KIEV, UKRAINE — 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.
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.
Anton Kryukov, a Russian journalist living here, also has a young daughter entering school. "For me, it is not problem," he responds. "If she lives in Ukraine, she should learn Ukrainian. If she needs to learn Russian, she can learn it from her parents."
The deepening economic crisis also poses a threat to ethnic harmony, some say. The Russian population tends to be more concentrated in areas dependent on heavy industry such as coal-mining. Such industries are most vulnerable to the process of economic reform, and one Western analyst here suggests that Ukraine's reluctance to cut off subsidies to state industry is because of its "fear of the ethnic consequences of bankruptcy."
It is already commonplace to hear Ukrainians blame Moscow for their economic troubles while Russians here make the opposite argument that cutting links with Russia is the problem.
Such discussions are only one reflection of creating an independent Ukrainian state after leaving it dominated for hundreds of years by the Russian Empire. Minor slights become major issues when they are amplified by a deep-set Ukrainian perception that Russians arrogantly treat them as errant "little brothers."
"They do have an inferiority complex," says Ian Brzezinski, a US security analyst with International Institute on Global and Regional Security here. "They feel uncertain over their own ability to secure their independence."
This colors Ukraine's relations with the West, and with the United States in particular. Ukrainians were stung by the August 1991 speech in Kiev by then President Bush in which he warned of the danger of "suicidal nationalism," a remark widely understood as a call not to break from the Soviet empire.
"Still in America, there are lots of politicians who regard Ukraine as a zone of strategic interests of Russia, as some sort of post-imperial space which still has some unity," Chernovil says.
Presidential adviser Buteiko accuses "certain Western countries" of having a "one-dimensional" policy toward Ukraine, focused entirely on the nuclear weapons issue. US pressure to get Ukraine to sign the START I nuclear arms reduction treaty and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) irritates many Ukrainian officials and politicians, who see it as a consequence of a Moscow-centered policy.
The perceived failure of the West to acknowledge Ukraine's sovereignty has led some here to advocate keeping nuclear weapons, at least for the next decade, as a way to keep the West's attention and to deter Russian imperial yearnings.
"If tomorrow, we get rid of the nuclear weapons, both America and Europe will forget about us," says Chernovil. "Russia will think twice whether it should cross the border if she knows nuclear weapons are stationed on our territory."
Ukrainian officials dismiss such talk and insist they are ready to fulfill their pledge to sign both START and the NPT and will push the parliament shortly to do so. But they are also seeking a formal treaty in which the nuclear powers, including Russia, will guarantee their security and the inviolability of Ukraine's frontiers. Ukrainian officials say they were reassured by the recent visit of US envoy Strobe Talbott that the Clinton administration is now taking Ukraine's needs seriously.
Nonetheless, Mr. Buteiko is eager to deliver a message that perhaps was missed until too late in the case of Yugoslavia. "Without Ukraine," he stresses, "stability in the eastern and central part of Europe, in Europe as a whole is impossible."