West Tugs, Russia Yanks at Ukraine's Identity

ONE recent evening here, as couples strolled in the dusk beneath the chestnut trees that line Kiev's central boulevard, a fiddler struck up a Ukrainian folk jig, an accordionist joined in, and passersby stopped to form a circle of dancers.

Their steps were hesitant: Some were unsure of the music, and others were simply reluctant, dragged into the dance by their more enthusiastic partners.

The scene said much about the mood in Ukraine as a whole, three-and-a-half years after the country broke free from Moscow's rule. Ukrainians have still neither agreed among themselves exactly what their independence means, nor just what to do with it.

"Ukraine today reminds me of a needle between two magnets," says Pavlo Zhovnirenko, a parliamentary adviser. "We haven't yet decided whether we are going fully down the free-market path, and there is no final decision on whether we are fully a European country, or whether we look more to the East."

The warm welcome that marked President Clinton's visit to Kiev, Ukraine's capital, last month reflected President Leonid Kuchma's desire for good relations with the West. But Ukraine's giant neighbor and former ruler, Russia, is an overbearing presence that Kiev ignores at its peril.

On Friday, Russian President Boris Yeltsin will visit Ukrainian President Kuchma in the Russian resort town of Sochi for a summit on the future of the Black Sea Fleet, which could set the tone for future relations between the two countries.

The ambivalence that many Ukrainians feel, straddling Eastern Europe, is perhaps best reflected in the way the national language is used.

For centuries, the Ukrainian language has been the defining element for nationalists, whose dreams of independence were repeatedly frustrated by either the Poles or the Russians.

Under Soviet rule, speaking Ukrainian was tantamount to a declaration of dissidence. Russian was the only official language.

Today, the Ukrainian parliament functions mostly in Ukrainian, and in much of the country, school is taught in Ukrainian up to the third grade. But when school children play together in recess, they play in Russian.

Kuchma, who has worked hard on his Ukrainian since being elected president last July, feels the irony of the situation every time he visits his native village, says Ivan Drach, a founder of the nationalist Rukh movement.

"Everybody laughs at him when he speaks Ukrainian in his village," Mr. Drach chuckles. "Not because he speaks it badly, but because all the villagers themselves speak Russian."

Mr. Kuchma himself is married to an ethnic Russian, in a union showing how Ukrainians and Russians are closely involved in one another's affairs.

But when Ukrainians think of their identity in relation to Russia, "they resemble the Canadians" suggests one Western diplomat here. "They say, 'We are not like our neighbors,' " he explains.

Ukrainian national identity is much stronger in the western provinces, which fell under Polish rule rather than Russian until the end of World War II, and where inhabitants like to place themselves in the European individualist mainstream, rather than in the Russian collectivist tradition.

In eastern Ukraine, where millions of ethnic Russians have settled over the years, and where the Ukrainian language is rarely heard, national independence is not a widely shared value.

"In western Ukraine people believe in independence; in eastern Ukraine they support it only if it means their living standards improve" says John Hewko, a Ukrainian-American lawyer here.

And their living standards have not improved. The average Ukrainian is about three times worse off than his counterpart in Russia.

Economic weakness is all the more threatening since Russia provides almost all of Ukraine's energy and thus has a powerful lever in its dealings with Kiev.

Ukraine's debt to Russia now stands at over $5 billion, according to senior presidential adviser Dmytro Vydrin, and Moscow's readiness to let the debt mount up is critical to Kiev. "Moscow could make life miserable for Ukraine, and only Western pressure is there to stop them," says one Western diplomat.

Just to the north, Belarus serves as a cautionary tale to Ukrainian nationalists of how fragile independence can be. In the wake of recent referendums and a customs-union with Moscow, Belarus has effectively erased its borders with Russia and is, to all intents and purposes, a Russian client state.

For the time being, though, "Ukraine has successfully raised the stakes by building its relations with the West," the Western diplomat points out. Ukraine's agreement to give up its nuclear weapons, join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and accept International Monetary Fund conditions for a loan have all pleased Washington.

But history and geography have conspired to link Ukraine's economy with the East, not the West. "Their sovereignty depends on economic prosperity, and that means trade with Russia, not with the United States," the diplomat argues. Seventy percent of Ukraine's trade is with Russia.

ALTHOUGH the United States has made Ukraine its fourth-largest international aid recipient, pouring around $1 billion into the country since its independence in 1992, that number pales beside the $2 billion a year in energy debts to Moscow that Russia is letting accumulate.

Ukrainians "have all the problems that other former Soviet republics have in making the transition to capitalism, plus they have to create a state at the same time," points out Mr. Hewko.

"I think they are over the hump in terms of being an independent state," adds a foreign diplomat. "But just how independent Ukraine will turn out to be, what kind of independence it will have - those are still open questions."

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