UKRAINE : For Sale: A Piece of Soviet History

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One of the two largest aircraft carriers ever designed by the mighty Soviet military is being put on the auction block.

For a mere $100 million down--the balance is negotiable--an aspiring naval power can buy the Varyag, now under construction, a ship the Pentagon has described as "a dramatic leap forward in technical fleet air defense capability."

The giant carrier is being built here in Ukraine, whose government has decided that the only way it can fund the ship's completion is to sell it in advance, according to Victor Antonov, Ukraine's minister of defense conversion.

The price does not include all the extras the ship was built to carry--dozens of jet fighters and an array of missiles and guns. But it does include a ski-jump launching ramp, which was given a high rating by the Pentagon. The Varyag's recently commissioned sister ship, the Admiral Kuznetsov, has been the pride of the former Soviet fleet.

Both ships' names reflect political changes: The Kuznetsov, named after the World War II commander of the Soviet navy, was originally the Tbilisi, which is the capital of now-independent Georgia. The projected Varyag, named after Scandinavian seafarers who established a presence in 9th-Century Russia, was to have been called the Riga, for the capital of now-independent Latvia. The names were changed in 1990 because the Soviet navy was unhappy about ships being named after cities of dissident republics.

The Varyag is about two-thirds built; when finished, it will be longer than three football fields and weigh 65,000 tons.

"We don't want to sell arms," Antonov, who also heads the Commission on Military Exports, said in an interview. "But we've been driven into a dead end. We have no money."

Until Ukraine finds a buyer, construction on the ship has been halted. Work on the Ulyanovsk, an even larger aircraft carrier that is less than one-fifth built, has been scrapped.

Parts from 2,500 Russian suppliers are needed for the Varyag, and Antonov charged that Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin "has ordered them to stop supplying us."

The crisis at the Nikolayev Shipyard on the Black Sea, where the Varyag is being built, is representative of the situation facing all 700 defense enterprises in Ukraine.

One-third of Ukraine's 2.5-million-strong defense labor force is likely to be laid off in the next few weeks because of a drop in orders and the failure of manufacturers in other republics to honor supply agreements.

Threatened with closure, the plants are looking for any way to stay afloat. Selling their military products abroad seems like the only short-term solution, because converting their factories to produce civilian goods is, in most cases, expensive and time-consuming.

For the shipyard, the crisis may be only temporary because it already has potential foreign clients.

"Japan and the United States want ships to transport cars," Antonov said. "But while these giant aircraft carriers are taking up space, they can't build anything new."

While the Varyag is the first product of Ukraine's vast military-industrial complex to hit the auction block, it is not likely to be the last product of the Soviet military machine that the Ukrainians put on the market.

The sale of arms is necessary not only to keep the plants going and their staffs employed, but also to help Ukraine make the difficult transition from being one of the republics of the Soviet Union, which had a command economy, to a sovereign country with a market-based economy.

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