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Pragmatic Leader Guides Ukraine

Head of republic holding key to Soviet Union's fate surprises citizens with yen for compromise

By Daniel SneiderStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 2, 1991


THE biggest political mystery in the Ukraine today is the identity of its leader, parliament head Leonid Kravchuk. Is he the Leonid Kravchuk who patiently worked his way up the apparatus of the orthodox Ukrainian Communist Party to become its ideology chief? Or is he a hidden Ukrainian nationalist whose true feelings are now emerging into the open? Mr. Kravchuk suggests a third possibility - that he is an example of a new phenomenon in the Soviet Union, a politician who tries to represent his constituents.

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"I have not come from being a communist to being a nationalist, but to be more precise, from being a communist to a democrat," he told the Monitor in an exclusive interview. "I express the interests of not only Ukrainians but also the interests of Russians, of Jews, of Bulgarians, Hungarians, and Romanians who live in the land of the Ukraine."

More than any other Soviet republic, the Ukraine will determine the fate of the Soviet Union as a united country. With a population of 51.5 million, it is the largest and richest republic after Russia. The entire range of Soviet opinion can be found within its borders. In the west, the cry for independence dominates; in the east, where most of the more than 11 million Russians live, the Union still holds sway.

Leader prefers compromise

Since he was elected head of the Ukrainian parliament last July, Kravchuk has emerged as a leader who prefers pragmatic compromise to ideological conflict. His advocacy of Ukrainian sovereignty has brought him into occasional alliance with Rukh, the Popular Movement of the Ukraine uniting democrats and nationalists. And it has sparked an open split with the conservative Communist Party leadership.

But Kravchuk is also an outspoken critic of what he calls "narrow nationalism." He has pursued Ukraine's interests with a moderation and caution that often irritates and sometimes worries the more radical forces in and around Rukh.

"Kravchuk would like to be president of the Ukraine and would like to have control of the Ukrainian economy," says Mykhailo Horyn, one of the more fiery nationalists among Rukh's leadership. "But he also doesn't want conflict with [Soviet President Mikhail] Gorbachev. In the villages, they say Kravchuk would want heated ice."

Yet Mr. Horyn and others are carefully solicitous of Kravchuk, making deals with him and always seeking to widen the wedge between the silver-haired son of a Ukrainian peasant and his comrades in the Communist Party. Rukh and its allies are a minority in the Ukrainian Supreme Soviet, where the Communists still hold power. They can only succeed in getting their way, as they have at several key moments, by winning a portion of the Communist vote.

That combination worked last summer when the parliament passed a relatively radical declaration of sovereignty. And it worked again with the March 17 Gorbachev-sponsored referendum asking support for a "renewed federation" to preserve the union. Rukh wanted a second question seeking support for an association of independent states.