THE motorcade careens through the narrow streets, traffic pulling frantically to the side as the flashing yellow lights of the lead police cruiser herald a visiting dignitary.At Nikolaev's House of Political Enlightenment, the string of Volga sedans and one conspicuous Volkswagen van screech to a halt. Vyacheslav Chernovil emerges from his car and strides into the packed auditorium, a dozen campaign workers streaming in behind him. As recently as 1985, Mr. Chernovil toiled in a Siberian labor camp on charges of anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda. Now the former journalist and human-rights activist is the top opposition candidate in Ukraine's Dec. 1 presidential election, preaching the same line - independence for the Soviet republic and a market economy - that cost him 15 years of his freedom.
On the stump Inside the hall, a local choir performs Ukrainian national songs. A Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox priest intones a blessing. And Chernovil, now mayor of the western Ukrainian capital of Lvov, launches into his stump speech. "Kravchuk and I want the same things," he states, referring to front-runner Leonid Kravchuk, chairman of the Ukrainian parliament and a recent ex-Communist. "The difference is, my program is 30 years old and his is three weeks old." It is a line Chernovil would utter at every stop over the next two days as the Monitor followed his campaign. But more telling than anything Chernovil would say was the language he would use to say it - Ukrainian. For here in southern Ukraine and throughout the republic's populous central and eastern region, Ukrainian is often not the first language, a legacy of Moscow-induced Russification. Therein lies the crux of Chernovil's campaign conundrum: how to run on a platform promoting Ukrainian nationhood, including wider use of the native tongue, without coming across as an extreme nationalist. Most voters outside western Ukraine, Chernovil's home base, know little else about him except that he was a political prisoner. Coming out of the Nikolaev meeting, many voters had a positive impression of Chernovil. They appreciated his sincerity and energy. Others were wary that his years of imprisonment must have left him bitter, and would lead him to seek revenge as president. "Everybody wants independence, but we're subconsciously afraid of nationalists," says Volodya, a radio announcer in Nikolaev. "We were taught, drop by drop, by party officials to be afraid of western Ukraine." Nelli, Volodya's colleague, feels Chernovil is making a mistake addressing crowds in Ukrainian. "He speaks so quickly, it alienates people," she says. Chernovil rejects such criticism. Though many Ukrainians don't speak the language, "everybody understands it," he says. Furthermore, if addressed in Russian, Chernovil responds in Russian to show he's bilingual. Chernovil's Ukrainian-language tactic points to what he calls the top priority of his campaign - not to be elected president but to help a referendum on Ukrainian independence, also Dec. 1, pass by the widest possible margin. Opinion polls indicate that independence will pass easily. But in Chernovil's view, the bigger the percentage, the more persuasive the argument for foreign diplomatic recognition. "Speaking honestly, I doubt Chernovil will win," says chief aide Mihaylo Boychishin. "But really, this is a no-lose situation. Never in history has Ukraine had such a free, open political debate." By the end of October, polls showed Mr. Kravchuk sinking slightly to just under half the votes, with Chernovil in second place and rising, to 14 percent. Chernovil hopes to keep Kravchuk under 50 percent, thus forcing a runoff. Mr. Boychishin says it would have been preferable to have only one democratic candidate from the start, but the other two wouldn't bow out.
Campaign strategy "This is not like a campaign in the West," adds Chernovil in an interview in his Volga as it sped between Nikolaev and the the village of Askania-nova. "The more people included in the process the better." Chernovil and Boychishin say they are focusing their energy outside of western Ukraine, a solid core of support but it only accounts for about one-fifth the population. Since the last week in September, the Chernovil caravan has been going almost nonstop. The aim is to visit each of Ukraine's 25 regions by Dec. 1. "At each city, there must be television and radio interviews," says the seemingly tireless Chernovil. "There must be an audience with the public and meetings with workers. There must be a press conference. And meetings with [local and republican parliament] deputies for serious discussions on market economics." "People need to see that I'm a normal person," he adds. Beginning on Nov. 15, Chernovil will focus on Ukraine's largest population centers - Kiev, Kharkov, Donetsk, Zaporozhe, and Odessa. About halfway into the hour-long car ride, the large, stone-faced aide in the front seat turns around and declares abruptly that the interview is over. Chernovil has begun to lose his voice, and he must rest for the next speech. The aide pulls a Thermos from the glove compartment and pours Chernovil a cup of steaming beverage. "Cossack tea," Chernovil explains. Images of the Cossacks, Ukraine's historic fighters and a symbol of Ukrainian independence, abound in Chernovil's campaign. But his need for frequent tea is more than symbolic. While in the camps, Chernovil conducted a 120-day hunger strike and was force-fed, causing permanent damage. One more question begs: Where did the VW van come from? Voters often ask if Canadian businessmen are bankrolling his campaign; the van contributes to that image. The stone-faced aide turns around and scowls. Chernovil waves him off and happily offers a hoarse explanation: The van was rented from a firm in Lvov. According to campaign rules, each candidate may spend 150,000 rubles: 75,000 from the government (delicious irony for the ex-dissident) and 75,000 from individual contributions. But that hasn't prevented Rukh, Ukraine's mass democratic movement, from lending its infrastructure to Chernovil - including computers that were indeed donated by Ukrainian-Canadians. "Look," says Les Taniuk, Chernovil's Kiev-based campaign manager, "if we really spent only 150,000 rubles it would be gone in three days." Still, Chernovil's campaign is a lean operation. Boychishin complains they haven't had leaflets at every stop. Television commercials are out of the question. Furthermore, Ukraine's leader, Kravchuk, gets free publicity at every turn. Ukrainian state television broadcasts his public appearances. Chernovil's team also says Ukrainian TV splices the most unflattering moments of Chernovil's appearances for the evening news. But in public forums, Chernovil barely utters a negative word about his chief opponent. This is Kravchuk country, and the locals don't take kindly even to the mildest chiding.