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.
"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.
Kravchuk offered a compromise that asked whether the Ukraine should be part of a "union of sovereign states on the basis of the declaration of sovereignty." The Communist Party leadership openly opposed Kravchuk's proposal, but a combination of more than a third of the Communist deputies plus the democratic minority was enough to pass it. The Communists had to backpedal, telling people to vote yes on both questions. Voters gave a yes to both questions, but with a significant edge to the Ukrainian proposition.
Rukh leader Horyn says the Ukrainian people have voted for confederation of independent states, while the Communists argue they voted for a single, unitary nation.
New union sought
"The Ukrainian people expressed the desire to live not just in the union but in a new union," Kravchuk says with typical care. "This union should be called the Union of Sovereign States in which each republic will be an independent state with its own rights; will have the right of free entry and exit from the union; will bear the full responsibility for the circumstances of its own people; and will protect the interests of its people, but not to the detriment of others."
The Ukrainian leader does not conceal that on this point his view diverges from that of the Communist Party leadership, including Mr. Gorbachev. The Soviet leader insists the referendum is an endorsement of a draft union treaty that he claims the republics have already basically agreed to. Kravchuk calls this "serious political exaggeration."
Only the parliaments of the republics have the power to adopt the union treaty, not the president or even the Soviet parliament, Kravchuk insists. And when it comes to the current draft, "the basic clauses of this document do not confirm the principle of sovereignty of states," he asserts, a view shared by Rukh.
Kravchuk points to several examples where the powers of the republics are not clearly established. "Property should belong to the republic, which may delegate it for temporary use [to the central government] but not lose the right to it. But the draft says this in a way that can be interpreted in different ways."
The same is true for taxes, he says, which should be collected solely by republics which in turn give money to the center only to pay for the powers they delegate to it. Joint powers are supposedly exercised through the Soviet Federation Council, which includes heads of all the republics, but "in such a form, it has neither powers nor jurisdiction."
Without absolute legal clarity, "this document can be changed any time or just crossed out, as happened with the first union treaty signed in 1922," he asserts. The Ukrainian parliament will begin its discussion of its own draft in May, Kravchuk says and when that is completed, they will meet with the representatives of other republics. Compromises can be made at that point, he continues, but not "on matters of principle."