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Vyacheslav Chornovil : Why the West Has So Much at Stake in the Ukrainian Drama

June 30, 1991|Christine Demkowych | Christine Demkowych, a graduate of Columbia University's Harriman Institute for Advanced Study of the Soviet Union, will be living in Kiev for the next year. She interviewed Vyacheslav M. Chornovil during the deputy's recent visit to Los Angeles

A man who spent 15 years in Soviet prisons for protesting human-rights violations might be expected to be full of bitterness and resentment. But Vyacheslav M. Chornovil, former-prisoner-of-conscience-turned-deputy to the Supreme Soviet of Ukraine, speaks with an intelligence and optimism that is admirable in light of his turbulent past.

As governor of the Lvov Oblast in the western half of the republic, Chornovil, 54, is at the helm of the democratic independence movement in Ukraine. Last week, the Ukrainian legislature voted to delay until mid-September all debate on the proposed Union Treaty. Many Ukrainian nationalists regard the draft treaty as a sellout.

The region Chornovil governs is undergoing rapid political transformation, serving as a model for the rest of the republic. In political circles from Kiev to Moscow, Chornovil is known as a progressive politician who reflects the territory he governs. The Ukraine, marked by a tragic history of interethnic strife, now displays genuine ethnic cooperation--in contrast to the recent bloody confrontations in Armenia and Azerbaijan.

During his U.S. visit, Chornovil regularly reminded listeners that the western half of the Ukraine, incorporated, in 1939, into the Soviet Union in 1939 at the same time as the Baltic States, is more experienced with Western-style economics and traditions, and therefore more viable for Western business interests.

Chornovil projects a calm that is subtly underscored by a sense of urgency, particularly when discussing hurdles the Ukraine must overcome before making the transition to a democratic form of government. Speaking in precise sentences--perhaps a legacy of his early career in journalism--he admits his support for political pluralism, the de-ideologization of society, rejection of imperialism in nationalities policy and privatization of state-owned enterprises.

Chornovil gained fame in the West when his eyewitness accounts of illegalities during the 1965-66 "secret trials" of leading Ukrainian intellectuals were smuggled to the West and published in book form as "The Chornovil Papers." He won the London Times' Nicholas Tomalin International Journalism Prize and honorary membership to the International PEN club.

In addition to his political duties, Chornovil is the editor of the the Ukrainian Herald, a journal, and on the executive board of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group. He lives in Lvov with his wife, Athena, a poet and political activist.

Question: What did you stress in your visits with U.S. government officials?

Answer: In my meetings, I was regrettably surprised that the West, primarily the U.S. government, still hasn't grasped the fact that the Soviet empire is crumbling, and the reasons for this are political, as well as economic. The political ideology on which the empire is based, otherwise defined as communist ideology, is a system of socialist management that has absolutely discredited itself . . . .

Even the military attempts to crush the national spirit of sovereignty in the Baltics and Georgia, to name a few, have not been successful. Controlling the Soviet Union, such a mass territory, from one central point is impossible.

What (U.S. legislators) need to understand is that history cannot be stopped from moving forward. Despite their fears and reservations, the disintegration of the Soviet Union is inevitable. Perhaps it's not a pleasant way to put it, but the failure of our economy and the overall impoverishment in the Soviet Union is propelling democracy and the development of a free-market system.

Q: Until recently, many publications urged policy-makers to support Gorbachev and the union due to fears of economic and military instability. Now, opinion seems to be changing. What are the economic aspects of these arguments?

A: None of these arguments are new to me, and none present justifiable reasons for countries in the West to fear disintegration. If the goal is to maintain a centralized economy, one planned from above or one which is socialistic, then the union is necessary. But if we're talking about a market economy, then what need is there for a union of republics?

People frequently say the republics, if independent, would never survive because the current structure of the Soviet Union is such that each member of the union is economically dependent on the other. . . . If Ukraine becomes independent, it won't break the existing economic ties it has with Russia or any other republic. As an independent nation, we would retain those ties which are advantageous to us and likewise, I'm sure, Russia would maintain those which benefit it . . . .

Q: What about the fear of nuclear instability that many believe would result from the dissolution of the union?

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