Historical Decisions Led to Independence in 1991
Unprecedented turnout and results that exceeded the most optimistic expectations – 28 years ago, a referendum was held in which Ukrainians decided the fate of their country.
More than 90 percent voted for independence. The All-Ukrainian referendum put an end to the existence of the Soviet Union. A new state had appeared on the political map of the world. People’s deputies who made historical decisions in the 1991 shared memories of those events.
Not a single country recognized the Ukrainian independence declared by the Parliament in Kyiv on August 24th, 1991. The USSR continued to exist, as the Kremlin made efforts to keep Soviet republics under its reins.
Ukraine’s first president, Leonid Kravchuk, then chairman of the Verkhovna Rada, said, “There was talk, statements were made, about Ukraine not being able to survive without the Soviet Union, they said, that nobody’s waiting for us (i.e. with open arms) in the West. President Bush and his team indicated that the Soviet Union agreement should be denounced, but should be reformed instead. They were concerned about further turmoil, social, economic and military.”
The idea to reinforce the declaration of independence with the will of the Ukrainian people through a referendum was proposed by minister of parliament, and at the time anti-communist opposition leader, Ihor Yukhnovskyi.
“This suggestion was well received, especially by the communists, who were convinced the referendum would produce a negative result. Meanwhile others were counting on the Supreme Council of the USSR, which could cancel any decision made by a union state,” Yukhnovskyi said.
Former President Kravchuk recalls the typical expectations in politics. “Even during the Soviet era, when everything was in the hands of the party and everyone knew how everyone voted, you couldn’t really predict the outcome one hundred percent. And when it comes to a proper democratic vote… personally, I had faith that people would support the independence,” Kravchuk said.
Six months before Ukraine declared its independence, the Kremlin held a large union-wide referendum regarding the future of the USSR. In it, the majority of the Ukrainian population voted in support of “the Ukraine” staying within the Soviet Union, but now as a sovereign republic.
MP Taras Stetskiv of Ukraine (1990-2006, 2007-2012) describes the undertaking. He said, “In September, October and November we toured the entire Ukraine—parliament members, writers, members of local branches Narodnyi Rukh and different other organizations, all together—it was a massive effort.”
MP of Ukraine, Ihor Yukhnovskyi (1990-2006), recalls, “Groups of young Canadians came to Ukraine and toured the country telling how that was a unique opportunity to create our own state.”
32 million Ukrainians voted in more than 34 thousand constituencies across the country. 90.5% voted in support of the Ukrainian independence.
“When they announced the results, not everyone believed it. Even abroad, when I talked to heads of other countries, heads of governments, and they were surprised by how actively Ukrainians voted. The March referendum was state-controlled, but in December it was a democratic one,” the former president said of the results.
“It was a time of colossal consolidation on our part, colossal mobilization, and colossal hopes,” Stetskiv said.
The very next day, Ukraine was recognized as an independent sovereign state by Poland and Canada. In the course of the next month, Leonid Kravchuk, who became Ukraine’s first president, received dozens more telegrams from world leaders supporting the indepence of Ukraine.