Ukraine's pro-Western leaders fight over Soviet symbol

Wed Feb 4, 2009 12:07pm EST
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By Mykhailo Yelchev

YALTA, Ukraine (Reuters) - Ukraine's feuding president and prime minister, both proponents of pro-Western ideas, have squared off in a new dispute over a quintessential symbol of Soviet times -- the Artek pioneer camp.

Artek, founded in 1925, was lionized for decades as a hothouse for internationalism, a gathering place on the Black Sea for children of all races, each donning the red scarf of Soviet pioneers, to debate happily how to further world peace.

The camp hosted more than 20,000 children a year in the Crimea peninsula -- prime, lush and now very sought after resort land in what was once the summer playground of the Soviet elite.

It was a "must visit" for Communist Party chiefs, including Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev, thronged by campers as they strolled amid palm trees and thick greenery. Other feted guests included cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

But Artek, nestled beneath a volcanic outcropping known as "Bear Mountain," has fallen on hard times and faces closure, triggering a row between President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Their alliance from the 2004 "Orange Revolution" long dissolved, each have blamed the other for the camp's predicament.

With children no longer sent there at public expense staff went unpaid for three months and the camp director went on a protest hunger strike and wound up in hospital.

Last week more than 100 staff, flanked by groups of children, gathered in a downpour on the camp's deserted promenades to demand action from authorities to keep Artek open.   Continued...

<p>A choir of 800 children performs at the Artek recreation centre at the Ukrainian Black Sea resort of Crimea, May 8, 2008. REUTERS/Stringer</p>