- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 27, 2002

BILA TSERKVA, Ukraine This city's name means "white church," but its central square is dominated by a tall, dark statue of Lenin, a symbol of the legacy Ukraine is still struggling to surmount more than a decade after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
In 1991, when its people voted overwhelmingly for independence from the collapsing Soviet Union, optimists thought Ukraine with its industrial might, advanced technology and rich soil could swiftly transform itself into a thriving European democracy.
Serhiy and Vera Havrilyuk are tired of waiting. Married in 1990, they live with their daughter and Vera's parents in a two-room apartment in Bila Tserkva, 50 miles south of Kiev, the capital. They rarely eat meat and can't afford a vacation on Ukraine's Black Sea shore let alone abroad.
Mr. Havrilyuk, 30, was temporarily idled without pay from his job as a fork-lift operator at what was once the Soviet Union's largest tire factory because of a lack of raw materials. Work is scarce here, and Mrs. Havrilyuk lost her cafe job last spring.
"We've been together for 12 years in this Ukraine, and we've achieved nothing," Mr. Havrilyuk said bitterly. It was a weekday afternoon, and the couple were sitting on a bench near the Lenin statue, one of many left standing across the former Soviet Union despite the demise of its communist system.
Independent Ukraine can boast some achievements: It has posted strong economic growth the past two years, and has emerged from some of the shadows of the past. Despite corruption and stifling red tape, the shift from communism toward capitalism has opened the door to entrepreneurship and opened the borders to citizens with enough money to travel.
Once there were fears of violence between Russian-speakers who dominate the east and Ukrainian-speakers predominant in the west, but these fears have faded. And the country has pleased the United States and Europe by ridding itself of nuclear weapons and closing Chernobyl, the site of the world's worst nuclear accident.
Almost the size of Texas and with more than twice as many people 49 million Ukraine lies between Russia and central Europe. For centuries, has been a crossroads in the turbulent dealings of powerful neighbors. Now it faces its own turning point.
The benefits of growth have bypassed millions like the Havrilyuks. Meanwhile, there are signs of a drift toward Soviet-style authoritarianism at home and actions abroad that could make Ukraine more of a peril to the West than a partner.
An Internet journalist who crusaded against corruption among the political elite disappeared in September 2000, and his body was later found outside Kiev. Then a former bodyguard said a recording he made in President Leonid Kuchma's office captured Mr. Kuchma and officials discussing ways to silence the journalist.
The allegation provoked months of anti-Kuchma demonstrations, and as protests mounted again this fall, the U.S. State Department said it had determined the authenticity of another recording from the guard this one indicating that in July 2000, Mr. Kuchma approved the sale of a radar system to Iraq.
The tape scandal has badly damaged Mr. Kuchma's reputation abroad, hindering Ukraine's efforts at closer integration with Western organizations such as the European Union and NATO. This is pushing its leaders to lean for support on Russia, which already has powerful leverage through energy supplies and because of pro-Russia sentiment in the eastern Ukraine.
The United States and Britain have sent specialists to Ukraine to determine whether any systems were actually transferred to Iraq, where they could endanger U.S. and British planes patrolling "no-fly" zones. Washington is reviewing its policy toward Ukraine and has halted $54 million of the $230 million a year it gives the country.
At home, the tapes have boosted the clout of opposition leaders whose calls for Mr. Kuchma's ouster or at least a change in the political system have increasingly resounded among Ukrainians whose distrust of a government widely seen as corrupt is already deep.
On Sept. 16, the second anniversary of the dead journalist's disappearance, tens of thousands marched in the biggest demonstration since independence. Two more large protests have since taken place in Kiev and other cities to demand Mr. Kuchma's ouster.
But the most popular opposition leader has hesitated to join Mr. Kuchma's more vehement foes, and after months of turbulence, the president, a former Communist official and missile-factory director in the Soviet era, is still in power. He says he has no plans to step down before the presidential election in 2004.
Opposition leaders and analysts say the Kuchma administration and its allies have responded to increasingly vocal discontent with Soviet-style tactics, using their control over the media to muffle criticism and pulling bureaucratic levers to thwart the electorate's will.
"Our people have bought lots of new TV sets capable of receiving 30-plus channels, but we really have only one channel if you're talking about political news, because they're all about the same. The news is controlled by a single political force the pro-presidential one," said Anatoliy Hrytsenko, president of the Razumkov Center for Economic and Political Studies, a Kiev think tank.
"If there is real news which is anti-presidential in nature, it will not appear on TV," he said. "This was not the case two, three, four years ago."
In parliamentary elections last March, Mr. Hrytsenko said, Mr. Kuchma's backers used their influence with local officials, state workers and farm, factory and mine directors to twist the outcome. He added that elections in 1994 and even in 1990, before the Soviet collapse, were more free and fair.
"We have moved backward in that respect," he said.
"One of the difficulties in Ukrainian politics is that it comes out of the Soviet tradition," said U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual. "The old mechanism of winning elections here was for power figures in the center to pick up the phone and tell the governors and the enterprise managers and the state farm managers how their people are supposed to vote. And the machine produced the outcome."
But despite pressure, opposition parties won most of the votes in March in what analysts say is a sign that Soviet-style methods of maintaining the status quo may not work in the long run and that Ukraine can still hope to become a stable European state.
"I think this is the first election where voters really said, 'Well, look, we've just had enough now,'" said Markian Bilynskyj of the Pylyp Orlyk Institute for Democracy in Kiev. "This is a key factor this rising awareness of an increasing political activism, at least in the formal democratic process. The elite cannot but take notice of that."
"The big difference that's starting to occur right now is that more and more, Ukrainians are actually trying to, and starting to, take ownership of what's happening in the country, politically and economically," Mr. Pascual said.
Mr. Havrilyuk in Bila Tserkva put it another way: If change doesn't come eventually, he said, "I think the people will start a civil war."

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide