WORLD

The Ukrainian factor

Shortages strike the nation’s breadbasket

MALCOLM GRAY December 3 1990
WORLD

The Ukrainian factor

Shortages strike the nation’s breadbasket

MALCOLM GRAY December 3 1990

The Ukrainian factor

THE SOVIET UNION

Shortages strike the nation’s breadbasket

Outside the legislature in Kiev last week, about 2,000 demonstrators marched in a disciplined demonstration of support for the local Communists who still rule the famed breadbasket of the Soviet Union. Many carried the red-and-blue banner of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. But at the fringes of the march, bright splashes of yellow and blue were also visible as hundreds of counter-demonstrators waved the flag of the Ukrainian nationalist movement. Only two years ago, there would have been no such symbolic clash of colors, say leaders of Rukh, a nationalist organization with five million supporters that is pressing for full independence from Moscow. Now, as that movement gains strength across Ukraine, even government leaders acknowledge the rising tide of nationalism in a former bastion of communism. “There is no doubt about it,” declared Ivan Plüsch, the deputy chairman of the Ukrainian Supreme Soviet. “Ukraine will be independent.”

For Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, the stepped-up drive for Ukrainian independence is part of an increasingly chaotic picture of a country fast splitting apart at the seams. Facing restive republics and desperately worsening food shortages, on Friday the Soviet parliament gave final approval to a resolution that will increase Gorbachev’s already considerable executive powers by subordinating the

government to him. -Deputies asked the president to develop a more effective power structure within two weeks to ensure rehable supplies of food during the winter. At a news conference later, Gorbachev reiterated his insistence that the country’s 15 republics sign a so-called union treaty re-establishing their links with the Kremlin—and he warned of disastrous consequences if they fail to do so.

On the food front, Gorbachev last week continued to solicit, and receive, promises of emergency supplies of basic goods from abroad. In Paris, where he attended the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Soviet president met for 45 minutes with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Later, Mulroney announced that Canada would provide millions of dollars in food aid to the Soviets this winter, not as a gift, but under “favorable” terms. The goods are expected to include meat, flour and cereals—under existing arrangements with the Canadian Wheat Board, the Soviets have about $850 million in remaining credits.

For Ukrainians, the extreme shortages of food and consumer goods are almost a personal affront: the vast republic produces one-third of the country’s food supplies and contains one-fourth of its industries. Plüsch, the deputy chairman and staunch Communist who expressed his support for such Gorbachevinspired initiatives as the

switch to a free-market system, declared: “Ukraine is as big as France, and this year we produced as much grain—50 million tons, or one ton for everyone living in the republic. But France does not have food shortages and we do.” Plüsch claims that one cause of the shortages is sabotage by members of the still-intact, centrally planned Soviet bureaucracy who are reluctant to give up their power. The bureaucrats, he alleges, divert food shipments to the black market or dump them in an effort to subvert perestroika.

Like many of their counterparts in the country’s other 14 republics, Ukrainians have begun taking matters into their own hands. Since Nov. 1, the republican government has been issuing rationing coupons for the purchase of scarce consumer products, a measure intended to prevent outsiders from buying up the republic’s goods. And as the struggle for power between the Kremlin and the republics continues, Ukraine and Russia last week forged closer direct links by signing a bilateral trade pact. Under the 10-year agreement, the country’s two most populous republics recognized each other’s sovereignty and also pledged joint efforts in the fields of politics, science and technology. And they made it clear that they are no longer willing to wait patiently for the fulfilment of Gorbachev’s promise to forge a new union treaty redefining the federal government’s power over the republics. Said Russian President Boris Yeltsin in Kiev: “We cannot idle away the time.”

The Russian leader also dismissed a statement by Gorbachev that other republics should be wary of too much power shifting to Russia, which has two-thirds of the Soviet Union’s landmass and much of its natural resources. Far from “claiming for itself a key role,” Yeltsin insisted, Russia showed a desire in its dealings with Ukraine “to build relations on an equal basis.” Still, many Ukrainians express concern that a too-close union with Yeltsin’s powerhouse republic would once again result in the eclipse of their homeland’s growing nationalism. Since the 17th century, when eastern Ukrainians signed a treaty with Czar Alexis to prevent an invasion by Poland, which already controlled western Ukraine, Russia has exercised political and cultural domination over increasing areas of the region. Upsurges in Ukrainian nationalism, including the period between 1918 and 1920 when Ukraine enjoyed a brief independence, have been followed by intense, so-called Russification.

As a result, the coal-mining and industrial regions in the eastern part of Ukraine have been densely populated by Russian migrants, who now form one-quarter of the republic’s population. Many of those Russians have an emotional attachment to Kiev, and they openly oppose independence for Ukraine. Said Oles Donij, a Ukrainian student leader and Rukh board member: “To lose Ukraine would be like cutting off a limb for many Russians. It is very difficult for them to accept psychologically.” In 1918, as the Bolsheviks were struggling to control the fertile steppes that have traditionally served as a buffer between Russia and the

West, Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin referred to another piece of anatomy to express the same sentiment. “For us to lose Ukraine,” he said, “would be the same as losing our head.” Still, even in such eastern cities as Kharkov, as well as in Kiev, Ukrainians now take renewed pride in speaking their own distinctive language instead of the Russian that once prevailed across the republic. But nationalism is strongest in and around Lvov, a picturesque university city of almost one million residents in the rolling countryside of western Ukraine. There, in a rich farming region that Soviet dictator Josef Stalin wrested from Poland in

1939, Rukh consolidated its power base last spring when it captured 160 of the 200 seats in the Lvov regional parliament.

In September, the newly installed local authorities sent a clear signal of their attitudes towards Soviet orthodoxy: they dismantled a massive statue of Lenin that had dominated the city’s main square. In doing so, they discovered that the builders had used Polish and Jewish gravestones to provide a firm base for the monument. That grisly discovery only bolstered Ukrainians’ desire for independence, and increased public calls for such measures as a ban on Soviet induction of local military

draftees. Already, nationalist sentiments have prompted the republican parliament to pass a resolution that demands that Ukrainian conscripts serve their two-year terms within the republic.

But the most controversial republican measure has been the Ukraine-wide rationing system. Without the pale-blue government-issued coupons, Ukrainian workers, students and pensioners cannot use rubles to purchase already scarce food and many other consumer goods. Some nationalists, including Igor Yukhnovsky, the leader of the opposition People’s Council, which comprises one-third of the Ukrainian legislature, defended the measure. He claimed that it was a necessary step towards the issuing of a separate Ukrainian currency. “Any closing down of a system eventually leads to disorder,” said Yukhnovsky, a physics professor from Lvov who, unlike many of his colleagues, still retains his Communist party membership card. He added, “But in the short term, this will prevent Poles and Russians from coming here and buying out our stores.”

In the food shops and department stores of Kiev, however, lines formed last week for items ranging from meat to always-scarce cigarettes. Customers thronging a department store complained that the coupon system had simply added another complication to their lives. One woman, a member of a slowly moving line of customers waiting to buy rabbit-fur hats, pointed to a cash desk where two clerks were on duty: one to accept money and ring up the purchases, the other to clip out the required number of coupons. Another large crowd pressed around a counter where Christmas decorations were on sale. Said Vasily Klimyk, a 25-year-old factory worker: “We have coupons, but we do not have more goods as promised. The coupons have made it necessary to spend more time standing in lineups, and the queues are as long as ever.”

In another lineup, Oleg Galayov, a 65-yearold retired military officer, said that he had to come to the store twice a day to ensure that his name was not struck off a waiting list to buy a scarce commodity: a small, Soviet-made color television set priced at $1,700. Complained Galayov: “During the so-called era of stagnation, when Leonid Brezhnev was running things, there were televisions for sale.”

But during the Brezhnev years, and much of Gorbachev’s tenure as well, the Kremlin firmly suppressed Ukrainian nationalism. Les Tanyuk, a 52-year-old theatre director, recalled that during the 1960s, local authorities persecuted many of his nationalist colleagues for anti-Soviet activities. Tanyuk himself moved to Moscow, where in 1981 he successfully opened a play filled with anti-Brezhnev satirical references. But he eventually returned to Kiev and, last March, he won a seat in the Ukrainian legislature. Now, according to Tanyuk, he and fellow members of Rukh are waiting again— for the failing Soviet economy to demonstrate that separation from Moscow is Ukraine’s best hope for progress.

MALCOLM GRAY

in Kiev