Presidents and the People

Presidents and the People

February 17, 2010

Making the Chapter:

It’s hard not to be disappointed at the lack of progress that Ukraine has made in the last twenty years towards a better economy and greater social justice. The expectation was that Ukraine – as the most industrialized and resource-rich country of the former Soviet Union – would be the first to emerge from the rubble of Communism. In Presidents and the People I see this view for what it was: plain wrong. Ukraine was not starting from where everyone thought.

Faced with internal corruption and incompetence, the determination of Russia to return Ukraine to its jurisdiction and the West’s growing ambivalence towards its eastern neighbour, Ukraine has been a political circus. In Presidents and the People I follow the path since independence and look at the expectations of the people, and just what has been achieved, what hasn’t, and what the future holds.


By most accounts Kuchma started off reasonably well. He brought into positions of influence some of his friends from Dnipropetrovsk, but others did not change, including Viktor Yushchenko, who was head of the National Bank. Having used the coinage of intruders for a millennium — the grosh of Poland and Lithuania, the thalers, ducats, and florins of their western neighbours, and since the eighteenth century, the Russian rouble — it was his responsibility to reintroduce the currency of Kyivan Rus, the Hryvnia (pronounced Grivna).

As it happened, all the former Soviet states introduced a new national currency much sooner than Ukraine, where a lack of local expertise combined with the obfuscation of politicians caused significant delay. With inflation raging, but without the power to print roubles (which was the prerogative of Moscow), Ukraine was forced to adopt a transition currency called the coupon-karbovanets, a sort of monopoly money that bore the brunt of the budget deficit, hyperinflation, and currency devaluation. By the mid-1990s when one million coupon-karbovanets was worth approximately four dollars, Ukraine could rightly say that every citizen was a millionaire.

“I knew I was rich,” remarked one friend. “I would reach across to the gas stove, light a coupon and use it to light my cigarette.”

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