RUSSIAN President Boris Yeltsin was visiting a Moscow bookstore the other day when someone asked him who the next president of Ukraine would be.
In a pointed gesture, the Russian leader leaned over and whispered into the man's ear. Mr. Yeltsin then told the crowd that as he didn't want to be accused of interfering with the internal affairs of a neighboring country, his prediction would remain between them.
But it is no secret whom Moscow prefers in the Ukrainian election Dec. 26, or in the Dec. 23 presidential vote in neighboring Belarus. In both ex-Soviet republics, the favorites are the two men who most clearly desire closer ties with their brother Slavs in Russia - Belarussian Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich and former Ukrainian Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma.
``The prevailing attitude among decisionmakers is they would like people to come to power in both Belarus and Ukraine who see as one of their first aims very good relations with Russia,'' says foreign policy specialist Alexei Pushkov, deputy editor of Moscow News.
Some Russian politicians do not hesitate to openly express their views on these elections. ``We should not pretend we are indifferent as to who will be elected to these posts and to what extent this process is being influenced from Russia,'' Konstantin Zatulin, the chairman of the State Duma committee on relations with the former Soviet states, told reporters recently.
Men after Russia's heart
Mr. Zatulin assailed Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk, the main foe of Mr. Kuchma, for encouraging ``anti-Russian hysteria'' and feeding ``opposition to integration with Russia.'' Kuchma, an advocate of economic union with Russia, is also seen as the person who can most readily resolve the tensions between Russia and Ukraine over the fate of the Russian-populated Crimean pen-insula and the tense negotiations on the division of the Black Sea Fleet, which is based in the Crimean port of Sevastopol.
``Deep in Yeltsin's heart, of course he is favoring Kuchma,'' Mr. Pushkov says. ``Kuchma can immediately reach agreement on the status of Crimea, on Sevastopol. All these questions will be nonexistent. If Kuchma wins, the nationalists will be marginalized.... The bureaucracy will switch from a pro-Ukraine to a pro-Russia trend.''
In Belarus, Mr. Kebich, architect of an agreement to rejoin the ruble currency zone and completely subordinate economic policy to Russia, is favored. But Zatulin expressed concern that radical populist Alexander Lukashenko might prevail in Belarus. Under these circumstances the forces of former parliament chairman Stanislav Shushkevich and Belarussian nationalist Zenon Poznyak, both also running for president, might join to disrupt the ``island of stability'' now prevailing in Belarus, he said.
The election of pro-Russian figures is widely seen here as a step toward reintegration of these states with Russia, either in the context of the Commonwealth of Independent States, which groups 12 ex-Soviet republics, or into a tighter Slavic union of Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia.
Aside from the three Baltic states, ``a single confederative state will appear with time on the territory of the former Soviet Union,'' Vladimir Shumeiko, a close ally of Yeltsin and chairman of the Federation Council, the upper house of Russia's parliament, told reporters on June 9.
The only open Russian opposition to such integrationist plans comes from free-market reformers such as former Deputy Premier Yegor Gaidar. They point to the high cost for Russia of such plans in the form of renewed subsidies: Recently Kebich announced Moscow had agreed to give Belarus some oil exports at below the world market price. And they worry that the pro-Russian forces are also the most conservative, their ranks generally filled with ex-Communists who oppose market reforms already under way in Russia.
``They understand that a Communist Belarus close to Russia can create a lot of problems,'' Pushkov says. Reformers believe that ``if Belarus wants to be close to Russia, it has to have a similar system,'' he says.
The foreign-policy ex-pert says the more conservative Russian government of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin puts victory of pro-Russian forces above ``the forms of property.'' The prevailing attitude is, Russia will ``pay a certain economic price for this, but in the long run it will pay off, for geopolitical reasons.''
Using the airwaves
This message is also being pumped out to voters in Belarus and Ukraine, mainly via the powerful Russian-controlled TV stations that are still widely watched in both countries. At one point recently, the Ukrainian government temporarily removed the credentials of Russian television correspondents in response to reports on the Crimean crisis that took an openly hostile stance toward the Kravchuk government.
Voters in these neighboring states are already painfully aware of the relative difference in living standards between themselves and the Russians across the border. Particularly in eastern Ukraine, where much of the population is ethnically Russian or Russian-speaking, there is a widespread belief that restoration of union will bring a better life.
Thus parliament chairman Shumeiko, widely touted as a successor to Yeltsin, predicted voters of Belarus and Ukraine ``will vote for the candidate who has the right attitude toward Russia.''