Four Years Old, Ukraine Improvises Its Identity

AMID the fireworks and songfests marking the fourth anniversary of Ukraine's independence, a race will be run here today to celebrate the occasion. Fittingly, it is a half-marathon.

Ukraine, which has an anthem and a flag but no constitution, has miles to travel toward true statehood.

And just now, the people who have done most to push it toward that goal are looking for their second wind. Nationalists united briefly in their desire to free the country from three centuries of Russian rule. But when the Soviet Union splintered, so did they.

Whether the Soviet empire stays split depends in no small part on the fortunes of these activists. Ukraine's current government has so far met their demand to keep Ukraine out of Russia's broad shadow. But the one-time Soviet bureaucrats who now hold power are recent and halfhearted converts to the nationalist cause.

The fact that they are in power at all says much about the nationalists' problems. In 1991, their broad coalition, Rukh, had the communist apparatchiks running scared. Today, yesterday's heroes watch from the sidelines as the reborn communists steals their slogans and turns them into government policy.

Back then, the nationalists could only dream about some of the strides Ukraine has made since: the shift from Russian to Ukrainian language in education, the turn from Moscow to the West in foreign policy. Of course, back then they dreamed they would be the ones setting the pace.

''The period of political romanticism passed once Ukraine declared its independence. It's very easy to toss off slogans, much harder to turn them into a reality,'' says Mykhailo Horyn, one of the national movement's founders. ''To say that Rukh was riding high, that it could have taken power, I think that was impossible. Rukh wasn't a party.

''We have a large group of Ukrainian intellectuals and businessmen, but very little experience in public administration. To create a national elite in two or three years is virtually impossible. Now we are learning to rule. We are learning to make decisions in Kiev and not in Moscow,'' Mr. Horyn says.

Among the pupils are about 60 nationalist deputies - from several different parties - in Ukraine's parliament. So far, they have learned that they count for little in a 338-member body dominated by the barely-reformed communists.

Nationalists have done better with the country's first two elected presidents: Leonid Kuchma and his predecessor, Leonid Kravchuk. Both shunned nationalist ideas in their campaigns only to adopt many of them once in office.

By and large, those ideas have little in common with the murderous passions now shaking the Balkans. The Ukrainian National Assembly, a far-right party with a penchant for torchlight parades, has a militarized wing, three deputies in parliament but few friends among other nationalists. Many of the mainstream parties are led by former Soviet dissidents who did time in labor camps for monitoring human rights abuses. They preach tolerance for all ideologies and ethnic groups.

These leaders are not good at tolerating each other. Many have left Rukh to start their own tiny parties. Attempts to unify have run into the same unwillingness to compromise that once so frustrated the Soviet security police.

Divided and conquered

Rukh, the largest nationalist party, can claim just 50,000 members. Horyn's Ukrainian Republican Party has 13,000 supporters, which puts it ahead of most others. It is seeking union with the Democratic Party, but the wedding has yet to take place, Horyn grumbles.

To find out why, you have to go to the Democrats' headquarters in an anonymous construction trailer next to a building site. ''To unite means one party would have to end its existence, and that would be a shame. After all, we've been at it for five years now,'' says Hryhoriy Kutsenko, head of the party's secretariat and, as it happens, a former political prisoner.

Mr. Kutsenko calls his 4,000-member group ''a club.'' The building site next door may turn into a building before the ''club'' becomes a real party.

The nationalists are the first to acknowledge that they are not yet ready to take power. Ivan Lozowy, Rukh's director of international relations, hopes the party can triple its current 29 seats in parliament at the elections that will follow adoption of a constitution.

But for now, parliamentary politics have been rendered largely irrelevant by an agreement that gives the president and the Cabinet vast powers until a constitution is adopted. And since those powers are being used to promote Ukrainian language and a tough policy toward Russia, the nationalists can live with the arrangement.

''It's a Ukrainian government. We've got problems with them. We think they are getting a lot of things wrong. Still, it's a Ukrainian government,'' says Horyn.

While Russian nationalism draws on the absolutist tradition of the czars, he argues that Ukraine's is based on the limited democracy provided by the hetmans (Cossack leaders who ruled it in the 17th century).

''Ukraine had a conflict between the president and parliament and found a political solution. Ukraine had a problem with the Crimea, and found a political solution to this very difficult conflict. Russia, when it had a problem with parliament, brought out the guns and opened fire. Russia, having a conflict with Chechnya, is now essentially exterminating the small Chechen nation. Two states, two traditions, two approaches to political crises. I don't think that's accidental,'' he says.

Many of his countrymen don't agree. They give the impression that, far from having a historical grounding, Ukraine's is an infant society that simply does not know what it wants to be when it grows up.

In June, when the local polling firm Socis-Gallup asked 1,200 citizens across the country how they wanted it to evolve, 33 percent favored recreating the Soviet Union. Another 31 percent (like many nationalists) wanted Ukraine to emulate the West. And 24 percent thought the country ought to look for its own path.

Another Socis-Gallup poll last November found 57 percent in favor of making Russian an official language alongside Ukrainian. Just 28 percent opposed an idea that is anathema to the Ukrainian nationalists.

Russia's bear hug

The numbers are not surprising given that most works on sale at Kiev's book stands and bookstores are published in Russian, as is the city's leading daily newspaper. When the Ukrainian government tried earlier this month to limit broadcasts by Russia's public television network, many eastern and southern regions of the country vowed to continue transmissions at their own expense.

Author and scholar Solomea Pavlychko is part of a small group of Ukrainian activists trying to tip the scales in favor of their native language. Their society Osnovy (Fundamentals) has published 500,000 copies of Ukrainian translations of Western classics in everything from feminism to economics with help from the New York-based Soros Foundation.

Yet Pavlychko says such cultural and political activism is rare. ''These former dissidents and political prisoners and a couple of writers and a couple of teachers and doctors are trying to push for this whole society this huge agenda - it's very difficult.''

Even Russian-speaking Ukrainians want no part of Russia's great-power ambitions. But most of them also want no part of Ukrainian nationalism. Rukh, the Republicans, and other nationalists tend to have strong organizations in western Ukraine and invisible ones in the Russianized industrial heartland to the east.

Lozowy of Rukh fears it may only be a matter of time before such disparities produce a powerful movement demanding confederation with Russia. And this time, Russian dominance could be reestablished by construction cranes instead of tanks, he believes. If the Russian economy continues to outperform Ukraine's, Russian investors could start expanding westward even as Ukrainians gazing eastward decide to join their more prosperous neighbors.

The concern points to another difference between the nationalist elite and most Ukrainians. To the patriotic intellectuals, Russia looms as large as any former colonial master. But the same June Socis-Gallup poll found that when people were asked to name their biggest worries, relations with Russia ranked only ninth. Personal finances topped the list.

Hard times have forced the nationalists to take the long view. They note that their Polish and Baltic neighbors have also been hobbled by political apathy, internal divisions, and a communist ruling class that won't fade away. They say all that will pass.

''Time is working against a return to the past,'' says Horyn. ''Time is on the side of an independent Ukraine, despite the difficulties we have today.''

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