JUST days before independent Ukraine's first parliamentary elections March 27, a wave of beatings, break-ins, acts of vandalism, and attempted and successful kidnappings directed at democratic parties and activists threatens to reverse modest democratic gains in that strategically important country. The violence and intimidation is leading democratic activists to speak of a return to the atmosphere of the last years of the Communist era.
Since the beginning of the year, four regional democratic party headquarters have been vandalized. The offices of Kiev's largest independent daily were broken into in mid-February, and hard disk drives and diskettes, including some containing exposes of political violence, were stolen.
On the night of Jan. 15, Mykhaylo Boychyshyn, head of the secretariat of Rukh - Ukraine's largest democratic party - was abducted and is feared dead. That day, two thugs forced into the home of Rukh leader Les Tanyuk and intimidated his wife, writer Nelli Kornienko. The same thugs, smelling of gasoline and carrying handguns, beat an unarmed guard posted at Rukh headquarters. Mr. Boychyshyn's disappearance may be linked to the elections. But Rukh leaders assert that Boychyshyn told colleagues he had incriminating information about corruption in the upper reaches of Ukraine's government.
Two days after the attack on Boychyshyn, in the city of Vinnytsya, Col. Serhiy Budka, a Rukh candidate in the elections, was beaten in broad daylight. Regional Rukh leaders in Odessa have suffered the same fate.
In January, in the eastern industrial city of Luhansk, two men attempted to abduct the two-year-old daughter of Olena Bondarenko, a Rukh candidate for parliament. Only the cries of the child's grandmother and quick action of alert shoppers in a crowded market foiled the abduction.
In February, the head of Democratic Initiatives, a polling group that works with Freedom House on Ukrainian public opinion, was beaten. One office of the research group is watched by men in plain clothes who are thought to be former Soviet secret police. An independent printer who works with democratic and trade union groups had his apartment broken into on Feb. 15. His bank books were taken.
Offices of Rukh have been vandalized in Chernivtsi and Ternopil in western Ukraine and in Chernihiv, in central Ukraine. Feb. 14th, someone blew up the tractor of a farmer-activist who is leading efforts to privatize land in the south.
The abduction and possible killing of Boychyshyn has brought demands for a wide-ranging hunt for the criminals. Instead, authorities have begun a thorough investigation of Rukh's finances. Rukh and its supporters - a small, embattled private sector - are being investigated by the tax police, the president's committee to combat crime, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Work on the election campaign has been paralyzed; donations have dried up.
``The law says political parties cannot receive foreign assistance for campaigns, there is no state funding of political parties, and now they're intimidating the newly-emergent private sector that supports the democratic forces,'' says Rukh's chairman Vyacheslav Chornovil, who finished second in Ukraine's 1991 presidential elections. ``How can we expect to function without financial support?'' he asks.
While the broad range of repressions has been targeted mainly on Rukh, Ukraine's largest democratic movement, it has spread to other democratic groups as well. Their leaders speak of the return of surveillance, suspicion, and intimidation in the 1980s under Soviet rule.
FREEDOM House, too, has been mildly harassed. On Feb. 16, while enjoying bowls of Ukrainian borscht in an apartment rented by our sponsors, our delegation was visited by Captain Kravets from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, who came looking for me by name. Only five people in Kiev knew of my access to the apartment. Such information could have come through a secret informant, or through the tapping of local or overseas phone conversations. After a two-hour discussion, we were let go with a warning to register with authorities within 72 hours - a law from Soviet days now selectively applied. More recently, on March 17, a Freedom House staffer arriving from New York was subjected at the airport to a two-hour luggage and document search.
Environment Minister Yuri Kostenko, one of a dwindling handful of reformers still in Ukraine's government, said, ``Without doubt, the fate of political and economic reform is being decided in these days. And all this is having a great effect on activities surrounding the election.''
Ukraine's President Leonid Kravchuk, who met with President Clinton March 4, is not thought to be connected to the repression. But the same cannot be said of people who serve him. Many were employed in the upper reaches of state security under the old totalitarian order. As Mr. Kravchuk's waffles about running for reelection this summer, and amid a fierce struggle within the ruling elite, reactionary forces seem to be reverting to past practice in the hopes of intimidating democratic forces and strengthening their hand.
Whether due to growing self-confidence among hard-liners or because of fears of coming electoral defeat, the wave of intimidation is alarming. In Crimea's February presidential elections, political terror claimed several lives and contributed to unease among Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar minorities. Such terror must not be allowed to spread in Ukraine's mainland. If it is not checked, Ukraine - whose population has endured economic decline and inflation over 6,500 percent in 1993 - may once again plunge into the darkness of authoritarian repression and lawlessness.
United States policy must make clear that relations between our country and Ukraine - and substantial Western aid and investment - are not based solely on Ukraine's pursuit of a nonnuclear path. It must also be based on respect for democratic practice, and on the swift prosecution of human rights violators, whether from inside or outside the government.
Such a firm stance and Western monitoring of the electoral process can help open the door to democratic reform. For, as a January poll by Ukraine's Gallup-Socis survey suggests, over 60 percent of voters who have a preference back deposed reform Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma and Rukh leader Viyacheslav Chornovil - both of whom are committed to privatization and fundamental economic reforms. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.