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Ukrainian Students Risked Another Tiananmen - and Won

October 22, 1990 GMT

KIEV, U.S.S.R. (AP) _ More than 200 went on hunger strike. Six were hospitalized. But in the end, the students who created a bloodless version of Tiananmen Square in the Ukraine were sad to go home.

For 16 days this month, the pro-independence hunger strikers lived in a tent city on the main square of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, deliberately duplicating the tactics of pro-democracy Chinese students in Beijing in 1989.

The Ukrainian students gambled that Soviet authorities would not dare to follow China’s example and send the army to crush them.


They turned out to be right.

″We went in with cold minds, prepared for any kind of conflict, but with the conviction that the only real path open to the government was peaceful,″ said Vladimir Boyarsky, a 22-year-old medical student.

On Wednesday, the Ukrainian government capitulated to most of the students’ demands for faster steps toward independence, including the resignation of the republic’s prime minister.

On Thursday, they took down the tents they had staked between cracks in the marble slabs of Revolution Square.

And over the weekend, they headed back to their homes across this fertile republic of 51 million people, the breadbasket of the Soviet Union.

″After the government announced it was giving in, we went wild with joy,″ Boyarsky said Friday.

″Then we all realized that this piece of our lives was ending, we would be heading off in different directions, and hardly anyone slept that night with all the sentimental goodbyes.″

That sentiment was far removed from the tension the students felt on the first day of the hunger strike, Oct. 2, when seven busloads of riot police pulled up to the square.

The strike had been planned for weeks, in extreme detail, by the Ukrainian Student Union in Kiev and the Student Brotherhood in Lvov, a city of 770,000 in the Western Ukraine.

Both groups were angry over the lack of progress toward independence by the republic’s parliament since it declared sovereignty July 16. They demanded bolder moves, such as those taken by the Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

″Every nation has a right to self-determination on its own territory,″ law student Igor Osobik, 22, said Friday.

″You know, more than 40 million Ukrainians have been killed in the period of Soviet power, from famine and from bullets. Why can’t we be masters of our own fate, our own future, our own land?″

On Oct. 2, a day after the Ukrainian parliament opened its session, 120 hunger strikers and 50 supporters set up the first 22 tents on Revolution Square, under a towering bronze statue of Lenin.

Supporters wore armbands to mark their pre-assigned roles: red for medics; black for guards keeping order in the camp; blue for people serving tea and cleaning up. They had a permit for a demonstration, but not for the tents. While fearing a police raid at any minute, they concentrated on explaining their position to passers-by.

The students accused the parliamentary majority, a bloc of 239 Communist Party members, of ″toadying to Moscow.″

They argued that the Communists and the republic’s prime minister, Vitaly Masol, were trying to thwart real independence by moving toward a new union treaty with other Soviet republics at the urging of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

They vowed to remain on the square until the parliament agreed to six demands: Masol’s resignation; rejection of any new union treaty; permission for all Ukrainians in the Soviet army to serve on Ukrainian soil; nationalization of Communist Party property in the Ukraine; dissolution of parliament; and new elections.

″The first day there was a very heavy feeling, because we didn’t know what the police were going to do,″ said Boyarsky. ″But all they did was surround us, and the next day, we began what you might call normal life.″

History student Lyudmila Demirskaya, 25, said most of the students spent their days singing folk songs and meeting new arrivals, who came at the rate of more than 50 a day from schools across the republic, swelling the camp to more than 800 people.

A total of 217 students registered as hunger strikers for varying lengths of time. About 20 reportedly went without food for a full two weeks.

Christopher Kedzie, a Harvard University researcher working on economic reform in the Ukraine, said he walked by the tent city every day and was ″amazed at two things: the discipline of the students and the outpouring of support″ from Kiev residents, who brought mattresses, blankets, money and flowers.

Thousands of people marched through the city last Monday, Tuesday and Wednesdaty to support the students’ demands. Students claim the largest march, on the 17th, involved more than 100,000 people; authorities say it was only 20,000.

Whatever the figure, public support for the students was strong enough that parliament realized ″we had to take them seriously, and the only rational course was compromise,″ said Alexander Kotzuba, a centrist lawmaker.

On Wednesday evening, Masol agreed to resign, and parliament passed a resolution promising to put off signing a new union treaty and saying all Ukrainian soldiers should be allowed to serve inside the republic.

It also set up a commission to work on nationalizing Communist Party property and called for a referendum to decide whether to dissolve parliament and hold new elections.

″Last week, we felt the strength of our youth,″ Sergei Sukhov, a 62-year- old printer, said on a Kiev streetcorner. ″Not all of us were at the demonstrations, but we supported, they won, and they are now the pride of our nation.″