THE political victory by hunger-striking students over the republican government of the Ukraine is the first time authority in the Soviet Union has suffered this kind of defeat in its 73-year history. The collapse of Prime Minister Vitaly Masol's conservative Communist government last week was dramatic.
After 15 days of hunger strikes by about 200 students from Kiev and Lvov, accompanied by constant disruption in Kiev because of street marches, Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk announced the resignation of his prime minister, whom the strikers had viewed as a major obstacle to reform.
Within 12 hours, deputies at a late-night session of the Supreme Soviet or parliament passed a series of measures by 314 to 40 votes in response to the students' remaining demands. The parliament defied calls from ultraconservatives for a state of emergency and tough military action to clear central Kiev of marchers and hunger strikers.
The parliament agreed that a referendum in 1991 will determine public confidence in the government and a framework for new elections; a union treaty will be rejected until a new Ukrainian constitution is adopted; no Ukrainians should serve in the Soviet Army outside the Ukraine, unless voluntarily; and a commission will decide how to dispose of Communist Party property.
At a mass meeting in October Square in Kiev, the hunger strikers resolved that they ``do not have full trust in the Ukrainian parliament and therefore only suspend the hunger strike.''
Such events would have been unthinkable in the Ukraine 15 months ago, when Vladimir Shcherbitsky ruled the fertile republic of 55 million people, regarded as a highly productive industrial region and Moscow's most valuable supplier of food.
But Shcherbitsky, a tough old Brezhnevite first party secretary, has since died. The Ukrainian national organization Rukh, even though it did not win control in the republic's elections last March, has spread new ideas about culture and identity, political freedom from Moscow, and real economic reform. In the process, the Communist-dominated parliament was forced to take note of rapidly changing public opinion. In response to public pressure, deputies voted on July 16 for a large measure of separation from Moscow, a multiparty political system, and the formation of an independent Ukrainian defense force.
The fact that nothing was done to carry out these measures showed that the resolutions were merely a pretense at democratic response, says Kiev journalist Andriy Kulikov. ``The majority of deputies had no intention of fulfilling these promises and these people are world experts in stalling,'' he said in an interview.
The students' decision to protest was highly risky after the way Soviet authorities have responded to recent street demonstrations. In April 1989, 20 people, most of them women, were cut down by troops during a peaceful demonstration in Tblisi, the Georgian capital. On Jan. 20 this year, 162 nonviolent demonstrators were killed in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. [And on Sunday, Soviet Interior Ministry troops were being rushed to the southern republic of Moldavia to try to prevent civil war between a defiant ethnic Turkish minority and the majority ethnic Romanians, Reuters reported.]
The authorities in Kiev held back as political protesters, some say 1 million strong, marched through the center of the city on Oct. 1.
The next day, students from the three principal universities pegged down tents on the polished granite at the western end of October Square, in the shadow of a vast red stone statue of Vladimir Lenin, the Communist Party's founder.
FLAGS and banners went up saying, ``Free human beings in a free state,'' ``Freedom for the Ukraine,'' ``Nationalize property plundered by the Communist Party,'' and ``Ukrainian national army the only guarantee of sovereignty.''
The government was handed a list of demands, some of which have been met.
With the promise of a referendum, the government has clearly won some time. But the students say they are prepared to restart the hunger strike at any time they think Mr. Kravchuk might renege.
Asked about the hunger strike, Alexander Gudima, a nationalist deputy to the Ukrainian parliament, said the students had studied the techniques of Japanese and South Korean protesters, realizing that good organization and public support were crucial.
``At last, I think our people understand what democracy means, and our leaders who have denied it to us for so long will have to give way to the people,'' he said.