Ukraine Is 30 And Fabulous
After 30 years of independence and many hurdles along the way, Ukraine is heading in the right direction; becoming a strong player in international entrepreneurship, tech startups and business. Despite slower-than-expected growth, and the challenges of reform, the nation’s people are optimistic and driven.
A younger generation taking part in government, a drastic mental and political shift away from the old Soviet mentality, and a booming IT sector—Ukraine’s is on the right track and its identity is coming into focus, thirty years after it declared independence from the USSR.
Though a separatist war with Russia in the country’s east still bangs on, economic growth is slow, and not all of the government’s promised reforms have been delivered; the new mindset many Ukrainians have adopted is cause for optimism and makes Ukraine stronger than ever.
“My country and I are the same age—thirty,” says Mykhailo Fedorov, deputy prime minister and the minister of digital transformation—a new ministry in Ukraine’s government, located in an old and massive government building. These days the building is usually filled with younger people in t-shirts and white converse sneakers. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is 43 years old. Prime-minister Denys Shmyhal is 46, the average age of a member of the nation’s government is 41, and the youngest member of parliament is 24.
“More and more people in business, in disruptive companies, in the government, were born in independent Ukraine. They have big goals—including goals for our country,” Fedorov says. At age 22, Fedorov founded a digital marketing and advertising agency, SMM studios.
Reflecting on Ukraine’s three-decade anniversary, he adds: “One needs to find your strengths and interests by thirty, in order to fully realize your potential. I believe Ukraine figured out its identity and found its strengths.” Among Ukraine’s advantageous qualities, Fedorov names the ability to be flexible and make bold decisions unlike other, established, more traditional systems. As examples he points to the fact that Ukraine seeks to build an entirely mobile government with automated electronic services for businesses – at the same time eliminating the need for a government official to act as an intermediary – and enable salary payments in crypto currencies.
Ukraine’s startups and tech companies already occupy a noteworthy space on the global scene. Many users around the world are familiar with apps like Reface, Grammarly, Revoult, Preply, and Petcube, and use them daily—not knowing that the products originated in Ukraine, produced by Ukrainian founders. Companies like Gitlab, MacPaw, Ajax Systems, and People.ai also have Ukrainian roots. The first NFT fashion coin founder is Kyiv-based designer and Forbes USA 30-Under-30 lister Anna Karenina.
While more prominent on the international tech and startup scene, Ukraine still struggles with remnants of its old, corrupt system, as well as an unreliable rule of law. In mid-April, when the COVID-19 pandemic kept Kyiv in lockdown, I spoke with Andy Hunder, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Ukraine, who, after having lived and worked in Ukraine since the mid-1990s, is very familiar with Ukraine’s powerful players and underlying issues. “The number one obstacle for investors in Ukraine is the rule of law,” he explained. “That’s what Ukraine needs to fix.”
But the old system doesn’t want to change, he said. The oligarchs still influence parliamentary votes, and for the country to be a free-market economy the parliament needs to be independent of oligarchical control. Hunder believes that president Zelensky understands the urgency of the issue and knows the problem has held back investment and economic growth for decades.
Zelensky is an entertainer—a former comedian-turned-actor, who played a teacher-turned-president in a popular TV series. In 2019 – in real life – he was elected president by over 70% of voters in a country of 40-plus million. He has encountered a lot of criticism for not fulfilling his campaign promises, including long-awaited judicial reform. However, in July, 2021, Ukraine’s parliament adopted two laws to relaunch the country’s compromised legal system. Meanwhile, a bill meant to strip oligarchs of their power was adopted in June.
To understand what a breakthrough these developments – all of which are yet to come to fruition – are for Ukraine, one need only remember all of the obstacles Ukraine encountered since its parliament voted to declare independence 30 years ago. The country’s cultural identity, sovereignty and even its very existence has always been under attack from its aggressive neighbor to the east, Russia. Even after many decades under the oppressive Soviet regime, and after enduring the colonizing tactics of Moscow, Ukraine has never been truly able to fully untangle itself from the puppet strings and red tape of the Kremlin and the former Soviet system—even after the USSR collapsed.
When I lived in Soviet Ukraine as a child, the streets were grey, decorated with soviet symbols: statues of Lenin, busts of Bolshevik revolutionaries and communist party leaders; hammers and sickles, constructivism art and red flags. On a bad day, soviet stores sold one or two types of kielbasa, canned peas, pickles, and fake chocolates that tasted like cardboards. In the 1990s, when the government-controlled economy gave way to a free market, the streets flooded with a chaotic invasion of retail kiosks – makeshift stores from which one could buy anything from fresh bread to slippers to cameras – and subway entrances and underground crossings were filled with folding tables covered with cheap, imported goods like potato chips, chicken thighs (known as “Bush’s legs”), Gallina Blanca broth cubes, and chocolate-covered raisins.
Very few brands had the courage to enter Ukraine in the unstable environment of the first decade of independence, scared off by a lack of rule of law, security and economic stability. That’s when the first big privatizations of state property took place, thus forming the oligarchy—a few powerful businessmen controlling resources and the country’s politics. Ukrainians, like myself, were leaving the country to look for better opportunities abroad, and to experience something new. Some people, especially Ukrainians from diaspora in North America and Europe, returned to Ukraine, hoping to help rebuild after Soviet rule ended. It was not as easy as they hoped it would be, and for years the country stagnated. At times, it seemed to be slipping back into Russia’s shadow.
The 2000s brought rapid growth and development to Ukraine, which attracted investment from within the country as well as from abroad. Internet cafés opened, luxury brands and various global companies arrived. Since 2015, dozens of retailers have launched locations in Ukraine, including Ikea and H&M.
It’s been decades since the streets were as grey as I remember them. Today they are a modern, colorful mix of European and Soviet architecture, with flashy billboards and advertisements, clever graffiti art, inviting outdoor dining areas, fountains, green parks with Ukrainians riding scooters and bikes—and no Soviet symbols. During the de-communization process in 2015, following the Maidan revolution, several cities, villages, and streets, previously named after communist leaders and themes, were renamed. Soviet monuments were removed, and those many statues of Lenin – ubiquitous during the Soviet times – were toppled, one after another, in cities and towns across all of Ukraine.
The most important turning points Ukraine has experienced over the past two decades have been its two revolutions. In 2004, the Orange Revolution kicked off as a backlash against fraudulent presidential elections; and, even more profound, 2013 brought with it the Maidan Revolution, also known as the Revolution of Dignity. That latest upheaval started as peaceful pro-European demonstrations which escalated to violent clashes between the people and government-controlled riot police. Eventually, then-president Viktor Yanukovych escaped to Russia and the Ukrainian parliament voted to remove him from office—a move that caused Russia to invade and annex Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, and spark a war in the country’s eastern region of Donbass. Over and over, the Ukrainian people proved they would fight fiercely for their country’s freedom and right to determine its future.
Though not all the hopes and dreams of the Maidan revolution have been realized, and there is plenty of disappointment in Ukraine’s lack of progress, a new breed of Ukrainians seems to be quite optimistic. Anton Melnik, a technology entrepreneur and co-founder of video communication app Runfaces, and meal coach app Nutroo.ai, was among the active protesters in Maidan. At 31, he is a successful entrepreneur who decided to invest his time and skills to build a new Ukraine, serving as an innovation, investment and startup expert in the Ministry of Digital Transformation. “Maidan was our biggest engagement into building a new country,” Melnik says. “We all felt it.”
After Russia invaded Crimea, many Ukrainians – most citizens are bilingual – chose to speak Ukrainian as opposed to the Russian language, which is more common in many regions (one of the consequences of russification during the times of Imperial and Soviet Russia). Melnik is one of them, and speaks Ukrainian only. “For me, the period of gentle Ukrainization is over,” he explains. “I understand that delays can sometimes go on forever.”
While not a member of the European Union, Ukrainians have enjoyed visa-free travel to EU countries since 2016, which is ultimately one of the results of the Maidan revolution, and underscored the people’s desire to integrate more closely with Europe and its freedoms.
“Ukraine has come through as a country. Largely, thanks to Putin, for helping unite the Ukrainian people,” says Eduard Rubin, founder of Telesens and member of the Supervisory Board of Kharkiv IT Cluster, the second largest community of IT companies in Ukraine. Rubin is a big proponent of Ukrainian students receiving a western education. “Why? I want western education to give people a new mindset,” he explains. “Because when they say we need new judges, where would we get them from?”
Rubin spent years attempting to reform some of Kharkiv’s educational institutions and faced resistance from the old, Soviet system and mentality of education. “People graduate from local law schools by paying bribes,” he explains. “They bribe in order to get returns on that investment.” That culture of bribery would be one the students would take with them when they eventually began work in the legal system, allowing a system of graft to continue.
Hunder, from his perch at the American Chamber of Commerce in Ukraine, is confident Ukraine is making progress and the shift in mentality is noticeable: “If you look at how quickly nations develop – some have taken longer… Obviously we would like it to happen quicker, but it’s really about waiting for that opportunity, for the generation that’s really ready to make that change. We all are hopeful that this generation is ready to take on this opportunity.”