YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

U.S. From Abroad : America Losing Luster in Ukraine : People resent pressure to give up Soviet-installed nuclear weapons. Other complaints: missionaries and violent U.S. videos.


KIEV, Ukraine — Stepan Khmara believes that he owes his life to Ronald Reagan.

When Khmara was suffering physical and mental privations as a political prisoner in the 1980s, "America's moral stance against the Soviet Union under President Reagan gave me strength to go on."

Two U.S. presidents later, his view of the United States has soured considerably.

"This pressure on Ukraine over nuclear weapons . . . must change," the 55-year-old ex-prisoner, now one of his nation's lawmakers, said as he stood outside Parliament recently on a brilliantly sunny day. America, he charged, "supports Russian imperialism."

A few dozen protesters had gathered on the granite plaza nearby. "Mr. Khmara, don't give our nuclear weapons to Russia," pleaded a middle-aged woman clad in a flowered babushka. Pro-nuclear placards hung from the barricades in front of her.

"Goodby America" read the message on one crude drawing of a nuclear weapon. Another poster, in a play on the Pepsi slogan, proclaimed, "SS-24--the choice of the new generation" above a picture of two young people embracing a missile.

Khmara, whose daughter is studying at a U.S. university, said he is a great admirer of the American people, "their ideals, their love of freedom." But he is not alone here in his disillusionment with Washington.

The U.S. policy of pressuring Ukraine to relinquish the Soviet-installed nuclear weapons on its territory is not only backfiring, breeding pro-nuclear sentiment among lawmakers, but is also magnifying other irritants, spawning a nascent anti-Americanism that could threaten what little leverage the United States has left with this newly independent--and increasingly assertive--country.

The visit of U.S. special envoy Strobe Talbott here in May was meant to dispel some of the resentment. He took pains to avoid the subject of nuclear weapons and to propose other areas for U.S.-Ukrainian cooperation, prompting President Leonid Kravchuk to declare that "the United States has understood" that relations cannot be limited to "just one issue."

But Talbott's offer to have the United States mediate disputes between Ukraine and Russia prompted other Ukrainians to wonder whether Washington is impartial enough to be an honest broker. "Russia is No. 1 for them," a Ukrainian journalist said.

The ramshackle party offices of the Ukrainian National Assembly contrast sharply with the bureaucratic elegance of the Parliament building just a short walk up the hill. But the relentlessly radical nationalist group's opinion of the United States is being echoed more frequently in the marble-walled halls of government.

"America is obnoxious," said an angry Victor Melnyk, a leader of the UNA. Above his head, a leaflet reading "Nuclear Weapons Are a Guarantee of Peace and Stability" was tacked to the wall.

The UNA's anger at the United States is not limited to the nuclear issue. Melnyk rails against the "pornographic and violent videos that are ruining our youth," while Dmytro Karchynsky, his right-hand man, ridicules the American evangelical missionaries who proselytize on Kiev's central Independence Square.

"They come from a country that didn't exist 300 years ago to preach in a country that was Christianized 1,000 years ago," Karchynsky said. Even more galling--they use Russian translators.

Though the evangelicals are perhaps guilty of linguistic insensitivity, Oleh Kubkh, UNA's press officer, believes there is a more sinister conspiracy afoot.

"The American government and the AFL-CIO are planning to raise crippling strikes in Ukraine in case our government is recalcitrant about relinquishing nuclear weapons," he asserts.

The U.S. labor organization's representative in Kiev was not available for comment. But a highly placed Western observer responded "Hogwash!" when asked about the alleged plot.

That same observer, who requested anonymity, did concede that "U.S. policy to Ukraine has been wrong from Day One" --starting with former President George Bush's so-called Chicken Kiev speech of August, 1990, when he branded Ukrainians' desire for sovereignty "suicidal nationalism," to the last few months of intense pressure on Ukraine to ratify the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, and other nuclear weapons accords. He said Washington makes matters worse with its tacit intimation that Russia has a free hand on former Soviet territory.

The observer, who wrote his doctorate on this part of the world, fears that such a pro-Russian tilt could push Ukraine--which borders seven European countries and, aside from nuclear weapons, has the second-largest conventional army in Europe--into an ominous militarism.

And if people such as UNA's Karchynsky represent the cutting edge and not the lunatic fringe, that militarism could also spawn the kind of anti-Americanism seen in some Latin American countries.

Los Angeles Times Articles