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.
With chairs assembled alongside a row of palms, they sang and danced to what were known in Soviet times as “Artek songs.”
“I am here because I want to defend Artek so it doesn’t go to ruin,” said Marietta Korchizhinskaya, 11, daughter of a long-serving employee. “I was born here. I love it so much.”
One poster held aloft by a camp counselor beneath a gigantic bronze statue of Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin, read: “Once at Artek, always at Artek.”
With less than a year to go before a new presidential election, both Yushchenko and Tymoshenko were unabashed about tapping into the nostalgia of voters holding at least a few pleasant Soviet-era memories.
Yushchenko gave the prime minister a week to “deal with and report back” on the problems plaguing Artek.
Tymoshenko announced after a weekend cabinet meeting devoted solely to the camp that she had ensured Artek’s survival by allocating the equivalent of $7.8 million to its operations.
“That is enough to ensure that Artek develops as the top children’s care resort in the former Soviet Union,” she said.
It was up to the president’s office to find the money by cutting “excessively luxurious expenditure.” And if the office was unable to do that, she said, “we are prepared to help them.”
Singers, actors, filmmakers and Olympic champions chimed in with calls to save the camp.
Appeals resounded from abroad. One came from the mother of late American schoolgirl Samantha Smith, who gained fame in the mid-1980s by writing to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov asking him to do what he could to prevent an outbreak of nuclear war.
But behind political posturing lies what many say is the real problem - the potential value to any developer of the camp’s more than 200 hectares (500 acres) in an area prized for snow-capped mountains and forests sweeping down to the sea.
“The land on which Artek is located has a market value of $15,000-25,000 per 100 square meters. That makes it worth about half a billion dollars,” said the head of Artek’s press service.
“That gives us plenty of food for thought, with the (local) council constantly proposing to take away part of the territory. Who would benefit if Artek went bankrupt?” asked Yelena Mekh.
Ukraine’s boisterous parliament had what appeared, for the moment, the last word in a debate on Tuesday.
It passed laws writing off more than $2 million in debt and more in unpaid taxes, barring privatization of the camp’s land and obliging government agencies to pay the expenses of 15,000 children each year.
“Even with all our economic difficulties, we must maintain Artek...as a center known around the world, a gathering place for the planet’s best children,” Sports and Youth Minister Yuri Pavlenko told the chamber.
Writing by Ron Popeski; Editing by Matthew Jones