As Ukrainians Struggle to Survive, Economy Implodes, Leaders Argue

With 80 percent below poverty line, not even bread is easy to find

AS a peasant girl during the Great Famine of 1932-33, Maria Semenivna struggled to survive on a monthly ration of only half a loaf of bread that she shared with her six siblings.

``I lost five brothers and sisters to the famine in 1933, but I survived,'' Ms. Semenivna recalls.

Semenivna's tale of starvation and death strikes a tragic note, as Ukrainians this week mark 60 years since the height of the famine, brought on by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's forced collectivization campaign. Historians say the hunger claimed 5-7 million victims and devastated the countryside of then-Soviet Ukraine.

Now, with the newly independent Ukraine's economy imploding, Semenivna worries that history is repeating itself. The retired nurse living in Kiev has become preoccupied with finding and affording her daily bread.

For millions of Ukrainians, particularly retirees such as Semenivna, survival is a formidable task. No longer is bread widely and cheaply available through state subsidies. Indeed, as Ukraine struggles through post-Communist economic chaos, exacerbated by political paralysis, about 80 percent of the nation's 52 million people are living below the poverty line, according to a recent poll. Even if poll results are exaggerated, official Ukrainian newspapers say living standards have declined substantially, and are among the lowest in the former Soviet Union.

``This time, I don't think I'll survive,'' Semenivna says.

Besides the bread shortage, inflation in Ukraine is running at about 40 percent monthly, industrial production is plummeting, and the temporary national currency - the karbovanets - is essentially worthless. On top of that, corruption and organized crime are rife. All this combines to cast a shadow over the optimism that accompanied Ukrainian independence two years ago.

Like most Ukrainians, Semenivna voted for Ukraine's independence from the Soviet Union during a December 1991 referendum. Reflecting popular sentiment, her decision was motivated more by economic pragmatism than by romantic nationalism. She believed in the country's leaders back then, hoped independence would bring an end to the chronic shortages of consumer goods and long lines that characterized the Soviet era.

But along with millions of others, Semenivna now finds herself disillusioned by the politicians' broken promises of economic prosperity. Instead of good times, Semenivna is struggling in a hand-to-mouth manner on a monthly pension of 20,000 karbovantsi (about $2.50).

Many citizens hold Ukraine's political leaders responsible for the economic mess. A power struggle involving President Leonid Kravchuk, Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma, and the conservative-dominated Parliament has handcuffed the decisionmaking process and blocked even modest reform efforts.

As a result, popular sentiment is building for political change. A referendum on confidence in the legislature and the president, scheduled for Sept. 26, has been postponed. But strong pressure from trade unions and political parties may force the parliament to reopen the referendum issue when it convenes on Sept. 21.

Last week, Mr. Kuchma tendered his resignation for the fifth time in as many months. The resignation offer came after parliament rejected his plan to grant him special economic powers in advancing his reform plan. The prime minister's resignation was not accepted, and Kuchma has agreed to stay on, at least until the Sept. 21 legislative session.

While the political situation keeps going in circles, industry is headed in a downward direction. The population in heavily industrialized and mostly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine blames the independence effort for destroying trade links with Russia. The breakdown of the old trade system, they add, is the main cause of the industrial collapse.

Many eastern Ukrainians have begun demanding greater integration with Russia, where living conditions are better. This pressure and the economic reality of Ukraine's dependence on Moscow for energy supplies have forced President Kravchuk to support an economic union with Russia, Belarus, and other former Soviet republics. Kiev's economic crisis also forced Mr. Kravchuk to bow to Russian demands in the long-standing dispute over the 345-vessel Black Sea Fleet, based in the Crimean peninsula city of Sevastopol.

Owing about $2.5 billion to Russia for oil and gas, Kravchuk, at an early September summit with Russian President Boris Yeltsin, approved the idea of selling Ukraine's portion of the fleet to Moscow to settle the debt.

Ukrainian nationalists have called Kravchuk a traitor for making a deal on the fleet. But the president said he had no choice.

``The Russian delegation directly said that if Ukraine doesn't find a way to pay this debt ... Russia would be forced to stop [fuel] deliveries, and that's that,'' Kravchuk said at a news conference. ``It was my responsibility to ensure that Ukraine and its people survive through the winter.''

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