Yushchenko's victory doesn't lift air of uncertainty in Ukraine

Institutions throughout country holding breath for peaceful inauguration

December 29, 2004|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KIEV, Ukraine - During the end-of-year holidays, the footsteps of scores of visitors usually echo off the marble floors of the Chernobyl Museum, dedicated to the 1986 catastrophic disaster at the nuclear power plant 60 miles north of here.

But not this week. These are unsettled times in Kiev, the epicenter of rallies supporting what opposition leader Viktor A. Yushchenko calls the "elegant" revolution.

Yesterday, after a campaign marked by fraud and fears of violence, the Central Election Commission confirmed Yushchenko's victory in Sunday's court-ordered rerun presidential election. He defeated Prime Minister Viktor F. Yanukovych, who sought closer ties to Moscow, 52 percent to 44 percent.

But there is still an air of uncertainty over what might happen next.

Last night, Yushchenko told tens of thousands of cheering supporters at Independence Square that they lived "in a different country" where corruption was no longer tolerated.

But he also warned that departing President Leonid D. Kuchma was planning to sell state-owned properties worth hundreds of millions of dollars to private business interests during his last days in office. Yushchenko called for protesters to blockade the Cabinet offices where meetings on the proposed sales are scheduled for today.

Meanwhile, Yanukovych has refused to concede and insisted that he would challenge the certified results in court.

The uncertainties extend to every institution, including the museum. Parents are apparently keeping home the schoolchildren who would ordinarily be trooping through the museum to see the Geiger counters, radiation suits and newspaper clippings about the deadliest nuclear accident in history.

Visitors from Russia and Belarus are usually here, too, paying the admission fee of 5 hryvnias, or about $1. But Russia's state-controlled news media portrayed the protesters in Independence Square as an unruly mob, discouraging tourists.

Other priorities

Even if tourists don't feel intimidated, they might have other priorities.

"Earlier, when people came to Kiev, they would go to the museums and theaters," said Vladimir Korneichuk, the white-haired deputy director of the museum. "Now they go to Independence Square."

Like the rest of Ukraine, the museum's 42-member staff seems to be holding its collective breath, waiting for a peaceful presidential inauguration.

Inna Radchenko, 22, one of the museum's tour guides, is a student at the Kiev-Myhola Academy majoring in environmental studies. The day after the disputed Nov. 21 presidential runoff, the academy's dean announced in Independence Square that the university was on strike. Radchenko spent the next 10 days in the square, and she housed other demonstrators in her apartment.

"We Ukrainians are not sure about tomorrow," she said. "Anything can happen here. It's not a stable situation. But it's really interesting."

36 hours of secrecy

The museum serves as an indictment of the Soviet legacy that Yushchenko has vowed to end.

Housed in a former firehouse in the Podil, Kiev's historic mercantile quarter, the institution opened in 1992 as a photo exhibit organized by the firefighters who battled blazes that began at the reactor on April 26, 1986. An explosion had blown the top off of the reactor building and shot a plume containing about 10 tons of highly radioactive debris from the reactor's fuel high into the atmosphere. Within days, the fallout settled over much of the former Soviet Union and Europe.

Korneichuk, now 67, was the Interior Ministry official in charge of the Chernobyl region and dispatched the first police and firefighters. Ukrainian government officials, he said, pleaded with authorities in Moscow to make the extent of the disaster public. But the Communist Party leadership kept it secret for 36 hours, by which time the radioactive cloud was detected in Sweden.

Three days after the explosion at Chernobyl, newspapers in the West published stories about the accident on their front pages. A leading newspaper here, Soviet Ukraine, printed only a vague one-paragraph announcement headlined "Council of Ministers Report."

Eventually, 91,000 people were evacuated from 76 communities within about 18 miles of the site. Thirty-one plant and emergency workers died in the first days of burns and radiation sickness. About 600,000 people involved in the firefighting and cleanup received significant doses of radiation.

Time off to protest

The Interior Ministry, which controls Ukraine's national police, runs the Chernobyl Museum. But museum officials still permitted staff to take time off to protest in Independence Square.

Those officials also welcomed the influx of student protesters from around the country. "They came here to warm up when it was cold, and we welcomed them," Korneichuk said. "It's good when young people have ideals."

Several older museum staffers backed Yanukovych, who had strong support among Ukrainian police agencies. Younger workers were more likely to support Yushchenko.

But Korneichuk, 67, said he supported Yushchenko; he pointed out that Yanukovych had served two prison terms for robbery and assault: "One candidate is a decent person, the other one was twice in prison. What would an American policeman think if his president was twice convicted of a crime?"

Toast to the fallen

Every April 26, Korneichuk and his colleagues return to the Chernobyl site to remember that terrible day and to drink a toast of 100 grams of vodka to their fallen friends.

Every year, there are more Chernobyl veterans to toast. One of the last firefighters to take a direct role in battling the blaze died two weeks ago of cancer at the age of 52.

"For 70 years we lived under Soviet power, and we shouldn't erase that from our memories," Korneichuk said. "It's most important that such a tragedy like this should never happen again."

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