THE former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Belarus swept out the establishment in presidential runoff elections this weekend, enthusiastically embracing two men who favor reforging closer ties with Russia.
Ukrainians gave former Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma, an ardent advocate of an ``economic union'' with Moscow, a healthy seven-point lead, with 53 percent of the vote. His victory over incumbent Leonid Kravchuk underscored deep dissatisfaction with economic decline less than three years into independence from the Soviet Union.
It also emphasized a severe regional division in the country of 52 million. Mr. Kravchuk, viewed as a guarantor of Ukrainian sovereignty, won as much as 90 percent of the vote in nationalist western Ukraine. But Mr. Kuchma, who says Ukraine cannot survive without closer ties with Moscow, garnered up to 80 percent in areas of the industrialized, Russian-speaking east.
In Belarus, voters gave anticorruption crusader Alexander Lukashenko an overwhelming 80 percent victory over Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich, the assumed favorite, who boasted the support of parliament and government.
Mr. Lukashenko, a state farm director-turned-populist politician, made a name for himself with strident attacks against all levels of government. He appeared to be even more in favor of integrating Belarus with Russia than Mr. Kebich, whose chief campaign pledge was monetary union with Moscow.
Moscow is sure to be anxiously watching the final tally in both elections, particularly in Ukraine, significant because of its size and vast agricultural and industrial potential. Politicians in all three countries have toyed with the idea of the emergence of a new Slav troika - possibly with Russia at the helm.
Since the Soviet collapse, the three countries' economies have been hampered by the transformation to a market economy. Russia lost its markets for shoddy, Soviet-style goods, and energy-poor Ukraine and Belarus have run up large debts for oil and gas to Moscow.
Ukraine's antagonistic relationship with Russia has so far prevented serious economic or political cooperation. Moscow and Kiev have quarreled on various issues such as dividing the Black Sea fleet, fuel prices, and pro-Russian separatism in Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.
Under Kravchuk, Kiev kept its distance from Russia, making efforts to integrate with European institutions. The Group of Seven nations last week offered $4 billion in aid to help Ukraine's struggling economy if it committed to reforms.
Kuchma promised to be much more open to partnerships with old allies. He has questioned Western assistance, saying Ukraine should depend on friends it knows. He is certain to estrange the West with his slow movement toward joining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
``How shall we be tomorrow?'' Kuchma asked in his campaign platform. ``Not as an intermediary in political games between Europe and Russia, but as a leader in the center of the Eurasia [region] will Ukraine take its place among rich and civilized nations.''
Both Belarussian candidates strongly supported quick integration with Russia. But how relations will shift between Russia and Belarus are less predictable than between Moscow and Kiev. In Belarus, Moscow's man was Kebich. Last week, Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin signed a preliminary version of the monetary union plan - apparently to boost Kebich's campaign.
Lukashenko, whose flamboyant style has been compared to that of Russian ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, has also advocated uniting the Belarussian and Russian monetary systems, and even suggested extending the plan into the political arena. But his political positions are unclear, and he may not submit to Russia once he becomes head of state.
``Let us stop playing the Russia card,'' Lukashenko said. ``Russia has its own interests, Belarus has its own.... There is no such category as brotherhoods in the economy.''