In an historic referendum/presidential election on December 1, 1991, residents of Ukraine overwhelmingly voted for independence and chose Leonid Kravchuk, the chairman of the republic’s Supreme Soviet, as president. Hundreds of foreign observers and correspondents watched as 84 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. Over 90 percent of participants, including many non-Ukrainians, cast ballots for independence.
Former Communist Party apparatchik Kravchuk handily won the presidency on the first round, garnering about 60 percent of the votes. Among the candidates he defeated were two widely admired former dissidents and political prisoners who had served many years in Soviet prisons for advocating Ukrainian independence.
The outcome of the referendum, while expected, was nevertheless momentous. Ukraine’s emergence as an independent state ended any prospects of salvaging a federated or even confederated USSR. The results of the voting provided the direct impetus for the December 8 agreement among the presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus to create the Commonwealth of Independent States as the successor entity to the Soviet Union, which they formally declared dead.
The rise of Ukraine — a large state with 52 million people, a highly developed industrial base, rich agricultural capabilities, and, not least, nuclear weapons on its territory — also altered the geo-political map of Europe. Western capitals, observing the quickly unfolding events and grasping their ramifications, made determined efforts to stop referring to the new republic in their midst as “the” Ukraine, while pondering how its military plans and potential affect security arrangements in the post Cold War world.
Given the importance of Ukraine’s referendum and presidential election, as well as the republic’s size and regional differences, the Helsinki Commission sent three staffers to observe the voting. Ukraine’s parliament had previously conveyed formal invitations to the Commission, which selected three distinct cities as representative sites to monitor the voting, gauge the popular mood and gain different perspectives on the political implications: Kiev, the capital, in central Ukraine; Lviv, the regional capital of Western Ukraine, reputedly the most highly nationalist area of the republic; and Donetsk, in Eastern Ukraine, where the population is heavily Russian or Russified. Unfortunately, logistical and transportation breakdowns in the decaying Soviet Union foiled plans to reach Donetsk, and Commission staff instead traveled to the city of Kaniv (a small city on the Dnipro river). The following report is based on staff observations over several days, and is supplemented by many conversations with voters and officials, as well as Ukrainian and central Soviet newspaper and television coverage.