WORLD

A HOUSE OF CARDS

UKRAINE’S VOTE FOR INDEPENDENCE HASTENS THE DISINTEGRATION OF THE OLD SOVIET UNION

MALCOLM GRAY December 16 1991
WORLD

A HOUSE OF CARDS

UKRAINE’S VOTE FOR INDEPENDENCE HASTENS THE DISINTEGRATION OF THE OLD SOVIET UNION

MALCOLM GRAY December 16 1991

A HOUSE OF CARDS

WORLD

UKRAINE’S VOTE FOR INDEPENDENCE HASTENS THE DISINTEGRATION OF THE OLD SOVIET UNION

President Mikhail Gorbachev’s goal of a renewed Soviet Union received two severe blows last week: Ukrainians voted overwhelmingly for independence, and his beleaguered central government came perilously close to bankruptcy. Two days after Ukraine’s Dec. 1 referendum on independence, a sombre Gorbachev appeared on national television to warn that the unchecked disintegration of the union would lead to wars between the republics. But as he spoke, his political archrival, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, was preparing for a post-union future: his giant republic joined Canada, Poland and Hungary in pledging swift recognition of Ukraine. At the same time, Russia continued to assume the Kremlin’s dwindling powers through such measures as a takeover of the Soviet state bank. The Russian leader’s action guaranteed payment of the Kremlin’s bills— ending a cash crisis that the republics had helped create by withholding the central government’s share of tax revenues. It also assured millions of Soviet citizens, ranging from pensioners and soldiers to Gorbachev himself, that they will get their regular state payments.

Ukraine’s independence vote heightened international concern about political instability in the collapsed superpower—in contrast to the widespread and swift recognition that greeted the Baltic states’ regained freedom in August. That first contraction of the vast, polyglot federation was widely regarded as a longoverdue reversal of the Red Army’s occupation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in 1940. But except for a brief period between 1918 and 1920, Ukraine has been an integral part of Moscow’s domain for the past 300 years. Moreover, with 53 million people, well-developed industries and agriculture—as well as an estimated 1,800 nuclear warheads on its soil— Ukraine’s reluctance to join any successor to

the old union raises questions about its future relations with foreign capitals and former Soviet republics alike.

In that regard, Ukraine’s new president, Leonid Kravchuk, a 57-year-old former Communist ideologue who has nimbly transformed himself into an advocate of Ukrainian nationalism and market reform, has stressed that his chief goal is to maintain good relations with Yeltsin, another convert to democracy. And in an attempt to allay foreign concerns, Kravchuk, who won his post last week in the republic’s first free presidential election, has stressed that Ukraine wants to become a nonnuclear state. Last week, his foreign minister, Anatoly Zlenko, suggested that the leaders of Russia, Byelorussia and Kazakhstan, the other three republics with nuclear warheads on their territory, should meet with Ukrainian officials

to agree on controlling, and eventually disposing of, the weapons. Said Zlenko, who pointedly ignored the crumbling central government’s current jurisdiction over the warheads: “It would be advisable to set up a joint nuclearforces command consisting of representatives of those republics.”

For their part, members of Yeltsin’s government dismissed suggestions of a future nuclear threat from Ukraine. But they expressed concern about the Kiev government’s plan to form a 400,000-member army, maintaining that Russia would have to match such a conventional-arms buildup to ensure its own security.

With Kravchuk balking at joining even a loose confederation of republics, Yeltsin has also cast doubt on Russian participation in a new union. But both leaders say that they want to maintain currently balanced trade patterns

between the two republics: Russia sends oil and raw materials to Ukraine in exchange for grain and manufactured goods. Still, that trade is almost certain to be disrupted if Ukraine issues its own currency, the grivna, next year (Ukraine has already ordered 1.5 billion new bank notes from the Canadian Bank Note Co.). Valery Grinev, deputy chairman of the Ukrainian legislature, recently described the proposed currency switch as a defensive measure. He argued that Yeltsin’s plans to lift state-set price controls on most goods will send Russians

flooding into Ukraine to buy up lower-priced food and other consumer items.

Yeltsin says that he favors a rapid transformation of the country’s state-owned economy to one based on private property. “The time has come to act decisively, harshly and without hesitation,’’ he said in an hour-long radio and TV broadcast last month. And with customary brusqueness, he maintained that Russia was prepared to go it alone if the other republics shrank from necessary but painful reforms. Yeltsin was equally blunt with the 150 million citizens of Russia, asking them for their support through a year of sacrifice marked by soaring prices and unemployment levels that could see 25 million people lose their jobs.

In return for that belt-tightening, Yeltsin predicts, Russia’s economy will be saved, transformed and set on the road to prosperity. But in the meantime, citizens in Moscow did not need government statisticians to tell them

that the supplies of meat, milk, sugar and eggs to already sparsely stocked state stores have dropped by 15 per cent in recent weeks. And despite the Russian leader’s apparent commitment to economic shock therapy, there have been unsettling signs that those blueprints for reform may fall victim to a familiar Russian phenomenon: a tendency towards endless discussion and delays. For one thing, Yeltsin’s aides now say that the price increases that are an integral part of his so-called big-bang approach will not go into effect until some time in January. And there is even less information about the timing of such essential elements of the reform package as the privatization of state-owned enterprises and collective farms.

In a similarly disturbing pattern, Moscow’s city government had set Dec. 1 as the date on which private operators could buy 4,500 stores, restaurants and other state enterprises. Under that program, workers’ collectives have first rights to purchase their place of employment by pooling their resources to meet the low buyout price. But civic deputies are still engaged in a heated debate over the mechanics of the program—and the target date passed last week without a single sale taking place.

Despite that frustrating delay, private enterprise has already taken root in Moscow. On the wide sidewalks in front of many near-moribund state stores, clusters of privately owned businesses have sprung up during the past six months, many of them housed in converted shipping containers outfitted with strong locks. These Soviet versions of Western convenience stores offer abundant supplies of consumer goods ranging from pantyhose to sausages and cigarettes. But their market prices are far beyond the purchasing power of many consumers: a package of Marlboro cigarettes, easily the most popular foreign brand across the old union, costs 60 rubles. That is a handsome sum in a society where the average industrial wage is now about 400 rubles per month. But those so-called wooden rubles buy fewer and fewer A goods with inflation increasing at a rate of I three per cent each week. Indeed, the state “ bank’s pursuit of hard currency prompted officials last week to match black-market rates and offer 77 rubles for $1.

On a larger scale, more than 400 commodity exchanges are now operating across the old union, trading bulk supplies of consumer goods in a flourishing alternative to the foundering state distribution system. Along with private farmers and the variety-store operators, the commodity brokers are in the vanguard of capitalism’s revival. Now, they are waiting for the politicians—and the rest of Soviet society—to catch up.

Since the failure of the hard-line national coup in August, in fact, the pace of change in a once seemingly monolithic society has been dizzying: seven decades of Soviet Communist rule have ended; the Baltic states have regained their freedom; power has ebbed from the Kremlin; the 12 remaining Soviet republics seem increasingly bent on pursuing separate destinies. In place of communist ideology,

many of the former union’s 287 million citizens are turning to religion and ethnic nationalism—as well as to slightly more esoteric belief systems, ranging from astrology to theories on unidentified flying objects.

The chief beneficiaries of the renewed spiritual hunger have been the Russian Orthodox Church and Islam, the dominant faith in Soviet Central Asia. During last summer’s three-day coup, black-robed priests displayed their resistance by blessing the defenders of the makeshift barricades outside the Russian legislature—as well as praying for the uneasy soldiers who briefly opposed them. Now, state television carries cartoon adaptations of biblical stories for children, as well as popular programs featuring psychics and spiritual mediums. And in Pushkin Square, one of Moscow’s best-known meeting places, shavenheaded Hare Krishnas perform lengthy chanting sessions near the lineup of customers outside the city’s McDonald’s outlet.

In Moscow and other Soviet centres, the erosion of party control under Gorbachev, coupled with worsening economic conditions, has also produced a dramatic expansion in prostitution and pornography. Fashionably dressed prostitutes now crowd hotels and restaurants that are frequented by foreigners, and several countrywide polls have revealed that becoming a so-called hard-currency escort is a preferred career goal for many young Soviet women. Street pedlars in major cities do a brisk

trade in pornographic video cassettes and pinups. Last year, after Gorbachev complained about the rising flood of sexually explicit material, there was a brief crackdown on smut sellers. Now, however, police patrols usually pass by the makeshift stalls clustered near subway-station entrances, ignoring the crowds of customers browsing through magazines and books bearing such titles as Swedish Troika and Erotic Tales.

In the midst of those social changes, growing shortages and near chaos are the converts to a free-market democracy who were propelled into power after the coup collapsed. And as August’s victory fades further into the past, such prominent democrats as St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak are keenly aware that Russian history offers a familiar alternative to their largely untested programs: a dictator’s enforced order. Warned Alexander Yakovlev, a former Soviet ambassador to Canada and one of Gorbachev’s closest advisers: “Democracy has been installed only in Moscow and Leningrad [St. Petersburg]. One should not believe that the central squares of these cities represent the whole of the country.” Added Yakovlev: “There is a danger of an explosion. Personally, I am afraid of ‘a revolution of empty plates.’ Any scoundrel who is capable of raping

the nation could use such a situation.” One man who is eager to claim the title of Russia’s defender is Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a 45-year-old lawyer who was almost unknown outside Moscow until he became a candidate in the Russian presidential race in June. Yeltsin won that contest handily, but Zhirinovsky’s persuasive rhetoric and strong appeal to Russian patriotism helped him to a surprising third-place finish. Indeed, he attracted six million votes with a nationalist campaign that stressed Greater Russia’s historical claims to Finland as well as the Baltic states. And when some observers tried to dismiss him as a Russian version of Hitler, Zhirinovsky neatly parried that implied insult by replying that he was better educated

than the Nazi dictator.

In any event, Zhirinovsky openly predicts that the market-oriented reformers will fail and that he, or another strongman, will take over. Said Zhirinovsky: “By spring, the country will be on the verge of civil war. A new regime will come to power and there will be order, good order, tough order. There will be no choice.” Like the leaden winter skies hanging over the rapidly disintegrating old union, those ominous words cloud an already uncertain future.

MALCOLM GRAY in Moscow