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RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report Vol. 3, No. 11, 27 March 2001

A Survey of Developments in Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine by the Regional Specialists of RFE/RL's Newsline Team


A spate of articles in the Moscow press last week have suggested that the current political crisis in Kyiv is already increasing regional tensions in Ukraine and could lead to the disintegration of the Ukrainian state.

But like similar reports just before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, these commentaries appear less a genuine prognostication of what is likely to occur than an obvious effort to put pressure on the Ukrainian government to turn to Moscow for its security needs.

As the political crisis in Ukraine has deepened over the last few weeks, the Russian media have been full of ever more items concerning the challenges President Leonid Kuchma faces in trying to quiet demands that he resign because of his alleged involvement in the murder of independent journalist Heorhiy Gongadze last fall. Moscow outlets have given extensive coverage both to the Gongadze case and to demonstrations against Kuchma.

Last week, however, the Russian media contained some more apocalyptic predictions. Moscow's "Nezavisimaya gazeta," for example, on 20 March featured an interview with the president of the ethnic Russian community in Ukraine who said Russians there are angry at the Ukrainian authorities and now seek to develop closer ties with the Russian Federation in order to promote the creation of a new union state.

On 21 March, Russian wire services carried the results of a poll in Ukraine showing that the citizens of that country have increasingly less trust in the central Ukrainian government and growing trust in regional authorities. And earlier last week, another Russian article explicitly suggested what many talked about a decade ago but which has seldom been discussed in recent years: the possibility that Ukraine could in fact disintegrate into three sections.

The article in question argued that not only was there the possibility that Ukraine could split between the ethnic Russian eastern portion and the ethnic Ukrainian central portion but also that the six western oblasts of Ukraine, the most nationalistic region of all, might break away as well, given its orientation toward Rome rather than toward the Orthodox east.

Such articles inevitably attract attention by their apocalyptic quality, and indeed some of their authors may be making these predictions for no other reason than that. But the appearance of so many articles of that nature at once, together with ever more explicit Russian government calls for working with the ethnic Russian population in Ukraine and elsewhere, suggests that more may be at work than the desire of some journalists for attention.

Indeed, in many ways, this current upsurge of such predictions inevitably recalls two earlier periods when Russian media carried similar suggestions. Just before the end of the Soviet Union, journalists around then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev suggested that an independent Ukraine would inevitably break apart along ethnic lines, with a significant portion of the republic choosing to join Moscow.

A second media upsurge on this subject took place in 1992 and 1993 when Russian analysts routinely suggested that Ukraine, a compound country of Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians, Russian-speaking Ukrainians, and Russianspeaking Russians, was unlikely to be able to sustain itself as an independent country.

In both of these earlier cases, it now appears, these predictions were intended to be less a description of some future reality than a means of intimidating the Ukrainian government and even the Ukrainian people to follow Moscow's line lest they lose even more. But for the bulk of the last decade, most observers in Russia and elsewhere have become convinced that Ukraine's multinational population is among the least of the challenges Kyiv faces.

Indeed, these analysts and commentators have suggested, Ukraine's simultaneous efforts at nation- and state-building have been far more successful than many had expected. The problems Kyiv faces have arisen not from ethnic or regional divisions but have been largely selfinflicted by a Ukrainian political leadership that has remained divided, corrupt, and uncertain in its goals.

Now, as almost a decade ago, Moscow appears to be invoking again the threat of Ukrainian disintegration not so much to warn of what is likely to happen, but rather to put pressure on embattled President Kuchma to conclude that close ties with Moscow are his and his country's only salvation.

Some people around Kuchma may in fact be convinced, but the experience of a decade ago suggests that many Ukrainians are likely to see through this new specter of disintegration and to become more -- not less -- committed to the defense of the independence of their country. If that happens, then this specter may acquire a reality, albeit one directly opposite to what its creators appear to intend.

UKRAINIANS SAY THEY LIVE IN CRISIS AND POVERTY. In a poll conducted between 2 and 13 March by Socis and the Democratic Initiatives Fund among 1,200 people in all Ukrainian regions, 80 percent of respondents said Ukraine is in a political crisis, and 63 percent acknowledged that the authorities are facing an opposition in the country. Asked about consequences of the current opposition protests, 27 percent of respondents said everything will remain as it was before the protests, while 22 percent predicted a change of the president and the government. Of those polled, 72 percent said Ukraine is moving in the wrong direction and only 11 percent were of the opposite opinion; 17 percent were not able to decide on this question.

Iryna Bekeshkina, an expert of the Democratic Initiative Fund, said the poll revealed that the "tape scandal" and the Gongadze case have seriously influenced the attitude of Ukrainians to the state leadership and institutions. Bekeshkina noted that over the past five months the "negative balance of trust" in President Kuchma (the difference between the percentages of those trusting and mistrusting him) increased by 8 percent. According to the poll, only 10 percent of Ukrainians have full trust in Kuchma, while 56 percent fully mistrust him. Among those who believe that the audio tapes provided by former bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko are authentic (meaning that they believe Kuchma ordered Gongadze's murder), Kuchma's "balance of trust" is minus 61 percent, while among those who say Melnychenko's tapes are fake, the relevant figure is plus 2 percent.

Bekeshkina also noted that the "negative balance of trust" in regional authorities considerably decreased over the past five months: from minus 39 percent to minus 30 percent regarding local councils; and from minus 40 percent to minus 33 percent regarding local executive bodies. The central government also improved its rating, reducing its "negative balance of trust" from minus 37 percent to minus 34 percent. Among Ukrainian politicians, Premier Viktor Yushchenko has the best "balance of trust": plus 2 percent (see also "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 20 March 2001).

Sixty percent of respondents blamed Ukraine's problems on those who lead the nation. But the poll also revealed that only 16 percent of Ukrainians are ready "to insistently and continuously stand for their positions." Oleksandr Stehniy, a Socis analyst, commented on this last figure: "It is possible to view [this figure] with some probability as an indicator of the readiness for collective social actions, but this figure in no way means that such an amount of people is ready to overthrow the authorities." According to Stehniy, Ukrainians do not "sufficiently" trust any opposition leader, and such a situation breeds people's apathy and unwillingness to participate in protests against the authorities. Stehniy added that political apathy in Ukraine can also be explained by the fact that "the post-Soviet is mentally afraid of [social] disturbances."

The overwhelming majority of respondents -- 86 percent -- said they are poor: 38 percent defined their material status as "very low," 32 percent as "low," and 16 percent as "below average." Thirteen percent said their material status is "average," while 1 percent said it is "above average." The average monthly income of those polled was 126.4 hryvni ($23.3), while official data for the year 2000 said this indicator amounted to 146 hryvni.

The poll found that 66 percent of Ukrainians consider themselves to be believers, 25 percent non-believers, and 3 percent atheists. Six percent did not answer this question.

"As of today, talks about a coalition government [in Ukraine] are nothing more than a provocation. This idea is a hot potato put into the government's hands. We say 'yes,' we welcome the idea of a coalition government and its principles. In general, [a coalition government] is a form of parliamentary democracy. But where is the political coalition that has a political platform and regulation mechanisms for keeping political interests in balance? If this is non-existent, then be vigilant: there is a Trojan horse in this pseudo-democratic wrapping." -- Ukrainian Premier Viktor Yushchenko, in the 23 March "Holos Ukrayiny," commenting on the threat of some parliamentary forces to oust his cabinet if he does not agree to form a "coalition government."

"RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report" is prepared by Jan Maksymiuk on the basis of a variety of sources including reporting by "RFE/RL Newsline" and RFE/RL's broadcast services. It is distributed every Tuesday.

UKRAINIAN OPPOSITION TIES TALKS TO KUCHMA'S RESIGNATION... The Forum of National Salvation (FNP) on 26 March appealed to all democratic parties and organizations in Ukraine to form a single coordination center of the opposition on the principles of equal representation, Interfax reported. The FNP said it sees "roundtable talks" with the authorities as a way out of the current conflict. However, the FNP makes the beginning of such talks dependent on several conditions. According to the FNP, the authorities must recognize the forum as an opposition force and the main negotiation partner. Second, the talks should focus on reforming the power system in Ukraine, including President Leonid Kuchma's resignation and early presidential elections. Third, the FNP demands regular and live relays of the talks on statecontrolled radio and television. JM

...WHILE KUCHMA SAYS TALKS ARE ALREADY UNDER WAY. President Kuchma said the same day that a dialogue to seek stability and social accord in Ukraine is already under way. Kuchma added that he is ready to talk "to those who are listening and hearing, who are seeking a constructive solution to the problem instead of raising absurd ultimatums behind which there is only a void," Interfax reported. According to Kuchma, it is difficult to consolidate the entire society "when people hardly known to anybody aspire to the role of [being] nationwide leaders not through democratic procedures, but after making several hysterical speeches on a street or a square." First Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Viktor Medvedchuk said talks between the opposition and the authorities will prove fruitless if the opposition continues to insist on Kuchma's ouster. JM

UKRAINIAN POLITICIANS DIFFER IN ASSESSMENT OF INTERIOR MINISTER'S OUSTER. Volodymyr Filenko, an FNP leader, said on 26 March that the sacking of Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko by Kuchma "does not change the situation fundamentally," Interfax reported. Filenko said new Interior Minister Yuriy Smirnov will not change the Interior Ministry's "logic of behavior" because he is as "soiled" as his predecessor. Meanwhile, lawmaker Roman Zvarych (RukhUdovenko) said Kravchenko's dismissal will enable the government to partly resolve the political crisis and to diminish social tension in Ukraine. Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz noted that Kravchenko's dismissal confirms the truth of the allegations that state officials had a role in the murder of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. Meanwhile, Popular Democratic Party leader said Kravchenko was fired because investigators handled the Gongadze case unprofessionally and stalled the investigation. JM