Kravchuk faces critical mass of deputies

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THE KIEV parliament is preparing to give President Leonid Kravchuk a roasting for having gone to Moscow and signed away Ukraine's nuclear weapons without its blessing.

'The reaction will be very sharp,' said Oles Shevchenko, a deputy in the assembly that had voted to ratify the Start 1 treaty but to disarm gradually, keeping back a few modern missiles to guarantee Ukraine's security over the next few years. Parliament opens tomorrow.

Some MPs would call for President Kravchuk's impeachment, Mr Shevchenko said, and a large bloc would want to veto the deal agreed by the Ukrainian leader and Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton at their summit last week. But Mr Shevchenko, while no less ardent a Ukrainian nationalist than he was in Soviet times, when the KGB used to persecute him, said he personally would be arguing for acceptance of the deal.

'I deeply regret that the decision of parliament has been violated,' he said, 'but we must avoid confrontation in Europe. If parliament throws out the agreement, the US and Russia could put such pressure on us in our difficult economic situation that we could be pushed to catastrophe.' Nevertheless, he said parliament should add certain amendments to the text, making promises of compensation to Ukraine for surrendering its share of the Soviet arsenal more precise.

Mr Shevchenko still believes, as he has always done, that Russia poses an eternal threat to Ukraine. 'The West and Moscow want to explain away the rise of Vladimir Zhirinovsky (the Russian ultra-nationalist) by saying it was a vote of protest against poverty. No, it was a vote for Russian chauvinism.' Moscow, with its incorrigible imperialist habits, was stirring up trouble in Ukraine as it did in Georgia, he said.

Yet by his pragmatism over nuclear weapons, Mr Shevchenko shows he is more in touch with ordinary Ukrainians than other nationalists, who seem unaware that their popularity has been falling since the republic became independent in 1991. On the streets, all that seems to matter to people is their poverty, and if the price of living better is co-operating more with Russia, then so be it.

'Kravchuk should have given the weapons to the Americans, not the Russians. Now we are vulnerable to force from Moscow,' said Konstantin, a taxi-driver, but he was a lone voice. Viktoria, a librarian reduced to street-trading to make ends meet, was more typical. 'I judge matters from a material point of view. Is the policy good for me? I'm an ethnic Ukrainian, but I have no strong nationalist feelings. Patriotism should be in the soul, not in loud words.' Lyuba, a waitress, is glad the weapons are to go. 'They are no defence; they are just an ecological risk to Ukraine itself. Maybe we have made a concession, but now at least there is hope the Americans will help us.'

The reasons for the crisis in Ukraine, potentially a rich agricultural country, are many and debatable. Some economists cite slow pace of privatisation, others blame the republic's dependence on Russia for energy; yet others, the economic disruption caused by the snapping of Soviet economic links. But the human effects are clear to see.

The local currency, the temporary coupon, is so weak (35,000 to dollars 1) that Ukrainians happily take the Russian rouble which Muscovites despise. While most Russians earn the equivalent of at least dollars 100 (pounds 67) a month, the average salary here is a mere 400,000 coupons (dollars 11) a month. That will buy one piece of meat, one pack of butter and 1kg (2.2lb) of cheese and leave you no change out of a month's salary.

The able-bodied work round the clock, often taking menial jobs that waste their skills and qualifi cations, or else risk entering more lucrative but mafia-controlled business. Those who cannot keep themselves - invalids and the elderly - beg for alms. 'Thank you, thank you, let me kiss you,' said an old woman at the Bessarabsky market. And all I had done was give her the change from my dollar-a-kilogram oranges.