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Ukrainians Worry Serb Win Augurs Conflict With Russia

By Daniel SneiderStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor. Chrystyna Lapychak contributed to this article. / May 26, 1993


IT is spring in Kiev, the citadel of ancient Rus and the capital of modern, independent Ukraine. Liberated from winter, Kievites stroll along tree-lined avenues, treading on a carpet of pink petals laid beneath the blooming chestnut trees.

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The booming guns and snipers' bullets in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo are far away. Yet the civil war in the former republics of Yugoslavia reverberates increasingly loudly in Ukrainian minds.

Can the Yugoslav example be repeated here, among the former republics of the Soviet Union? many wonder. Will Russia emulate its brother Slavs in Serbia and try to create a `greater Russia' in the name of aiding the large Russian population inside Ukrainian borders?

"Of course I am afraid of this," says Vyacheslav Chernovil, leader of the Ukrainian Rukh nationalist movement. Many here credit Russian President Boris Yeltsin with helping to ease confrontation over issues such as the division of the former Soviet Black Sea Fleet.

Like many Ukrainians, Mr. Chernovil points to the statements of Russian politicians such as Vice President Alexander Rutskoi calling for the return of the Crimean peninsula to Russia. Nor is Rutskoi alone. A senior Russian diplomat here repeatedly refers to Ukraine as "temporarily lost territory."

"If Rutskoi replaces Yeltsin, he will swallow Ukraine in one day," predicts Chernovil. "He will find some Fifth Column in Ukraine - some collaborators - and they will help him."

Even among the more moderate ranks of the government, there are worries that the triumph of Serbian ultranationalists would encourage their counterparts in Russia.

Mindful of Western inaction in Yugoslavia, the Ukrainian official stresses that a replication of that conflict here would have even more frightening implications.

"If something happens here, on the territory of the independent states that were parties to the Soviet Union, that will be incomparable to what is happening in Yugoslavia," says Anton Buteiko, President Kravchuk's foreign policy adviser. "Here huge populations would be involved. Here we have nuclear weapons and lots of atomic power stations. The consequences of the Chernobyl tragedy are only a small sign of what might happen."

Svetlana Ostroyshenko, an ethnic Russian member of parliament from the Ukrainian port city of Odessa, also shares a fear that Yugoslavia could repeat itself on Ukrainian soil.

But she sees the source of that danger as the growth of extreme Ukrainian nationalist groups, who seek to persecute the 11 million Russians who make up one-fifth of the population. She pulls out recent hate mail from such groups. "Death to traitors," reads the letter from the self-described Ukrainian Nationalist Self-Defense Regiment.

Ms. Ostroyshenko insists that so far there are no tensions between nationalities in daily life. "We don't have a confrontation between Russians and Ukrainians here," agrees Chernovil, "apart from Crimea where the situation is different." In Crimea there is a relatively compact Russian-speaking population, while elsewhere the populations are more mixed, he says.

But while there is no evidence of the deep hatreds evident in Yugoslavia, there is a palpable discomfort among Russians here, especially in eastern Ukraine and the Crimea, where Russian concentrations are higher, but also in Kiev. Such issues as the use of the Ukrainian language offer a glimpse of the soil in which hate-mongers might plant their seeds. Natasha Romanova, a Russian art historian who has lived most of her life here, complains that she cannot send her daughter to a Russian-language school.