ukraine continue on the path of democracy as it celebrates 20 years of independence. This means not only free and fair elections, but also the rule of law, an independent judiciary, and freedom of speech that exists in reality, not just in theory.
Rule of law and a properly functioning judiciary cannot be overemphasized. In a speech I gave at Kyiv Polytechnic Institute in April this year, I argued that rule of law is essential not just to democracy, but also to ensuring the sanctity of private property and economic development. Effective laws and independent courts protect society against arbitrary seizure, whether the actual taking of freedom or possessions or the more subtle theft of corruption. As Thomas Jefferson observed: “In every government on earth is some trace of human weakness, some germ of corruption and degeneracy…. An independent judiciary that will enforce the laws against the ruling class as well as the common man is essential in ensuring that government serves all people and not just those who can seize and exploit positions of power.”
We will continue to stand with the people of Ukraine as they move into a future that we hope will be blessed with democracy, economic prosperity, and a closer relationship with Europe. The US strongly supports Ukraine’s European choice. Ukraine belongs with the rest of the European family of nations and we believe closer ties to Europe will lead to a brighter, more prosperous, and freer future.
During the last 20 years, the U.S. has provided $3.1 billion in assistance to promote democracy, prosperity, and security in Ukraine. We have supported over 16,000 student and professional exchanges. The American people have made that investment because we believe in the democratic future of Ukraine. I am very happy to share this Independence Day with you in a sovereign and independent Ukraine, whose people after centuries now have the opportunity to forge their own future.