Ukrainians Engage in Robust Election Debate on Kiev Streets

A CHILL wind heralding the onset of winter has pushed the open-air circus of political debate off central Kiev's Independence Square.But as the Ukraine prepares for its Dec. 1 vote on independence and on whom it wants as president, discussion has not cooled as it moves to the warmer climes of kitchens and heated pedestrian passageways under the Ukrainian capital's center. "Do you support independence for Ukraine?" is the question posed to passersby in the main walkway on a recent Saturday evening. Regardless of the person's nationality, the answer is almost always "of course," combined with a look of near- annoyance - as if the question were, "Do you support motherhood?" Yuri, a young Ukrainian who walks with a limp, is eager to voice his opinion. "I served in Afghanistan, 1980 to '82, in South Unduz, and I was injured," he explains, waving his cane in the air for emphasis. "My disability pension is 180 rubles a month - I repeat, 180 rubles! How can I be for a union that isn't doing anything for me?" To supplement his pension, which is about half the average worker's monthly salary, but nowadays buys little, Yuri works as a guard in a cooperative parking lot. As far as Yuri is concerned, Ukrainian leader and presidential front-runner Leonid Kravchuk is still a Communist at heart and doesn't believe in true separation from Moscow. Yuri backs Vyacheslav Chernovil, an ex-dissident and Ukrainian nationalist, who is Mr. Kravchuk's strongest opponent but is running a distant second in opinion polls. Nikolai, an older Ukrainian gentlemen, begs to differ. "Kravchuk worked in this system; he knows the politics and the economy" and therefore is better suited to ease Ukraine's transition into independence, he says, echoing the standard argument for Kravchuk. "He favors slow change. This is correct." Alexander, a shy young man out with his girlfriend, also favors Kravchuk. Why? Alexander pauses. "Well, everyone's for Kravchuk," he shrugs, repeating the second most popular reason for supporting the current Ukrainian leader. Natasha, a Russian medical student, likes Levko Lukyanenko, another nationalist and ex-dissident, because "he seems the nicest." Natasha wants Ukraine to separate from Russia because "we can do better on our own." Leonid, a student in a military school, also supports Mr. Chernovil. "Chernovil is the only one who can save Ukraine," he says, explaining that Chernovil will keep Ukrainian money in the Ukraine. "I'm for Chernovil," argues Ivan, a tall young man in a driving cap, "but everybody's for Kravchuk. He's just a 'partocrat.' All the old party people are spreading stories about Chernovil, because they're afraid if he wins, he'll take away their special houses and luxuries.... People in general are just used to the old ways. They don't want to work. They're afraid of a free market." Andrei, a young journalism student at Kiev State University who listened to all the interviews, was surprised by the radical views of his fellow Kievites. But then, he had just come from several days in southern Ukraine, where much of the populace is suspicious of nationalist types like Chernovil, a western Ukrainian. In fact, Kiev is in one of the most radical parts of the Ukraine, where 88 percent of the population favors independence, according to a recent poll. Only Ternopil, in western Ukraine, came out more pro-independence, at 92 percent. In all, Kievites revealed themselves to be like voters the world over: ready to vote their pocketbooks. For most of those interviewed, the main attraction of independence is a brighter eco- nomic future, not Ukrainian cultural identity. It is as if the entire republic wants to defect to the West. "In Ukraine, people are talented," says Sasha, a street artist. "We have earned so much hard currency, and it has all gone to the center [Moscow]. Now we will keep it right here, and we will live better."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.