KIEV, Ukraine -- First, some of the decade’s high points: Democracy triumphed, but only briefly, in the dead of the 2004-2005 winter. Millions of Ukrainians are living better than a decade ago. Many are eating better. Consumer goods are in abundance and many more people can afford them. More cars clog the city streets. Almost all teenagers have mobile phones, even if they have no money to use them.
Today, in fact, it is possible to purchase almost anything, including power, political patronage and university degrees, just like 10 years ago. And herein lies some of the nation’s intractable problems.For all the signs of progress, Ukraine’s achievements don’t decisively add up to a nation that is starting 2010 in better shape than it started the year 2000. Instead, the nation embarks on the new decade hobbled by many of the same old problems: distrust, corruption, instability, billionaires who stifle both democracy and the economy, a judicial system incapable of dispensing justice, a demographic crisis and dire poverty for a quarter or more of its 46 million people. And on and on.Still, taking into account decades and even centuries of misery, Ukrainians may have never had it so good. But millions – perhaps four million Ukrainians – have left the nation in frustration and in search of better lives and better jobs abroad, while many of those stayed behind in the homeland are quick to say that their lives are hard and should be better.Overall, the nation is freer, but still poor and corrupt.Here is a look back:Heroes to zeroesThe 2004 Orange Revolution is the decade’s highlight. It briefly enhanced national self-esteem and raised hopes. But the subsequent political breakup of heroes President Victor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko created instability, with the nation ending the decade in stagnation and economic recession.The decade started with former President Leonid Kuchma grabbing power after his 1999 re-election. When hundreds of hours of his taped conversations and the Sept. 16, 2000 murder of journalist Georgiy Gongadze showed that Kuchma may have grabbed too much power, people started to revolt.The disobedience of the Ukraine Without Kuchma rallies in the early 2000s paved the way for the 2002 parliamentary election triumph of Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine and Tymoshenko’s eponymous bloc. This national assertiveness culminated in the successful street protests of the Orange Revolution, which overturned the Nov. 21, 2004, presidential election rigged for Victor Yanukovych.Yushchenko was swept into office with high popularity and international adulation. He is ending his five-year term with almost no public support, in no small part because of his administration’s inability to solve crimes and rein in the nation’s high-flying billionaire oligarchs who control such a large share of the nation’s economy.Boom goes bustFueled largely by raw material exports and a credit boom, Ukraine’s decade of robust economic growth came to a screeching halt in the fall of 2008, and then slipped into reverse. The ongoing recession translated into extended furloughs, mass layoffs, a credit drought and a nation edging closer to default and bankruptcy.The central bank spent billions of dollars to prop up the hryvnia, but failed to arrest its slide from Hr 5 to the dollar to Hr 8. The International Monetary Fund rode to the rescue with a $16.4 billion line of credit, but abruptly stopped its lending at $11 billion after it blanched at the fiscal irresponsibility of the nation’s leaders.In rescuing the nation’s commercial banks, perhaps billions of dollars were misspent or stolen. The ex-chief executive officer of Nadra Bank, Igor Gilenko, was among the many accused criminals on the lam by year’s end.Lawlessness reignsThe birth of new media and death of Internet journalist Gongadze, co-founder of one of the country’s first news websites, Ukrainska Pravda, started the decade. The murder triggered civil disobedience and nationwide protests.Digital recordings implicated Kuchma in the crime and so many more: rigging court rulings and elections, illegal surveillance and blackmail. But the authorities spent the rest of the decade squelching any meaningful criminal investigation into the tapes revealed by Mykola Melnychenko, a former Kuchma bodyguard.Law enforcement – from police to prosecutors and judges – remains impotent, corrupt or unwilling to solve the nation’s major crimes.Information ageIn other areas, Ukraine joined the world in logging on to the Internet, blogging and connecting with each other on social networks, on You Tube and by texting. But traditional media – including TV stations with national reach – remained under the ownership of competing groups of influential businesspeople. While censorship is gone, few would argue that Ukraine’s public and media are truly free, at least in the information sphere.Constitutional gridlockThe nation ends the decade still trying to find a Constitution that works. Kuchma sought stronger presidential powers in 2000, but was rebuffed. Yushchenko wants changes to the Constitution he agreed to amend in 2005 to end the Orange Revolution. The guiding document today muddles executive authority, diluting presidential powers and giving the prime minister many executive roles.Economy The hryvnia is worth half of what it was in 2000 against the dollar and inflation has worsened its buying power. In 2000, Yushchenko became prime minister and helped to mitigate the economic lows of the 1990s. He and his deputy prime minister, Tymoshenko, squeezed out corruption from the electricity sector and started paying wages and pensions on time.Combined with his successful introduction of the hryvnia in 1996, Yushchenko was building his reputation as a successful economic manager. But the Yushchenko-Tymoshenko pair did nothing to break Kuchma’s grip over law enforcement or the doling out of state assets to favored insiders in rigged privatizations.Government stakes in chemical factories and regional energy utilities were put on the auction block and sold like fattened calves to oligarchs within the president’s close circle. As the 2004 election neared, Kuchma undertook the mother of all scams by selling the country’s largest steel producer Kryvorizhstal to his son-in-law, Victor Pinchuk, and Donetsk billionaire Rinat Akhmetov for $800 million, a small fraction of its worth.Re-privatization became the mantra of the Orange team of Yushchenko and Tymoshenko. They re-sold Kryvorizhstal to ArcelorMittal in late 2005 for $4.8 billion – six times the Akhmetov-Pinchuk price of a year ago – in a fair, open, transparent, competitive, televised auction. The success was never repeated, before or since, in the nation’s history.International affairsRelations between Kyiv and Moscow deteriorated significantly after the 2004 Orange Revolution, following the defeat of Kremlin-favored presidential candidate Yanukovych. Yushchenko embarked on an agenda to bring Ukraine closer to NATO and the European Union, irritating Moscow.In the end, Ukraine came no closer to either. Yushchenko further alienated Ukraine’s big neighbor by seeking to win international recognition of the Holodomor famine of 1932-1933 as Soviet genocide of millions of Ukrainians who starved to death.Ukraine and Russia sparred over the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Crimea and the 2008 Russia-Georgia war. Disputes over natural gas pricing prompted Moscow to cut off supplies twice, in 2006 and again in 2009.At decade’s end, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was flirting with his counterpart, Tymoshenko, keeping his distance from Yanukovych and doing nothing to conceal his contempt for Yushchenko.Ukraine’s reputation suffered in many parts of the world as unending tragedies, disasters and political infighting gave rise to questions about whether the nation can govern itself. “Ukraine fatigue” arose in Europe.The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America shifted the attention of one of Ukraine’s friendlier international patrons. The U.S. remained bogged down in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq through much of the decade, and is now beset by its own economic troubles and spiraling debt.Death, disease, despairFrom an estimated 54 million persons living in Ukraine in 1991, the decade closed with just under 46 million people estimated to be living in the nation today. There are 8.5 million less Ukrainians than 10 years ago.The nation has yet to find the key to reversing its demographic slide and public health crisis. With one of the highest death and suicides rates in Europe, Ukraine is the European leader in HIV/AIDS prevalence and tuberculosis.It is a world leader in smoking and child alcoholism. The number of Ukrainian drug addicts increased exponentially over the last decade. Officially, Ukraine has more than 500,000 hard-drug users but, unofficially, it is believed to have many more.Poverty may be at the root of much of this social breakdown. Some 26 million Ukrainians earn less than Hr 1,567 ($200) monthly, according to Myroslav Yakibchuk, the head of the National Forum of Labor Unions in Ukraine.No one knows for sure, because so much of the economy remains in the shadows. Some experts say that real disposable income increased by 178 percent in the last 10 years.But debts also grew, reaching $19 billion (about 30 percent of gross domestic product) in sovereign foreign debt and more than $100 billion in foreign debt, private and public.And simply changing the calendar doesn’t wipe the slate clean.