Since independence, Ukraine, like other post-Soviet countries, has faced many challenges:
After declaring independence, Ukraine lived for almost five years under the Constitution of the USSR and other legal acts from Soviet times, which considerably limited opportunities for economic, political and social development in the country. Speculation, for example, the “buying and reselling of goods for profit” (one of the most common forms of economic activity in modern times) was considered a crime and carried a penalty of three years’ imprisonment and confiscation of property. Therefore, with the adoption of the Constitution of Ukraine and the Entrepreneurship Laws, citizens gained the right to entrepreneurial activity no longer prohibited by law.
In fact the first enterprise of independent Ukraine was registered on August 26, 1991 – a woman from a village in Zhytomyr region opened a retail shop (still considered speculation under the Criminal Code at the time). In the context of economic crisis and the beginning of mass unemployment, research institutes were closed on a large scale and factories stopped paying wages, the so-called “shuttle traders” (small entrepreneurs who bought consumer goods abroad and brought them for sale in Ukraine) became a mass phenomenon. This unorganized trade has played a truly vital role in the development of the Ukrainian economy. Most often Ukrainians travelled to Poland and Romania to buy goods, bringing with them goods that were in demand in the neighbouring countries.
If we talk at scale about the economic development of independent Ukraine, it had quite attractive conditions for economic development – 5th place in GDP among the post-Soviet republics, high scientific-technical and human resource potential, and a favourable geopolitical position. The economic structure was dominated by the mining and metallurgy complex, a hallmark of Ukraine for a long time, but at the same time a burden, as a lot of resources were spent to support it. It consisted mainly of large inefficient enterprises and was hampered by the inefficient management of the so-called “red directors”, i.e. former managers of large industrial enterprises, often Communist Party functionaries. Another peculiarity of Ukraine was the fact that only one third of Ukrainian enterprises had a complete production cycle and were producing finished products ready for consumption. It took a long time to restructure this established economic structure and in the thirty years of independence, the share of the service sector almost doubled from 28.5% to 54.4% (a worldwide economic trend).
Another characteristic of our country’s transition was the crisis of relations between the authorities and civil society – the absence of dialogue, the lack of experience and tools of participatory democracy, which took years to form. People perceived the authorities as leaders rather than hired managers from whom they were entitled to demand quality public administration. Now, after 30 years of independence, the difficult and painful experience of the Orange Revolution of 2004, the 2014 Revolution of Dignity and full-scale war with Russia, Ukraine has established a fairly strong civil society, along with the development of which many stereotypes inherited from the Soviet era are receding quite dynamically. One of the peculiarities of Ukrainian society is that public activists began to come to power en masse and Ukraine has become one of the countries with almost the largest number of instruments for citizen participation in decision-making – citizen meetings, public hearings, electronic petitions, participatory budgeting and the like.
At a time of historical transition, particular attention should be paid to the changing situation of vulnerable groups and the emergence of new social groups as well as the disappearance of pre-existing ones. We will focus on several aspects of these changes.
For example, in this period, the topic of the situation of people with disabilities, the possibility of their self-realization and socialization resounded in the public space. In Soviet society, this topic was in a sense formalised and tabooed. Everything was limited to minimal financial social assistance and imperfect (and in fact barely accessible) medical care. Opportunities for rehabilitation, education, vocational training, employment, communication, participation in public life were inaccessible to most people from this group. During the transition period there was no radical change in this sphere, but the emergence of public demand in this sphere was clearly marked and initial progress was made. The principle: “the state pays for survival – stay at home” gradually began to fade into oblivion.
Pensioners are another group of people whose lives, and sometimes family status, have changed. The fact is that many families in the Soviet Union had several generations living under the same roof. This was largely due to problems with housing. During the transition period, when many able-bodied members of such families lost their jobs and their source of income, the pensioners in the family became the only breadwinners for a period. Often these people had some handicraft skills during their work or life experience (unlike younger members of the family), which they could use to generate additional income for the family during this difficult period. During the Soviet period, the socialisation of pensioners was limited to socialising with relatives and neighbours, but the new conditions have helped many of them to become socially active again.
The lives of agricultural workers have also undergone significant changes. For Ukraine, as a country with enormous potential in this field, these changes are especially evident. Agriculture everywhere in the USSR was represented by collective or state enterprises. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, these enterprises, being inefficient, gradually ceased to exist. Rural unemployment arose. Many young people in rural areas went to the cities in search of work, lacking the necessary labour-market skills. Middle-aged people mostly concentrated on individual subsidiary farming, producing not only for themselves, but also for sale, taking on the function of processing, storing and selling their produce. Some of the villagers who possessed organisational skills reformatted the clumsy structures of collective and state farms into new cooperatives and farms. This was facilitated by the privatisation of agricultural land and the age-old tradition of individual homestead farming in Ukrainian villages. This has, in some cases, also made it possible to support rural social infrastructure. Rural pensioners, who have played an even greater role in their families than in the cities, are also worth mentioning separately.
Tectonic political processes during the transition period have brought many social movements to life in Ukraine. Forced silence and suppression of dissent for decades led to an explosive process in this sphere after the collapse of the USSR. Political parties of various orientations, public organizations, national and cultural associations, informal youth movements and other manifestations of public activity emerged. Many have subsequently faded into oblivion, but some have promoted real leaders from their ranks and serious political forces have been formed. These processes formed the basis for the formation of civil society in Ukraine, which more than once proved to be a decisive force in the Orange Revolution of 2004, the Revolution of Dignity and the defence of Ukraine against Russian aggression.
The LGBT rights protection movement in Ukraine is worth mentioning separately. In the USSR this category of citizens was not only vulnerable in terms of society’s attitude towards them. They were criminally prosecuted under the law. Ukraine, as an independent state, was the first post-Soviet country to abolish criminal persecution of the LGBT community. Gradually (albeit very slowly), attitudes towards these citizens in society are also changing, facilitated by state policy and the further formation of a healthy social space.
Ukraine entered the transit period with one of the largest armies in Europe. The military is another group of citizens who found themselves in the position of being “forgotten” by society. The army was shrunk mercilessly during the transition period. Thousands of working age men with no peaceful occupations were dropped into civilian life. The most active among them, with managerial and organisational skills or technical education, became some of the first businessmen, organisers, engineers and technicians of small industries for repair of household appliances, motor vehicles, and electronics; trading, transport companies etc. Some established or went to work in the newly opened private security companies (a very popular business in the “dashing” 90s). Some, who saw no future in the Ukrainian army or civilian life, went to other post-Soviet countries, most often to Russia, and continued their service there, swearing allegiance to a new homeland.
A large group of citizens are noteworthy who cannot be called homogeneous, but they were united in the Soviet period by their attitude to the ideological and propaganda structure of the USSR. During the transition, some of these people may have revised their views, rethinking their activities and self-actualization in various spheres of activity. Some of them simply adapted to new, more relevant slogans. They took up similar activities, such as teaching history, philosophy, and the social sciences in educational institutions, working in the media, participating in the formation of party organizations and social movements. Some of them have used their administrative resources and the remaining resources of the party, civic, industrial and other organisations, as well as the “peculiarities” of privatisation to become the owners of great wealth and even oligarchs. In contrast to the latter, there was that part of this group for whom the collapse of the USSR also marked the collapse of their lives, which they could not cope with.
The economic and social problems encountered during the transition period have led to the emergence of yet another landmark phenomenon in Ukrainian society. The stereotype of public and state approval of working at the same enterprise or in the same organisation throughout one’s working life, regardless of the satisfaction of the employee’s material, professional or career ambitions and opportunities for self-realisation, has broken down. This has led to a greater willingness of citizens to change their place of work and even their field of activity, to acquire new knowledge and qualifications in search of the best opportunities for themselves in the labour market, and to assert their labour rights more actively.
Children are another vulnerable group during transition. Their vulnerabilities, which are also present in ordinary life due to their dependence on adults and their lack of autonomy in making most life decisions, become many times more pronounced and even dangerous in the “era of change”. This is because, even if the various crises that accompanied their childhood are successfully resolved, the psychological trauma of childhood is necessarily reflected in the formation of their personalities. For some, it was a factor that taught them resilience in the most unfavourable conditions of life (e.g. boys washing cars, teenagers handing out flyers etc.), while for others it “broke their wings on take-off”, taught them to submit to fate, took away their ambition and did not give them faith in themselves (“we cannot live like this”, “money cannot be earned by honest work”).