From Green Activist to Ambassador

Reported by Reese Erlich, Producer, the Russia Project

WALTER CRONKITE: In the fall of 1990 students held a hunger strike in Kiev that would later be recognized as a turning point in the movement for Ukrainian independence. Producer Reese Erlich covered that epic event where he met a radical environmental activist. Ten years later that activist ended up in a very unexpected place—and in a moral predicament.

REESE ERLICH: Our scraggily group of public reporters arrived at the Kiev train station with little advance warning of the unfolding events. The bustling train station seemed normal.

[Kiev train station]

But when we arrived at the Great October Revolution Square in the center of Kiev, thousands of people were milling about, meeting with student hunger strikers and cheering on speakers.

[Speaker, followed by applause]

The students and their supporters were demanding independence for Ukraine, something unheard of since the consolidation of the Soviet Union, 70 years before. The Soviet Union was supposed to be a nation built on equality, but growing numbers of Ukrainians thought they suffered at the hands of the Moscow government.

UKRAINIAN SPEAKER: (Via Translator) These students are committed to going out to the villages and the other cities of Ukraine and spreading the word about the revival that happened here and to spread the word about the victories that happen here so that everyone can unite around this cause.

[Ukrainian male singer from mic with singers in background]

ERLICH: That student hunger strike would become a turning point in Ukraine's fight for independence. I later met a middle-aged Green Party leader named Yuri Scherbak. He had recently been elected to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR as part of an insurgent slate. Scherbak says the Ukrainian government later renamed Kiev's central square and erected a statue of a student.

YURI SCHERBAK: This square became Square of Independence immediately after student strike. It's very important. The statue on the column, a young Ukrainian girl, which symbolizes our spirit of freedom and independence, stay exactly on this place where students were demonstrating.

ERLICH: I caught up with Yuri Scherbak recently in Ottawa, Canada. His chauffeur-driven Town Car took us by the Canadian parliament building with its famous carillon.

[Bells of the Parliament building carillon]

SCHERBAK: We are in the heart of Canadian democracy. I like Canada for democracy.

ERLICH: In 1991 Scherbak became Ukraine's Minister of Environment Protection. After that, he was a diplomat in Israel and then ambassador to the United States. Today, Yuri Scherbak, dissident Green, is Ukrainian ambassador to Canada. To his credit, he hasn't been accused of corruption like many other Ukrainian leaders.

SCHERBAK: I never took part in some speculation, in some privatization process. My position is very high in governmental system. I'm getting very good salary.

ERLICH: Scherbak has put on a few pounds; the hair is a little thinner. But he remains the jovial guy I met in 1990.

Here's a limousine. It must be somebody important right?

SCHERBAK: Ah, maybe, or has a lot of money. (Giggles)

ERLICH: It's our car.

SCHERBAK: This is it?


[Car door opens and closes]

The ambassador regrets he can't just wear jeans and hang out at student protests anymore.

SCHERBAK: I slept in my necktie because I needed to be in my formal dress. (Laughs) I hate it. I hate it. Because, you know, a man who plays jazz cannot be very official, but I became official.

ERLICH: Scherbak used to be a jazz pianist, but these days he does his boogying at the embassy.

[Car door opens, we get out]

We arrive at the Ukrainian embassy in downtown Ottawa. It's a thoroughly modern building, a far cry from the crumbing infrastructure in much of Ukraine.

[Walking into embassy, door opens and closes]

SCHERBAK: This is a three-story building.

ERLICH: Scherbak isn't very happy with Ukraine's environmental development.

SCHERBAK: Now our air pollution is much better than 12 years ago. But why? Because a lot of industries are stopped.

ERLICH: It's pollution control through, through economic collapse.

SCHERBAK: Right, right, right.

ERLICH: Scherbak says his country must shift away from reliance on dirty industries such as coal and steel. He's willing to criticize the government on environmental issues, but Scherbak staunchly defends his country's right-wing president. President Leonid Kuchma stands accused of corruption and ordering the murder of political opponents. A former Ukrainian security officer says he recorded President Kuchma ordering the elimination of opposition journalist Georgy Gongadze (gone-gaad-za).

But ambassador Scherbak denies everything claiming the recordings were concocted by the security services themselves.

SCHERBAK: It was a very well done provocation by some services. I don't believe absolutely that president was involved in the situation with Georgy Congadza.

ERLICH: But that argument doesn't wash with government opponents who say Kuchma's voice is clearly recognizable on the tapes. They also sharply criticize the president for covering up massive corruption by his political allies. Any ambassador is expected to defend the policies of his country. But I asked Scherbak if he has any qualms about his defense of Kuchma.

[Reese's question to Scherbak] If you and I had been sitting in your apartment in 1990, as we did, could you have envisioned these kinds of scandals, this kind of corruption?

SCHERBAK: Of course, no. I was so idealistic, but now I understand that, unfortunately, this road to democracy is not very easy.

ERLICH: The road to democracy is indeed strewn with obstacles. High government position, power, and money have a funny way of affecting former activists. Ambassador Yuri Scherbak, is considering running for parliament on the Green Party ticket in 2002. If he wins, he would leave the diplomatic corps for the legislature. Then it would become clear whether his support for President Kuchma stems from conviction—or necessity.

For the Russia Project, I'm Reese Erlich, Ottawa, Canada.

© 2001 by The Stanley Foundation
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