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NEWS ANALYSIS : Bush's 'Chicken Kiev' Talk--an Ill-Fated U.S. Policy : Ukraine: Efforts to keep the Soviet Union intact are recalled with bitterness by some in new nation.

December 19, 1991|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KIEV, Ukraine — One offended critic called it the "Chicken Kiev" speech, and it left a bitterness some Ukrainians could still taste as Secretary of State James A. Baker III on Wednesday spelled out American intentions toward their new country.

As recently as one month ago, radical Ukrainian lawmaker Ivan Zayets recalled, "We were saying, 'We will be autonomous.' But America was still telling us, 'No, you won't, you'll be in the Soviet Union.' "

Fate designated Kiev as the break-point for American policy toward the Soviet Union, or as officials here now delight in saying, the "former Soviet Union." Fittingly, Kiev was the last stop on a five-republic tour that Baker was making to help formulate an American stance toward the rapidly changing post-Soviet world.

The exponent of the now discarded line was none other than Baker's boss, President Bush. He flew to Kiev after last summer's Moscow superpower summit and delivered a speech that, to many, seemed like a tepid U.S. dismissal of Ukrainian aspirations to statehood.

"Freedom is not the same as independence," Bush told Zayets and the rest of Ukraine's legislature on Aug. 1. "Americans will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism. They will not aid those who promote a suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred."

Shorn of rhetorical niceties, the American position seemed to be: Moscow and Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev know best. Although the legislature here was dominated by Communists still opposed at that time to secession, Bush's speech "went down about as well as cod-liver oil," one Kiev-based diplomat remarked.

White House strategists, worried in part about potential backlash from Ukrainian-American voters, soon were trying to convince reporters that Bush had not had the Ukrainians in mind at all. But the damage, at least in Kiev pro-independence circles and with sympathizers elsewhere, was done.

Given Bush's message in August, it is ironic that it was Ukraine that showed the Bush Administration that it would, indeed, have to pick between supporting Gorbachev and the republics' right to self-determination--options Bush brushed off here as a "false choice."

In the waning days of November, as this republic prepared for a referendum on independence, the White House dramatically shifted its policy and decided it would have to ultimately extend diplomatic recognition to a free Ukraine. A new country of 52 million people, the Administration decided, would be just too big to ignore.

Ukraine's Dec. 1 landslide vote for independence delivered the crowning blow to the already rickety Soviet Union and forced Russian Federation President Boris N. Yeltsin to come up with his plan for a post-Soviet commonwealth as a way of reconciling Ukrainians' dreams with the needs of economics and security.

Largely due to events over the past months in Ukraine, the U.S. attitude toward the crumbling Soviet Union now resembles that of a doctor faced with a terminally ill patient, the Kiev-based diplomat said. It will do nothing to prolong the dying nation's life, but it will not put it out of its misery, either.

But some Ukrainians are unconvinced that there has been a fundamental change in American policy. They believe that the White House has simply stopped being Gorbachev's advocate and that it now has taken up the course of the new strongman in the Kremlin: Yeltsin.

"I think Baker is going to persuade (Ukrainian President Leonid M.) Kravchuk to strengthen the commonwealth, to stabilize the situation by common commands and, in general, to fully support the proposals that are being strongly pushed on us by Mr. Yeltsin," said Les Taniuk, a member of the Preisidium of the Ukrainian legislature.

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