THE voters of the Ukraine dealt a decisive blow to the Soviet Union on Sunday. In a large turnout, the Ukraine voted overwhelmingly for independence, rejecting last-minute appeals by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to avert what he called a "disaster.""No one gave him the right to say that," retorted Ukrainian leader Leonid Kravchuk, speaking to reporters after he voted. "Only the Ukrainian people can speak for the Ukraine." The Ukrainian parliament chairman, who won a clear victory in the presidential election held simultaneously, expressed the hope that the West would quickly recognize the results of the referendum. "I am convinced that all democratic states of the world must, without fail, recognize an independent Ukraine," Mr. Kravchuk said. Without the Ukraine, the end of a unified Soviet state is unavoidable, agreed a Western diplomat based here. "The Ukraine is gone," the diplomat said on Sunday. Washington appears ready to grant diplomatic recognition, particularly after the Ukraine gives a clear guarantee of its readiness to observe arms-control agreements, including the treaty to reduce Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) and the Strategic Nuclear Arms Reduction Talks (START) treaty with the Soviet Union (US reaction, left). The Ukraine has nuclear-armed Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles, which it has pledged to eliminate. Ukrainian officials have also stated plans to form their own a rmy of up to 400,000 men. Preliminary results released yesterday were undeniable. About 83 percent voted to approve the act of independence passed by the Ukrainian parliament in late August after the failed hard-line coup in Moscow. Some 83.7 percent of the Ukraine, 37.6 million voters, cast their ballots. The pro-independence vote held up across the Ukraine varying from a high of 95 percent in the nationalist stronghold in the west to a lower but still impressive 76.4 percent in the Russian-populated industrial areas of Donetsk in the east. Even in the Russian-populated Crimea, a slim 54 percent majority voted for independence. The depth of pro-independence sentiment was striking even in a random sampling of rural polling places south of Kiev and at locales within the capital city. Not a single person could be found, from the conservative chairman of a collective farm to a Russian computer specialist in the city, who voted against independence. "The Russian people want the Ukraine to stay with them," says Nadizhda Kulbachna, a worker at the Pridnieprovski collective farm. "But look at Lithuania and other Baltic states becoming independent. The Ukraine should be independent, too."
Vote for 'Free Ukraine' Inside the two-story House of Culture in the town of Tripolye [literally "three fields"] the community leaders were equally unanimous. Soviet council chairman Dmitri Petrovich Strogi, dressed nattily in a wool overcoat and felt hat, opined that his people were casting their votes for a "free Ukraine." Mr. Strogi echoed the common view that the Ukraine, the second richest Soviet republic, known for its rich black-earth agriculture, would prosper on its own. "The Ukraine is an extremely rich republic," he said. "We are capable of being well off." Many Ukrainians share the nationalists' view that their wealth has been siphoned off by a voracious "center." A flier printed by Rukh, the umbrella coalition of democratic and nationalist groups, proclaims, "Each year the Ukraine gives 18 to 20 percent of its national product to the empire." This is self-evident to the nearly 900 inhabitants of the Lenin's Testament Kolkhoz collective farm, a poor settlement of wood-frame houses and cow sheds amid a sea of early winter mud. Their produce disappears and they get "empty rubles" from Moscow, Rukh pollwatcher Alexei Kisilov complains. "Everybody knows this; everybody sees this," said mathematics teacher Vasili Mayevski, the head of the collective farms' election commission. "People are sick and tired of the union." Many Ukrainians were dismayed by the opposition to their independence from both Mr. Gorbachev and Russian President Boris Yeltsin. "How can they speak about democracy, about a voluntary union, on one hand, and on the other hand not want to let the Ukraine go?" asked Yuri Kramer, an engineering student at a Kiev polytechnic institute. "I just don't understand them." While some voices could be found in favor of continued economic union with the former Soviet republics, most Ukrainians believe they can meet their needs through direct ties to Russia and the other republics. "Maybe we need them and maybe they need us," Pridnieprovski collective farm chairman Anastas Lukyanetz says simply. The independence referendum, even though its outcome was hardly in doubt, seemed to generate far more interest than the hotly contested six-way race for president, the first free choice of a Ukrainian leader. All the presidential candidates favor independence, a separate Ukrainian currency and army, as well as market-based reforms. "People are more excited by the referendum," commented Anna Solanik, head of the election commission at Polling Place 20 in Kiev's Moscow region. "The president doesn't matter," the computer expert added.
Stable alternative Kravchuk seemed to benefit most from this, offering himself as a more stable alternative among a range of nationalist choices. Sources at Kravchuk's headquarters say he won a 62 percent majority. The runner-up, Rukh candidate Vyacheslav Chernovil, is a longtime anti-Communist, dissident who spent some 15 years in jail for his nationalist and democratic beliefs. Kravchuk is a former ideology chief of the Communist Party, who has proved adept at getting in front of the popular mood. In the countryside, Kravchuk's moderate image made him the clear favorite. "Most people support him, " said Ekaterina Ivan-ova, a teacher in Tripolye who wouldn't give her last name. "He is reasonable; he is thoughtful." In Kiev, Kravchuk is viewed with suspicion for his Communist past. "Kravchuk doesn't tell the truth; you can't trust him," said Army Pvt. Igor Lysak, a draftee soccer player serving in a "sports" unit. "He is 30 years in the [Communist] Party." Still, even among sophisticated Kiev city dwellers, Kravchuk won 56 percent, compared to Chernovil's 26 percent. "He knows the Communist system better and he knows ways out of it," said Kiev student Kramer. For Ukrainians, the first and most important step, independence, has been taken. Now, said welding instructor Yuri Barvinko at his Kiev polling station on Sunday, "We are waiting for Bush to congratulate us tomorrow."