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Ukraine Faces Its Moment of Truth


Kiev -- "If they make it through their fifth anniversary of independence, I think the present [bad] streak will be broken," ventures one of the many Ukrainian-Canadians in Kiev. He and fellow optimists think Ukraine probably can muddle through the remaining 2 1/2 years to his imagined deadline for creating critical momentum.

Pessimists, by contrast, expect Ukraine to implode before then out of sheer incompetence, procrastination and entropy. And, of course, pressure from Russians across the political spectrum, who deem Ukrainian independence illegitimate after three centuries of union.

For the optimists, salvation lies in crisis. Even the old Communists who still run Ukraine must surely grasp by now that prolonging the tatters of the Soviet system without substituting a new one ensures disaster. And Kiev's obvious economic catastrophe at least has the advantage of deterring Russians from active destabilization in Ukraine; it's more efficient just to wait for their former province to drop into their laps.

Under these circumstances a Western security role in the region is crucial, though not in the sense that Ukrainians conceived of last January when they promised yet again to destroy their inherited share of Soviet nuclear missiles in return for a triangular guarantee" of their borders in the American-Russian-Ukrainian deal.

However confused the situation, the stakes are the highest here in all of post-Cold War Europe. Any Russian-Ukrainian military confrontation "would be much worse than Yugoslavia," because both sides possess nuclear weapons, asserts Yuri Kostenko, Ukrainian environment minister and a leading member of the parliamentary defense commission. Moreover, a showdown at the new East-West divide of Ukraine would not remain isolated like fighting in the Balkans, but would drag in the rest of Europe.

No one really expects a military clash (beyond the very localized skirmishes in which Ukrainian and Russian sailors in Crimea basically sort out their separate turf for foraging for food and income). Yet anyone who remembers the savagery of the civil war in Ukraine after the Bolshevik revolution -- and Stalin's murder of millions of Ukrainian peasants through collectivization and famine -- worries about even remote dangers. Anyone who saw Lt. Gen. Alexander Lebed's 14th Army carve out a Russian enclave of Transdniestr in Moldova next door to Odessa two years ago wants to avoid similar Russian mischief in Ukraine.

Alarm over Crimean dispute

This risk explains the West's alarm when the Crimean dispute flared up again last month. American, British, German and other officials swiftly urged Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin to restrain Crimea's separatist-minded President Yuri Meshkov and any rogue Russian military units or Cossack freebooters.

So far, so good. Mr. Yeltsin is much more interested in winning admission to the West's G-7 directorate this summer than in wresting back sovereignty over the Crimean vacationland and naval base that Nikita S. Khrushchev donated to Ukraine in 1954. Under prodding, the Russian president presumably can still constrain his neo-imperialists. And the Crimean legislature has pulled Mr. Meshkov back from secession for the time being. Probably, as in the dispute over Ukraine's debts for Russian oil and gas, the Crimean argument will just fizzle out without ever really being resolved.

The second part of the West's implicit security mission in Ukraine is harder: convincing those Ukrainians who eventually consolidate power that they must institute real economic reform to stop the rot. Dissatisfaction spread last winter as Ukrainian production plummeted and inflation soared even more than in Russia -- and many Ukrainian firms stopped paying workers even their formal pittance. Already many ethnic Russians here have turned against the Ukrainian independence they originally voted for and are looking longingly at the less moribund economy in Rostov. With time, a political demand to rejoin Russia could spread from Crimea to other regions.

Up until a month ago the few Ukrainian would-be liberalizers and their Western allies favored a variation on the Leninist precept of "the worse, the better." As economic collapse increasingly showed that the only thing worse than reform was no reform, they calculated, even the old Communist functionaries would have to acknowledge the crisis. They might resist adopting the system of a West that was miserly with aid but severe in forcing Kiev to surrender its nuclear weapons, but they would have no alternative. Disillusionment with a Russian economy that was only marginally better than the Ukrainian one would soon match disillusionment with the West.

In this emergency, the first fully free elections in April 1994 would surely bring in a new Ukrainian Parliament ready -- for lack of any other course -- for radical reform. Ukraine would finally be set on ,, the right course; its inherent advantages of a well-educated population and territory the size of France, fertile land and little ethnic tension (apart from Russian-Tatar animosity on Crimea) would then pull the land out of its tailspin.

The final impetus to this turnaround would come from a high-powered economic conference in May funded by George Soros and featuring the likes of Leszek Balcerowicz, a believer in economic shock therapy; Jeffrey Sachs, the guru of stabilization in the former East bloc; and World Bank Vice President Michael Bruno. The assembled central and regional Ukrainian financial officials would hear how Estonia stopped inflation cold turkey, how Chinese economic liberalization and democratic suffocation are an inappropriate model for a country without Guangdong peasants, and how the Israeli Labor Party became popular by cutting subsidies. The World Bank's Kiev representative, Daniel

Kaufmann -- without putting it quite so baldly -- would describe for old "red managers" who had already "self-privatized" the choicest parts of their enterprises, the self-interest that America's 19th-century robber barons saw in establishing rule of law to protect their own new wealth.

Unfortunately, the plans foundered. The new Parliament chosen under the opaque election law did not turn out, as had been expected, to consist of a third moderate nationalists, a third mostly pragmatic Communists, and a third inchoate. Instead, a solid bloc of Communists and ex-Communist Socialists and Agrarians appeared that could easily muster -- pending run-off elections this month for the last 25 percent of seats -- the extra three votes for a majority. Socialist Oleksander Moroz was elected speaker, and instead of offering conciliation, insisted on electing deputies from his own left camp.

Moreover, the Ukrainian on the street was just too good-natured and patient. To be sure, miners went on strike, and promptly got hollow raises as the central bank printed more notes. But despite all the misery, widespread social unrest never materialized. City dwellers, far from protesting, just fanned out to cousins in the villages to produce food. The 18 (or 22) hours per day without running water in Lviv didn't matter so much when everyone could nip over the Polish border, buy cheap children's clothes, shoes and car parts, and resell them in the bazaar in the local stadium. Idled engineers from Dnipropetrovsk's Yuzhmash, the world's biggest missile factory, could spend more time fishing in the Dnipr, and never mind the roentgen count downriver from Chernobyl.

Meanwhile, the nouveaux riches in Kiev could afford the modish fake Adidas training suits from Turkey and the higher-than-Berlin prices in Nika's dollar pizzeria -- and be less pestered than Russian entrepreneurs by mafias who scorn Kiev as too poor to (( qualify for contract murders. The United Nations might rank Ukraine with Colombia at the bottom of the world corruption list, but those with Swiss bank accounts didn't care.

No real sense of crisis

Crisis therefore hardly intruded on the placid domino games of the new MPs. In the first substantive session of the new Parliament, the initial indignant complaint was not that real privatization has reached only 1 percent of firms or that Kiev does not yet have a single private bakery -- but rather that Donetsk had so far received only four of the 44 tons of bread it had been allocated under the central plan.

Nonetheless, outgoing (and, in the present fluidity, possibly incoming) Economics Minister Roman Shpek is pressing ahead. He told Mr. Soros' conference that he has a reform plan ready, and, on order of President Leonid M. Kravchuk, he is working with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to draft a comprehensive stabilization program by June 30. The only trick will be to persuade whoever wins the presidential runoff this month between Mr. Kravchuk and former Prime Minister Leonid D. Kuchma -- or the parliamentary speaker, if he turns out to be more powerful -- to embrace the plan as his own.

Bohdan Hawryshylyn, an economist from Geneva who oversees the American-staffed Council of Advisers to the Ukrainian Parliament, is at least hopeful that the present "vicious circle" can still be turned into a "virtuous circle." He notes the incentive to Kiev to tap America's and Germany's new willingness to channel aid to Ukraine at the G-7 summit -- and he and others describe Moroz as intelligent, non-dogmatic, and able to learn.

On the other hand, Bohdan Krawchenko, an early pensioner from the University of Alberta who is running Kiev's 2-year-old institute granting civil servants a master's degree in public administration, doubts that any decisions can be extracted from the lethargic system before next October -- and the onset of a second catastrophic winter.

In the interim, the Crimean dispute has unexpectedly united the elite, if not the mixed Ukrainian and Russian population in the east and south who disdain issues of Ukrainian sovereignty. With their own interests now circumscribed by Ukraine's borders, Communist, Socialist and Agrarian MPs have firmly backed their more nationalist colleagues from western Ukraine in opposing Crimean secession. Their solidarity should persist, so long as it is not put to any military test that should polarize the population -- or the Ukrainian army, which is still commanded by a majority of Russian generals.

Unfortunately, the last and hardest precondition for Ukrainian security and survival -- after economic upswing and political stabilization in Crimea -- is one the West cannot help with at all. That is, in the words of one Western diplomat, cultivation of a national myth that could unite this very new and unprepared nation.

pTC It's too late, of course, to lure home the Ukrainian talent that was drained away to the Moscow metropolis over the past 70 or 300 years. economists like Grigory Yavlinsky are gambling on a higher Russian political game and have no desire to return to the Ukrainian backwater.

The escape hatch closes

The country's new generation in its 20s and 30s will have no choice but to seek its fortunes here, however. The Russian army no longer promotes Ukrainian officers, nor are entry-level Ukrainian politicians welcome in Russia. Ambitious Ukrainians will now have to develop more domestic orientations.

For those in Lviv, Ternopil and other western cities, this is not a problem. Ukrainian nationhood is itself a sufficient goal. For other Ukrainian citizens, though, either prosperity or some higher ideal is needed to rally loyalties. The memory of Kievan Rus won't do; that was long since expropriated by the Russians. From more recent history, Hetman Bohdan Khmelnitsky is fine for replacing V. I. Lenin in street names, but is flawed because he freed Ukrainians from Polish rule only by entering union with Russia. Pylyp Orlyk, author of a wistful 19th-century liberal constitution, is wholly worthy, but obscure.

In the end, it will take a new generation to create its own conditions and set things right, declares Alexander Flyaks, the barrel-chested vice president of the largest and cleanest "supermarket" in the country, a Canadian-Ukrainian joint venture Dnipropetrovsk. He draws an analogy with Moses, who before leading the Israelites to the promised land, "had to walk around 40 years until the older generation died.'

By current reckoning, Ukraine has a grace period of just about 2 1/2 years to produce a comparable succession of generations.

Elizabeth Pond is author of "Beyond the Wall: Germany's Road to Unification.'

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