ODESSA, Soviet Union — Giving an invaluable boost to the Ukraine's drive for statehood, representatives of various ethnic groups agreed Saturday that independence from Moscow is the "only exit" from decades of want and discrimination.
"To unmistakably say yes to an independent, democratic Ukraine means to emerge from the ruins to which the last empire of the world has brought us," the more than 1,000 delegates to the first All-Ukrainian Inter-Ethnic Congress declared in a resolution.
Their nearly unanimous decision after a day of deliberations would do much to demolish an argument used by foes of Ukrainian independence--including Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev--who contend that Russians and other non-Ukrainians living in the republic oppose secession and that a formal breaking of ties would spark inter-ethnic strife.
Citizens of the Ukraine--the Soviet Union's richest and most populous republic after the Russian Federation--go to the polls Dec. 1 to elect a president and decide by referendum whether an independence declaration adopted by its Parliament in August should take effect. The congress urged all of the republic's ethnic groups to vote "yes."
"Upon us is a decisive moment in the history of the Ukraine," the assembly said in its resolution. "Either the Ukraine will achieve independence and become a free and rich country, or it will remain a colony doomed to deprivation of its material production and intellectual resources through imperial policies directed at the genocide of nationalities and national-ethnic groups."
The congress, held in the ornate Opera Theater of this Black Sea port, was a living mosaic of the more than 100 ethnic groups that live in the Ukraine, a land larger than France. By the theater's entrance, a Hasidic Jew in a black skullcap hawked newspapers promoting the revival of Yiddish culture. A Cossack attired in a flowing blue robe lounged against a banister nearby, a sword at his side.
In the horseshoe-shaped hall, Greeks, Gypsies, Germans, Russians, Koreans, Jews, Crimean Tatars and other minorities took the floor along with Ukrainians to denounce the state of their schools, newspapers and other institutions crucial to language and culture.
With non-Ukrainians making up about a quarter of the republic's population of 52 million, dealing with minority demands is an important challenge for the government in Kiev. Russians are by far the largest ethnic minority, with more than 11 million members, followed by half a million Jews and 440,000 Belarussians.
The importance of the congress was evident in the homage it received from both front-runners in next month's presidential race. Leonid Kravchuk, chairman of the Supreme Rada, the republic's Parliament, wired a telegram expressing his personal support.
His chief opponent, Vyacheslav Chornovil, made a dramatic entry while the congress was in full swing. Delegates stood and applauded as his supporters on the fourth-floor balcony tossed armfuls of campaign leaflets down to the crowd.
The multi-ethnic assembly, the first of its kind, was organized under the auspices of the grass-roots pro-independence movement Rukh, the Ukrainian Council of Ministers and the Supreme Rada. About 150 ethnically based organizations were asked to send envoys, and delegates also came from each geographic region.
One organizer, Dmytro Pavlychto, a member of the presidium of the Ukrainian Parliament, said with satisfaction that the congress has done much to prevent the sort of ethnic clashes that have plagued other Soviet republics.
"Today, we accomplished enough, in my opinion, to stop the development of the 'Yugoslav model' here," Pavlychto said.
The congress called on the Ukrainian government and Parliament to take specific steps to better the lot of minorities, including transferring the property of the now-banned Communist Party to ethnic cultural associations and recovering locally produced artworks that are now in non-Ukrainian galleries.
When delegates were polled on the pro-independence resolution, only three raised their hands against it.