UKRAINE'S incumbent President Leonid Kravchuk and his former Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma emerge from weekend voting as the two remaining contenders for Ukraine's presidency.
A runoff election will decide the future course of the former Soviet republic - either eventual integration into Europe or active strides back to the fold of Russia.
Preliminary results of voting on Sunday illustrated the deep ethnic and historical division between Ukraine's nationalist west and the industrial, Russian-speaking east. Turnout was high, with 68 percent of Ukraine's 38 million voters casting ballots.
Mr. Kravchuk, who campaigned as the guarantor of Ukraine's sovereignty, made predictably huge inroads in the west, where nationalists feared a Kuchma presidency would spell the end to Ukrainian independence.
Kravchuck captured 85 percent of the vote in the western regions of Lviv and Ternopil and 70 percent in his native Rivne region. Incomplete results gave him a strong lead in Kiev. According to the Russian Itar-Tass news agency, Kravchuk was leading in 15 of 24 Ukrainian regions.
Mr. Kuchma, made his splash to the east and south, the stronghold of Ukraine's 12 million ethnic Russians. Eastern Ukrainians feel a strong bond with Russia, which developed over the three centuries the area spent as part of the Russian empire. They agree with Kuchma that to survive, Ukraine needs to forge closer economic and political ties with its traditional Slav partner.
Kuchma was ahead 2 to 1 in the eastern city of Dnipropetrovsk, where he was once director of the world's biggest missile plant, and took more than a third of the vote in Donetsk, Ukraine's coal-mining heartland. He won a huge 82 percent margin in the separatist Russian-populated Crimean Peninsula.
Nipping on Kuchma's heels was Olexander Moroz, the Socialist parliament chairman. Eastern Ukraine returned a wave of pro-Russian Communists and their allies to the parliament in April elections, and their supporters are far more likely to rally around Kuchma in a runoff election.
But Kravchuk will likely get backing from two other major candidates, Volodymyr Lanovy, a market-oriented former deputy prime minister, and Ivan Ply- ushch, former parliament chairman and collective farm boss.
The winner of runoff elections, scheduled for July 10, is sure to profoundly affect Ukraine's relations with the West and with Russia, its huge northern neighbor.
Kravchuk has actively pursued Ukrainian membership in European institutions, signing NATO's Partnership for Peace on military cooperation and a partnership treaty with the European Union.
He has also won praise with the West for maneuvering the parliament to ratify the START-I nuclear disarmament accord, under which Ukraine agreed to get rid of its Soviet-era nuclear arsenal -
the world's third largest.
``We know what Kravchuk is all about,'' a Western diplomat in Kiev says. ``Kuchma - well, he's an unknown element.''
Kuchma appears far more suspicious of the West, insisting Ukraine cannot survive economically without its old allies. He favors full-fledged membership in the Commonwealth of Independent States and joining an economic union with Russia.
His stand on nuclear weapons is certain to worry the West, which has made future financial assistance to Ukraine contingent on Kiev joining the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. ``I will wait on the issue of joining NPT. Have we received a single kopeck, or cent for that matter? So far, we have nothing,'' Kuchma told journalists over the weekend.
It is less clear how the winner will affect Ukraine's decaying economy. Market reforms have barely taken root during Kravchuk's two-and-a-half years in office, and the government has yet to approve a comprehensive reform program or introduce a full-fledged currency.
Most of Ukraine's 52 million people are barely making ends meet, with average state salaries at less than $20 a month, paid out in colorful but virtually worthless coupon currency.
Recently, a crunch on cheap credits reined in galloping hyperinflation to a 5.2 percent monthly rate in May. But industrial output fell nearly 40 percent in the first four months of the year compared with that period in 1993. Ukraine is also deeply in debt to Russia for supplies of oil and gas.
Kuchma has made the economy a major part of his campaign battle against the incumbent, pledging to introduce rapid market reforms if he becomes president. But his critics point out that, as prime minister, Kuchma did little to demonopolize Ukraine's centralized economy.
``We have far to go to ideal democracy, a market economy, and social guarantees,'' Kravchuk told reporters after casting his ballot on Sunday. ``Within one, two, three years, everything will be in place.''
``We keep hearing about a rapid transformation when the country is bankrupt,'' Kuchma said in a campaign retort.