“Chicken Kyiv Speech” tested by History

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“This beautiful city brings to mind the words of the poet Alexander Dovzhenko: “The city of Kyiv is an orchard. Kyiv is a poet. Kyiv is an epic. Kyiv is history. Kyiv is art”. Centuries ago, your forebears named this country Ukraine, or “frontier,” because your steppes link Europe and Asia. But Ukrainians have become frontiersmen of another sort. Today you explore the frontiers and contours of liberty. ” – that is how the US President’s speech in the Ukrainian Parliament started on August 1st, 1991. It was the first time ever an American President was giving a speech in those walls. Beautiful words! So true! “We will maintain the strongest possible relationship with the Soviet Government of President Gorbachev. But we also appreciate the new realities of life in the U.S.S.R. And therefore, as a federation ourselves, we want good relations — improved relations – with the Republics. So, let me build upon my comments in Moscow by describing in more detail what Americans mean when we talk about freedom, democracy, and economic liberty…” – so, in the U.D. President’s opinion Moscow was to become for the former Soviet Republics what the city of Washington was for the states of America?

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“…Yet freedom is not the same as independence. Americans will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism. They will not aid those who promote a suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred.” So, freedom for Ukraine is not independence from Moscow? Where did phrases about “ethnic hatred”, “local despotism”, and “suicidal nationalism” come from? 

During that speech, two notable people happened to be present in the audience. One was  William Safire, a political columnist for the New York Times.A couple of months later, he published an essay in the newspaper titled “Ukraine Marches On” where for the first time he used the phrase “Chicken Kyiv Speech” which became proverbial:

Unprincipled” is the word used to describe President Bush by Mykhailo Horyn, a former political prisoner, and founder of Rukh, the Ukrainian independence movement, “We prefer Thomas Jefferson“. Fighters for Ukraine free of Russian imperial rule are still smarting at Mr. Bush’s speech in Kyiv this summer blasting “suicidal nationalism” and touting the Gorbachev Center. That misreading of the forces of history in his “chicken Kyiv” speech not only made one American President appear to be anti-liberty, but jeopardized our relations with an emerging European power.

Ukraine (the article “the” is dropped when referring to a country, not a province) is the great, hobnailed boot that will drop on Dec. 1 on top of Moscow Center’s pretensions to empire. On that day of the referendum, at least two out of three Ukrainians are likely to vote to assert their country’s national sovereignty. On that day, the Soviet “union” will die.”

William Safire’s predictions about the Ukrainian Referendum of Independence were even exceeded with 92.3% of voters approving the Declaration. (Check the results on how strong support for Ukraine’s Independence was in Donetsk, Lugansk, and Crimea by following the link above)

13 years later, during the peaceful Orange Revolution in Ukraine, Safire shared some insights into how the article above affected his relationship with George H.W. Bush. This time his article in the NY Times was titled “Putin’s Chicken Kyiv“:

“The elder President Bush’s most memorable foreign-policy blunder took place in Kyiv in 1991, then under Communist rule. With the Soviet Union coming apart, the U.S. president — badly advised by the stability-obsessed “realist” Brent Scowcroft — made a speech urging Ukrainians yearning for independence to beware of “suicidal nationalism.” His speech, which he now insists meant only “not so fast,” was widely taken as advice to remain loyal to Moscow’s empire…

I dubbed this the “Chicken Kyiv” speech. That so infuriated Bush, who mistakenly saw the phrase as imputing cowardice rather than charging colossal misjudgment, that he has not spoken to me since.”

The second person present in the Ukrainian Parliament during the speech was a young Canadian reporter of Ukrainian origin. In less than 10 years she will become the Bureau Chief for the Financial Times in Moscow. In another 10 years – Canada’s Minister of Trade, and eventually in 2016 – Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. Because of her stance and articles like “My Ukraine and Putin’s Big Lies” she is “persona non-grata” in Russia even in her current position. Her name was and is Ms. Christya Freeland.

In the article “My Ukraine”, first published in Brookings in 2015, Ms. Freeland describes the situation with the speech at a distance of almost a quarter of the century from that day in the Ukrainian Parliament:

“In July of that year 1991, Bush traveled first to Moscow to shore up Gorbachev, then to Ukraine, where, on Aug. 1, he delivered a speech to the Ukrainian Parliament exhorting his audience to give Gorbachev a chance at keeping the reforming Soviet Union together. “Americans will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism. They will not aid those who promote a suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred.” I was living in Kyiv at the time, working as a stringer for the FT, The Economist, and The Washington Post. Listening to Bush in the parliamentary press gallery, I felt he had misread the growing consensus in Ukraine. That became even clearer immediately afterward when I interviewed Ukrainian members of Parliament (MPs), all of whom expressed outrage and scorn at Bush for, as they saw it, taking Gorbachev’s side. The address, which New York Times columnist William Safire memorably dubbed the “Chicken Kyiv speech,” backfired in the United States as well, antagonizing Americans of Ukrainian descent and other East European diasporas, which may have hurt Bush’s chances of reelection, costing him support in several key states.”

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