Ukraine's East Wants Russia Back

In Ukraine's Russian-speaking east, citizens grown weary of independence and seek reunification with Russia

IN the vast square framed by a massive statue of Vladimir Lenin and the imposing Stalinist-era structure that used to house the Communist Party headquarters, red banners fluttered again in a chilling wind. Ukrainian Communists, their ranks counted now in the hundreds and filled mostly by pensioners, were gathered for an election rally in this industrial center of eastern Ukraine.

``Why are we here?'' Viktor Chub, leader of the official trade union federation, asked the crowd rhetorically. ``The peoples' economy is a catastrophe. People don't get their wages. Enterprises have come to a standstill. Pensioners are not getting their pensions on time.''

To all these problems, the successive speakers had one simple answer, embodied in the ``resolution'' of their rally: ``We cannot do without restoration of the Union,'' they cried, referring to the Soviet state, which crumbled into independent nations little more than two years ago.

While the Communist stance is at an extreme, practically every political voice in this part of Ukraine echoes the demand for closer integration with Russia as the solution to their woes. As eagerly as people here once embraced an independent Ukraine in the belief it would bring them prosperity, they now seek a better life in reunification with Russia.

``Today if a referendum took place on the independence of Ukraine, the majority of people here wouldn't vote for independence,'' asserts Valery Mescheryakov, a parliament deputy running for reelection in Sunday's vote.

With the Russian border only an hour's drive away, ``Kharkovites go to Russia often and they can see the Russians are better off,'' the former history professor explains. ``For us, Russia will soon have the same image as the United States has for Mexicans.''

Economic ills are mixed together with fears of ``Ukrainization,'' a term that most directly refers to the government's efforts, sometimes heavy-handed, to revive use of the Ukrainian language. A biology professor at Kharkov University complains over dinner that she must now deliver lectures in Ukrainian, although she admits her students are more at ease about this policy than are the professors.

The January election of a pro-Russian nationalist as president of Crimea, the Russian-populated home of the Black Sea Fleet, has encouraged moves in several eastern oblasts, or regions, to hold referendums on closer ties to Russia. While he claims to oppose a division of Ukraine, Mr. Mescheryakov believes that if the current economic and political situation continues for a year, ``Ukraine will split - Crimea first, then Donbass will follow, then Dniepropetrovsk, Kharkov, and other oblasts.''

Eastern Ukraine is a land of coal mines, tank factories, and steel mills, most of them linked by ties of supplies and markets to their brothers in Russia. Here live about a third of Ukraine's 52 million people, many of them Russian but a large part are also ethnically Ukrainian, although they tend to speak Russian rather than Ukrainian in their homes.

Kharkhov, the second-largest city in Ukraine, is a center of what is called here, without irony, the military-industrial complex. From the giant Malyshev tank factory to Khartron, which manufactures guidance systems for missiles, this city lived off the largess of the Soviet defense budget.

Oleg Cheranovsky, the director of an aircraft testing laboratory at the Kharkov Aviation Institute, complains that since last year they have lost all work they were doing for Russia on testing new designs of jet fighters.

``We hope the elections will bring a more reasonable parliament,'' the white-haired scientist says. ``Of course, eastern Ukraine demands that all ties are restored, that the eastern part enter the ruble zone and all customs barriers be lifted.''

Talk of the ``ruble zone'' abounds, with references to Russia's negotiations with neighboring and fellow-Slavic, former Soviet republic Belarus to merge its economic system with Russia. But few here understand or care much about what that may actually mean.

``They don't want the ruble zone. They want rubles in their hands,'' says Alexander Bek, marketing director for Khartron, who favors closer links with Russia but not tight subordination.

The moderate pro-Russian stance is best represented by Vladimir Grinev, former deputy chairman of the parliament, who is running in the central district of Kharkov along with 16 other candidates, including Mescheryakov. He is co-leader with former Premier Leonid Kuchma of the self-styled Interregional Bloc for Reform, a centrist alliance backed by Ukrainian entrepreneurs and factory directors.

The Kuchma-Grinev bloc advocates a gradualist view of economic reform similar in many respects to that of Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. Mr. Grinev, a rotund former physics professor with bushy grey hair and a bristling mustache, says he favors financial stabilization to deal with Ukraine's near hyperinflation, the institutionalization of private property, and restructuring of Ukraine's industry.

Key to all of this is restoring close ties with Russia, he believes, including establishing open borders for trade, coordinated prices for raw materials and energy and creating a banking and payments union. But Grinev stops short of joining the ruble zone, which would mean ceding economic sovereignty to Russia.

``The paradox is that the only way to preserve a sovereign Ukraine is close cooperation with Russia,'' Grinev told the Monitor in his tiny campaign office in downtown Kharkov.

Mescheryakov is running against Grinev as a representative of the Civic Congress, a left-center group that seeks a ``political, economic, diplomatic, and humanitarian union with Russia.'' While Mescheryakov differs slightly with Grinev in advocating more state control of the economy - he favors the ``Chinese model'' of slower reform - he also acknowledges their differences are more personal than programatic.

The only real voice of dissent to these views comes from parliament deputy and rival candidate Henrik Altoonyan, local leader of Rukh, the democratic-nationalist party that led the struggle for Ukrainian independence. The bearded former military academy professor, who served nine years in Soviet prison camps as a political prisoner, does not hesitate to hail the collapse of the ``Soviet empire'' as a ``natural'' event.

``The empire rested only on terror'' and on the exploitation of its people and the nations within it, Mr. Altoonyan says. But while accusing Russia of being ``unjust'' in its handing of the post-Soviet situation, he is quick to add that ``only a person detached from reality can speak about the complete rupture of ties with Russia and confrontation with Russia.''

Most observers expect the centrist and left-centrist forces to gain most of the 28 seats in Kharkov oblast, followed by the Communists and their allies.

Altoonyan says the ``democrats'' will do well to capture half the 12 seats they got in 1990.

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