Gorbachev Confronts Ukrainian Old Guard, Inspires Reformers
Feb. 27, 1989
KIEV, U.S.S.R. (AP) _ President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's confrontation with the last Brezhnev man on the Politburo has ignited rising local opposition to stubborn old guard of the Ukraine.
''For a long time, people's mouths were sewn shut,'' said Ivan Drach, a writer who heads the Narodni Rykh, or People's Movement. ''Now people in many situations are seeking to speak out.''
In a four-day campaign through the Soviet Union's second most populous republic last week, Gorbachev ordered Ukrainian Communist Party boss Vladimir Shcherbitsky and his political machine to start backing perestroika.
The Ukrainian government responded with a crackdown on protesters, arresting human rights activists within hours of Gorbachev's departure. On Sunday, paramilitary police shoved 6,000 people from a downtown square when speeches at a cultural rally turned to politics.
The Gorbachev showdown coincided with a Ukrainian reform movement that in the last three months has shaken off 17 years of repression under Shcherbitsky. The Narodni Rykh, formed in November but not permitted to publish its program until 10 days ago, is one of several new organizations in Kiev calling for change.
The new Ukrainian Language Society on Jan. 27 persuaded the republic's parliament to begin work on a law making Ukrainian the official language, a society seeking to reveal the crimes of dictator Josef Stalin is getting organized, and a Committee for Democratic Elections is protesting the removal of certain candidates from balloting for the new parliament.
As Gorbachev's calls for modernization in the Ukraine dominated Soviet TV news last week, Shcherbitsky was shown standing stone-faced behind the Kremlin leader.
''We always had these ideas,'' said Boris Oliinyk, a reformer on the Ukrainian Communist Party Central Committee. ''We just couldn't work on them earlier.''
Gorbachev called reform leaders into a meeting of Communist Party officials and sided with the reformers. Shcherbitsky sat and listened, two elated reformers said afterward.
The Kremlin leader also ordered Ukrainian Communist Party leaders to pay more attention to democratization, elected bodies and rank-and-file party members. He told workers on the streets of Kiev they should oust bosses who don't perform well.
Reversing local authorities, Gorbachev also promised that a controversial nuclear power plant wouldn't begin operations unless declared safe by American experts.
In setting Ukrainian activists free to push for change, Gorbachev risks igniting nationalism. But his attempt to overhaul the nation's economy cannot succeed without reform in the Ukraine - the industrial and agricultural heart of the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev himself brought up the danger of Ukrainian nationalism, warning miners in Donetsk that the country could not afford ethnic disturbances in a republic of 50 million people when strife in the smaller republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan was so damaging.
Drach said Gorbachev has allowed Shcherbitsky to remain in power this long because of this ''fear of stirring up the Ukraine to the boiling point.''
As a result, the Ukraine has seen virtually no glasnost, activists said. Crimes of Stalin being examined by a Politburo commission and the national press are out of bounds for Ukrainian newspapers. Demonstrations that have met little or no resistance in Moscow and the Baltics have been broken up in the Ukraine, said Oles Shevchenko, head of the local Helsinki Watch group.
Economic innovations such as private cooperatives and leasing have been rare, said writer Yuri Shcherbak. Environmental concerns about radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion have been ignored.
Demonstrators in Kiev last week called for Shcherbitsky's defeat in the upcoming election, although he is running unopposed.
At the conclusion of Sunday's rally on the preservation of ancient Kiev, paramilitary police stormed the square after human rights activists announced their demonstrations had been canceled since Gorbachev's departure because of the arrest of protest organizers. Some in the crowd responded to the strong- armed tactics of the police with anger, screaming, ''Nazis 3/8''
Shcherbak said the burgeoning populist movements have their roots in public anger over the Chernobyl disaster. Government secrecy about the resulting radiation sparked an environmental movement that won permission to hold a meeting in November that drew an estimated 20,000 people.
The meeting ended with calls to form the People's Movement, modeled on the Popular Fronts in the Baltic states.
''Everyone wants to live better, to breathe more freely, to feel himself a person, not a slave,'' Drach said.
Where Ukrainians once were afraid to mention Shcherbitsky's name, there now are open calls for his ouster.
''People lack faith in the old leaders, particularly Shcherbitsky,'' Drach said.
''He is old, sick and he must go,'' said Shcherbak. ''I think he will go soon. In the Ukraine, we very much need a leader.''
The first signal of a potentially important change in the Ukrainian Communist Party leadership since the 1982 death of Leonid Brezhnev came in December when a Gorbachev man, Vladimir Ivashko, was named Shcherbitsky's deputy.
In the Baltics, Communists have joined the reform groups. But in Kiev, the deputy director of the Helsinki Watch group, Anatoly Nahirnyak, was expelled from the party last week, Shevchenko said.
''There are progressive people in the party,'' Shcherbak said, ''but they can't do anything yet.''
Now, however, the reformers believe they have Gorbachev on their side.
''Gorbachev himself said he needs people who won't run away from difficult problems,'' Shcherbak said. Gorbachev made it clear, he added, that if such people are found in the outside reform organizations, they should be brought into the mainstream fight for change.