THE conventional wisdom has been that when separatism took hold in the Ukraine, with its 52 million people, the Soviet Union could be bid farewell. This week the Ukrainian parliament in Kiev ringingly declared sovereignty, including the rights to a separate military and separate citizenship. But it's doubtful anyone in Moscow was terribly shocked. The Ukrainians' move had been preceded by sovereignty statements from Moldavia, Uzbekistan, the independence-bound Baltics, and, most important, Russia itself. After the Russian republic, with Boris Yeltsin at the helm, decided to chart its own course free of the Communist Party, the Ukraine couldn't lag behind. The withdrawal of Mr. Yeltsin and a number of other reform-minded radicals from the party gave added impulse to those contemplating daring action elsewhere.
It's hard to know what's ``daring'' in the Soviet Union anymore. Parliamentarians in Kiev, dominated by the nationalist Rukh organization, raced beyond what would have been thinkable even a half year ago. They claimed control over the republic's resources and its ``external'' affairs, and opposed conscription into the Soviet army. Where are the Communist loyalists who would formerly have cracked down at the whiff of such ``treason''?
They're still holed up in party office buildings, trying to keep a bureaucratic hold on the means of mass communication and other assets. But their power is in meltdown. When newly elected reformers - many once jailed as dissidents - wanted their own newspaper in the Ukrainian city of Lvov, it was the party's own pressmen who smashed the Communist monopoly by threatening to shut down all papers if an independent voice wasn't allowed.
Doubtless, the reformers can put out a snappy paper. But can they put some snap into the Ukraine's economy. There, as elsewhere, people wait years for basics like a decent apartment. At least officials will now really try to break through the red tape and get something done.