WORLD

Shadows on Red Square

Ukraine’s actions threaten national unity

MALCOLM GRAY November 4 1991
WORLD

Shadows on Red Square

Ukraine’s actions threaten national unity

MALCOLM GRAY November 4 1991

Shadows on Red Square

WORLD

THE SOVIET UNION

Ukraine’s actions threaten national unity

Heavily armed Soviet soldiers massed outside the Russian legislature last week—but they caused little more than aggravation among Moscow drivers, who had to detour around barricades and armored vehicles for the second time in two months. That is because the 11T-72 tanks and 10 troop carriers that appeared near the parliament buildings were manoeuvring strictly for movie cameras, taking part in a $14-million re-enactment of August’s failed military coup. Despite the traffic problems, some Muscovites expressed grudging respect for the international production’s success in persuading Soviet officials to let them re-create the putsch in central Moscow. Among them was Konstantin Federov, a 32-year-old electrician who said that he had helped defend Russian President Boris Yeltsin at the besieged legislature, known as the White House, last summer. “Yeltsin should be so efficient—he has not been an effective leader since the coup failed,” complained Federov. “The economy is collapsing, and Ukraine and other republics want to be independent, with their own armies and nuclear weapons.”

Such views are now widely held—and expressed—in Moscow and other cities across the former Soviet Union. In fact, in a poll of

Muscovites commissioned for the Soviet news agency TASS last week, 64 per cent of the 902 respondents said that they believe the country’s chaotic political situation had either failed to improve or actually worsened during the past two months. Certainly, Russia and seven other republics earlier this month managed to sign an economic pact to maintain a shared currency and banking system. But Ukraine and three other republics, Azerbaijan, Moldova and Georgia, refused to sign the agreement, increasing concerns that the political and economic disintegration of the old union would continue. Indeed, with countrywide inflation increasing at a staggering 10 per cent each month, Russia has announced its readiness to introduce its own currency if other republics take that step.

Yeltsin argues that the measure is needed to prevent Russia from being inundated with near-worthless rubles from other republics. But Mikhail Belyayev, a spokesman for the Central Bank of Russia, voiced reservations last week. Said Belyayev: “The introduction of new money is not the best way to stabilize the economic situation in the republic.”

Opening a special meeting of the disintegrating country’s national parliament early last week, President Mikhail Gorbachev urged the

independence-minded republics to reverse course and work together to ensure food and heat supplies this winter. Gorbachev told the deputies that some people want the country to return to the old system of highly centralized control, while others want each republic to be completely independent, with only minimal political and economic links. But both of those ideas, he warned, are doomed. Declared Gorbachev: “If either of these propositions are enacted, I’m very deeply convinced that the consequences will be catastrophic for all the people, both high and low.”

Ukraine, meanwhile, a key partner in any new union, is continuing its drive towards full independence with a referendum planned to be held in December. With its 52 million people, extensive industry and rich farmland, the republic is second only to Russia in its importance to the Soviet economy. And as the Soviet parliament met in Moscow last week in an attempt to draft plans for a loose confederation, Gorbachev, Yeltsin and seven other republican leaders issued a flattering joint appeal to Ukraine. “Let us be frank,” the statement read. “We

cannot imagine a union without Ukraine.”

But Ukrainian officials have balked at some provisions of the economic treaty, including one that would maintain central control over most of the republic’s food production. Said Ukrainian first deputy prime minister Konstantin Masik: “We do not want Moscow to take us by the throat. Those times are over. We are not going to create a central fund for some—excuse the expression—clerk in Moscow to divide for us.”

Ukrainian legislators meeting in the capital of Kiev did something else last week that could only diminish Gorbachev’s hopes for a new union structure: they authorized the formation of a 420,000-member republican army. That action, accompanied by the parliament’s demand for at least joint control over about 2,000 nuclear warheads, occurred despite Gorbachev’s assertion that individual republics could not lay claim to Soviet military forces on their territory. Indeed, Vladimir Kryzhanivsky, a Ukrainian government representative in Moscow, heightened the growing tension between Kiev and central authorities by announcing that the republican

army, air force and naval units would be drawn in part from an estimated 1.2 million Soviet military personnel who are now stationed in the republic.

In Kiev, the Ukrainian legislators said that the new military forces would be used only for defensive purposes, and they tried to allay Western concern about Soviet republics joining the nuclear-weapons club. They insisted that Ukraine still intended to become a non-nuclear state. To that end, the legislators said, they would pursue a policy of neutralizing nuclear weapons now stationed in the republic. But apart from an expressed desire to take part in disarmament talks with other nuclear powers, there was no indication of how Ukraine planned to disarm weapons that are still under Soviet jurisdiction.

In any event, Soviet military officials are now expressing optimism that the projected costs of a separate military structure—up to 50 billion rubles, or $1.9 billion at the highest official rate of exchange, per year, according to some estimates—will persuade Ukraine to modify or even drop its plans. But as soldiers and armored vehicles replayed the tense days of August near the Russian legislature last week, it was clear to Soviet citizens that they were likely to encounter many more roadblocks on the way to political and economic stability.

MALCOLM GRAY in Moscow