Ukraine 1990: the promise and the reality

The year 1990 may be remembered as the fifth year of glasnost or the first six months of a sovereign Ukraine. From the perspective of Ukrainians in the West, visitors to Ukraine and perhaps even visitors from Ukraine, the effects of glasnost may appear self-evident. From the academic perspective, the situation at the end of 1990 appears ominous and gloomy.

It can be posited that after the euphoria of the July 16. Declaration of State Sovereignty or even the notable return to Ukraine of Patriarch Mstyslav in recent weeks, the future perspective is less clear. Thus while this writer has already maintained strongly that Ukraine merits independence, let us examine briefly the reality at the end of the year.

That there is a political crisis in Ukraine is clear, though its causes may be less so. Simply put, there are two: the all-union government of President Mikhail Gorbachev's efforts to force through an unpopular union agreement; and a deliberate attempt by the Communist Party leadership of Ukraine to foster a situation that is close to civil war.

Mr. Gorbachev's attitude was expressed indirectly in the speech of the USSR First Deputy Minister of Defense M.O. Moiseyev to the Ukrainian Parliament in late November. The army is dependent upon its Ukrainian contingent for its future viability. Not only does Ukraine supply 17 percent of the Soviet armed forces, it has "armed strategic nuclear forces" on Ukrainian territory. About 3,500 soldiers have deserted from the Soviet army in 1990, including 184 residents of Ukraine. Soldiers have been harassed and even assassinated.

On July 30, the Ukrainian SSR Supreme Soviet had voted to demand that Ukrainian soldiers serving in "regions of national conflict such as Armenia and Azerbaidzhan" be returned to the territory of Ukraine and that "Ukrainians must serve on the territory of the republic." However, the Soviet leadership has no intention of permitting Ukraine control over its own armed forces. Ukrainian Parliament Chairman Leonid Kravchuk's conciliatory speech in response to Mr. Moiseyev implies that the Communist leadership of the Parliament is unlikely to try to force the issue. And without its own armed forces, Ukraine will always be prey to the chance of a military coup and all-union control over its resources. It is a power struggle that cannot be won.

Clearly the Communists within the Parliament represent a dwindling amount of popular support. But paradoxically they have been provided with a valuable propaganda tool through the re-emergence - at least in spirit - of integral nationalism in western Ukraine, as manifested in commemorative statues to 1930s OUN leaders Stepan Bandera and Andriy Melnyk and numerous articles that have maintained that members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) should be venerated as heroes for their wartime exploits against Stalinism. The Ukrainian Republican Party contains a significant faction that promotes similar viewpoints.

The highlights of 1990 remain the formation of a human chain from Lviv to Kiev to mark Ukrainian independence day on January 22, election of a new Supreme Soviet, the "defection" of party leader Volodymyr Ivashko to Mr. Gorbachev's presidential council, the Declaration of State Sovereignty on July 16, and the artificially created religious conflict within the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. In addition, ecological issues and the continuing ramifications of the Chornobyl disaster have also predominated. All merit a brief analysis.

The spring 1990 election, in retrospect, may be perceived as a signal victory for the Communist Party of Ukraine. While evidently struggling to find a purpose, becoming alienated from the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Soviet Union in Moscow, and insofar as the November 1989 election manifesto was concerned, far apart from the wishes of voters, the Ukrainian party leadership used all its resources to obtain a significant majority in the assembly. Domination of the media outlets, traditional voting practices, and the delayed registration of any other political groups rendered the Communists' position unassailable.

Nevertheless, it proved to be a pyrrhic victory. The opposition, though at first limited to about 90 seats, as a democratic bloc resorted to a variety of tactics (not all of which could be termed democratic) to make their presence felt. Moreover, the mood of the republic became radicalized so that the opposition now grouped in the National Council (Narodna Rada) and controlling perhaps a quarter of the seats in Parliament, was soon able to act as a focus for public discontent. Parliament Chairman Volodymyr Ivashko's "desertion" came at a time of worsening economic crisis and was widely regarded as a betrayal by members of Parliament. How far it affected the surprising Declaration of Sovereignty remains a moot point.

Shortly before the first sitting of Parliament, the fourth anniversary of Chornobyl brought forth new revelations. The regions affected by radioactive cesium and strontium were declared to be wider than originally thought, affecting northern regions of Rivne Oblast in addition to the monitored zones of Kiev, Zhytomyr and Chernihiv. All together, it was stated that 3.5 million hectares of agricultural land fell into the contaminated zone, as did 1.5 million hectares of forest.

Over the summer, even this gloomy prognosis proved to be a serious underestimate of the fallout. It transpired that an area of northern Volyn encompassing 10 percent of the oblast's population fell into the zone, as did areas of Cherkasy Oblast to the east. The city of Slavutych being built for Chornobyl operatives was acknowledged to have been built on a radioactive patch. The Parliament voted overwhelmingly (363-5) on August 1 to close the Chornobyl nuclear power plant and work on an energy program that would eventually eliminate all atomic power stations from Ukraine.

Two important problems from Chornobyl continue to plague Ukraine. First, the continuing existence of the station itself has been a major irritant. Despite the Declaration of Sovereignty, it has remained under the jurisdiction of the USSR Ministry of Nuclear Power and Industry. It is scheduled for shutdown in 1995, but operates in the center of a highly contaminated zone, surrounded by 800 radioactive waste dumps and amid a protracted debate about the future of the "sarcophagus" covering, which requires daily care and stabilization.

Second, a recent article published by the head of the nature protection monitoring department with the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences has pointed out that there has been almost no radiological control over food supplies produced in the contaminated zone. Literally thousands of tons of irradiated dairy products and potatoes have been distributed at markets across Ukraine. To the consternation of Ukrainians, the official announced that strict monitoring had been maintained only over those products being sent to the cities of Leningrad and Moscow.

The number of deaths related directly to Chornobyl is acknowledged by a Chornobyl official to be over 5,000. One can surmise that the real total is considerably higher than this.

Western efforts to assist victims of Chornobyl have been considerable and varied. Conversely they have been notable, as a Canadian government official complained this month, for their lack of a single coordinated body to direct them. Such diversification of aid is bewildering also for the recipients: the International Red Cross, Greenpeace International, the Children of Chornobyl and other groups have thus far made commendable but essentially peripheral attempts to address an enormous and growing problem of illnesses, radioactive food, monitoring of soil and food, and the predicaments associated with new evacuations of population.

The July 16 Declaration of State Sovereignty of Ukraine itself came as a surprise, but the Communist majority, in an effort to stave off dwindling support (72,000 renounced party membership in the first nine months of 1990, whereas only 13,000 joined the party), virtually purloined the opposition program, albeit in a very moderate form. The declaration has been much debated. Suffice it to say here that its importance lay in its intent. Its application to the existing political reality remained and still remains in the future.

The Law on Economic Sovereignty passed on August 3 represented an effort to visualize Ukraine's economic future. These two Parliamentary moves represented the high point of the year in terms of Ukraine's independent and democratic aspirations. They have been followed by increasingly retrogressive steps to "bring Ukraine back" into the mainstream of the union.

On the face of it, imminent change seemed likely. The Communist Party introduced a new statute that opened membership to all citizens over the age of 18. Fifteen political parties had been officially registered in Ukraine by August. Mr. Kravchuk appeared to be more flexible as chairman of the Parliament than his longtime predecessor, Valentyna Shevchenko. New party leader Stanislav Hurenko continued to follow the view that independence within a reformed union must be achieved, and outright separatists and "nationalist extremists" should be dealt with severely. But actual change came so slowly that the population grew restive.

Further, what are termed "conservative forces" but might be described more aptly as "the authorities" instituted a well-coordinated attack on the forces of the opposition. They did so after two setbacks. A remarkable student demonstration and hunger strike in the city of Kiev failed to achieve a new parliamentary election, but did result in the resignation of Prime Minister Vitaliy Masol, who had remained one of the barriers to economic reform in Ukraine.

And the arrival of Patriarch Mstyslav was a serious embarrassment to the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine. While both events were dramatic and of importance, the backlash has been severe.

The patriarch's triumphant parade through Ukraine was countered by the official declaration of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church and an unsavory struggle for individual buildings - particularly St. Sophia Cathedral - between the UAOC and UOC. This conflict embraces concepts that are much wider than those of religion. Underlying the dispute is Ukraine's subjugation to Russia, the legacy of Kievan Rus' and the vision of a "Russian union" as articulated by personages such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

The arrest of People's Deputy Stepan Khmara on November 17 within the confines of Parliament was an act reminiscent of the Brezhnev period. It coincided with warnings to Ukrainians to "be vigilant" against nationalist extremists, Banderivtsi and members of the Ukrainian Republican Party, and mass demonstrations in Kiev, Chernihiv and other cities organized by the authorities and using demonstrators from mainly non-Ukrainian regions of the republic, such as Odessa and Bilhorod.

The Communist bloc majority in Parliament succeeded on November 29 in passing a new law banning demonstrations during working hours and permitting police to use water cannon to disperse protesters. Within the next few days, police began applying the law, arresting democratic activists.

Such actions appear to have an all-union dimension. The Gorbachev regime in the latter part of 1990 has made several statements espousing its desire to keep the union together at all costs. There have been calls for the establishment of a military dictatorship. President Gorbachev himself has declared that all-union trade requirements must render null and void the recent efforts of "independent" republics to enter into new trade agreements: in Ukraine's case with Hungary, Poland, and with other Soviet republics such as Russia, Georgia and Lithuania. The all-union KGB has even called for the abolition of political parties in the interests of unity.

It might be posited that such a reaction represents a last-ditch effort by the authorities to curb the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the Ukrainian case, the "conservatives" are obliged to act before a new parliamentary election or even a vote of confidence. The authorities' stance, in effect, means that the principles of sovereignty cannot yet be brought into operation.

Ukraine's defense and power industries, and possibly even an important source of raw material like the coal industry remain under the jurisdiction of all-union ministries in Moscow. The Ministry of Defense has refused to countenance a separate Ukrainian army or the dismantling of strategic nuclear forces on Ukrainian territory. At the same time, these substantial forces might be held in readiness for a strike against overt insurgence in western Ukraine.

To date, if one views the situation from the opposition's perspective, two major problems have arisen.

First, as Kiev Rukh leader Serhiy Holovaty noted in mid-December at a meeting with Canadian External Affairs officials in Ottawa, no Western government has been prepared to support, either openly or otherwise, declarations or implementation of state sovereignty in Soviet republics. Canadian policy supports a peaceful transition to a market economy that supposedly is best attained through unqualified support for President Gorbachev. Ironically, the ultimate consequence of such support (and this also applies to the U.S. Department of State) may be official Western backing for actions such as the arrest of Mr. Khmara or a projected military takeover in western Ukraine.

Second, Rukh to date, has not offered an alternative structure of government for an independent Ukraine. Its October congress emphasized the organization's new commitment to an independent Ukraine (one of the pretexts used by the authorities for the campaign against it); members such as Veniamin Sikora have outlined new economic proposals. Yet such measures remain in their infancy and depend ultimately on assistance from the West, which today appears as remote as ever.

Finally, the Ukrainian economy has continued to deteriorate. The introduction of coupons occurred too hastily to be effective and there was disgruntlement at the lack of parliamentary debate over the measure. Hunger and poverty have become paramount problems (though fears of famine appear to be premature). Ukraine has reduced exports of grain and other foodstuffs outside the boundaries of the republic, but supply difficulties are endemic. Further, more than 40 percent of the population may be living below the official poverty line of 75 rubles monthly per family member. While electricity production has been maintained, shortfalls have occurred in major industries such as coal and steel, the output of which has fallen well below even the very moderate 1990 targets.

Economic problems have only aggravated the grave social crisis, the polarization of the population and efforts at national unity. The Crimean Tatars have returned to the peninsula, which intends to hold a referendum in 1991 on the issue of sovereignty. The alternative futures for the Crimea - a zone of chemical and metallurgical industries that have polluted the once idyllic vacation zone, and a key Soviet air force base - are said to be fourfold: a union republic; an autonomous republic under Ukrainian jurisdiction; an autonomous republic under Russian jurisdiction (Russians make up the majority of the population); or an autonomous republic with some sort of special status.

The political situation in eastern Ukrainian industrial cities has remained uncertain. Clearly Rukh and other nationally conscious parties have made some inroads, but they have not yet succeeded in earning the confidence of the majority of the population.

The Ukrainian and Russian coal miners who work in the Donbas coalfield held their second national congress in 1990, confirming their antagonism toward Moscow, the establishment of their own trade union, and general disillusionment with the existing political climate. Coal miners remain an angry and potent force that presages a high degree of industrial unrest in Ukraine in 1991.

Toward the end of the year, the Donbas Intermovement was formed in Donetske. It bills itself as a movement of internationalists that supports a union treaty and retention of a single all-union economic market. Similarly, a separatist movement was formed in southern Ukraine. Called "Novorossiya," it aims at attaining "special state status" for the region encompassing the Odessa, Mykolayiv, Kherson, Dnipropetrovske and Crimea oblasts.

Thus the end of 1990 is a time of great uncertainty and public fear. Civil war provoked by the authorities, is a possibility requiring only a spark to ignite it. The provisions of sovereignty remain largely on the table. The retrograde Communists, now reduced to a "Group of 239" within the Parliament, have already displayed their willingness to resort to highly undemocratic measures to force their will. And one cannot ignore the explosive developments in the Ukrainian Piedmont - western Ukraine.

By all accounts, the last few months have seen a significant setback for the forces of democratization in Ukraine. The question remains: Do these forces possess the unity and farsightedness to unite in the face of official repression and provocations? Herein may lie the political future of a sovereign Ukraine.

- Dr. David Marples

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, December 30, 1990, No. 52, Vol. LVIII

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