Ukraine Between East and West

In presidential elections, Ukrainians will make a critical choice between pro-Western reforms or a return to policies of the Communist past

UKRAINE is a giant seesaw balancing between Europe and the former Soviet Union, poised to elect a new leader who will tip the Slav nation one way or another.

The battle for Ukraine's presidency in elections on June 26 will most likely be fought by two men with the same first name - Leonid - and two dramatically different visions of Ukraine's future: Kravchuk, the incumbent, and Kuchma, his former prime minister who resigned last September.

Mr. Kravchuk has maintained a pro-Western foreign policy, building a reputation as the guarantor of Ukraine's sovereignty. Mr. Kuchma, in contrast, promises to save the country's faltering post-Soviet economy by bringing Ukraine closer to the economic and political fold of its former Soviet partners, particularly Russia.

That both men have a roughly equal shot at the top position reflects the sharp divide between Ukraine's nationalist, Europe-oriented western region, and its pro-Russian, pro-communist east. These disparate voices have made Ukraine a model of indecision, resulting in a nation of 52 million suffering from economic chaos at home and an incoherent foreign policy.

Rejecting Poland's ``shock therapy,'' Kravchuk has preached a ``third way'' that falls between the Soviet-style centralized economy and a market economy. But in the absence of a clear-cut economic policy, industrial output declined nearly 40 percent in the first quarter from last year, without a firm base of privatized enterprise to take up the slack. Dozens of major plants have closed, and thousands of state employees have gone without salaries for months.

An uncertain commitment to West

In foreign policy, Ukraine has pursued a similarly undefined agenda, trying to embrace the West without cutting links with Russia and the ex-Soviet republics of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Kiev has joined NATO's Partnership for Peace, has just Tuesday signed a partnership accord with the European Union, and has agreed to get rid of its former Soviet nuclear arsenal - the third largest in the world - much to the relief of the West. It is a member of the CIS, recently joining its economic union in fear of losing access to markets and raw materials.

``With a Kravchuk presidency you'll have more of the same - ambiguity with a lacing of desire to push westward,'' says Ian Brzezinski, a Kiev-based Western analyst. ``But Kuchma has unambiguously defined his vision of Ukraine as a member of the Slav community of nations, that its best economic future lies within an economic union of the Commonwealth. That is a Ukraine geopolitically oriented toward the East, which is worrying because it may pull itself from Europe.''

Days before the June 26 election, polls indicate Kravchuk may be inching ahead of his rival, who was far and away Ukraine's most popular politician during and after his tenure as prime minister. The five other registered candidates lag far behind.

Kravchuk has lost much support as Ukraine's economy collapsed. But the once-Communist-turned-nationalist is trying to regain his base by posing as a defender of Ukraine's sovereignty and labeling his opponents as advocates of a return to the old Communist order.

``There is a broad-based strategy of left communist forces to remove the people who dissolved the Soviet Union,'' Kravchuk ominously warned voters during a recent campaign stop at a Kiev factory. ``I decided to run because I saw that the feudal lords who could come to power would destroy everything in one day.

``It would be disgraceful for Ukraine to beg Russia, `Please take us in. We are such incompetents that we couldn't make it on our own,' '' he said in a clear attack against Kuchma. Nationalists consider Kravchuk a lesser evil. Rukh, the most prominent nationalist party, passed a resolution decrying the election of ``representatives of pro-imperial and pro-Communist forces,'' naming Kuchma among them.Kravchuk's emphasis on Ukraine's sovereignty raises the ire of the Russian-speaking, industrialized east, which views the breakup of the Soviet Union as the cause for today's economic woes.

For them, Kuchma, the former director of the Soviet Union's biggest nuclear missile plant, holds more appeal. Eastern Ukrainian coal miners and heavy industry workers imagine economic union with Russia as a return to the good old days of regular paychecks, easily crossed borders and the Russian ruble.

Kuchma talks tough

``I denounce the political and economic course in Ukraine since independence,'' Kuchma recently told voters in the Russian-speaking Black Sea port of Odessa. ``This is the course of self-isolation from other former Soviet republics, especially Russia. The broken ties between our countries has brought us to the brink of catastrophe,'' he said.

The elections' results are sure to influence Kiev's rocky relations with Russia, Ukraine's largest, most influential neighbor and its ruler for almost all of the past 340 years. Moscow is watching the vote closely: Its result will likely determine whether tensions concerning the fate of the largely Russian-populated Crimean peninsula will grow in the months ahead. The pro-Russian Crimean government is making a bid for almost total autonomy, if not virtual independence, while Ukraine and Russia are still locked in difficult negotiations on division of the Black Sea fleet, which is based there.

Ukraine's strict election rules practically guarantee a runoff. To win outright in the first round, a candidate would have to capture 50 percent plus one of the vote, with 50 percent voter turnout. Most observers expect Kravchuk and Kuchma to make it the final round but two of the five other candidates appear to have a fighting chance to make it to the runoff. Alexander Moroz, head of the Socialist Party, has attained respect since he was chosen chairman of the new Kiev parliament. Ivan Plyusch, a Soviet farm boss who ruled the assembly until the April elections, is poised to sweep the rural and agricultural vote.

Most analysts reject the remaining three candidates out of hand because of their low profiles among average voters: Education Minister Petro Talanchuk; reform economist and former Deputy Prime Minister Volodymr Lanovoy; and Valery Babych, a successful businessman whose Kiev-based Ukrainian Financial Group claims assets of $11.4 million.

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