Prospect of split rises in Ukraine

Supporters of Ukraine's rival would-be presidents thronged outside the Supreme Court in Kiev Monday, each side sure that the judges would find in their favor - and determined to fight on if the verdict betrayed their cause.

But any decision may prove inadequate to head off a looming split - or even secession - along Ukraine's historic east-west divide.

The bitter battle between liberal market reformer Viktor Yushchenko and the Kremlin-backed prime minister, Viktor Yanukovich, has aggravated relations between the industrial provinces that border on Russia - which they resemble - and the western zones, where religion, language, and political culture were shaped by centuries of Polish and Austro-Hungarian rule.

"It is getting very late" for compromise, says Volodymir Gorbach, an expert with the independent Institute of Euro-Atlantic Integration in Kiev. After a week of mass demonstrations that have paralyzed Kiev and many other Ukrainian cities, "the country is on the verge of economic collapse," he says.

Emotions among the orange opposition, loyal to Yushchenko, and blue-clad followers of Yanukovich, were running very high.

No one was sure when the court would rule, or whether its judgment would resolve the week-old crisis over who won the sharply contested Nov. 21 election.

In a step away from brinkmanship, Yanukovich said Monday he would agree to another vote in two regions if mass fraud were proven.

The eastern coal-mining province of Donetsk has scheduled a referendum for next Sunday "to determine the region's status" - code for creating an autonomous republic that would forge its own economic and political relations with Moscow.

Other heavily Russified eastern regions, including Kharkov, Dnepropetrovsk, and Crimea, could quickly follow suit, creating a huge bloc that comprises most of Ukraine's heavy industry and energy sources, and almost half the population.

"It is very hard to overestimate the danger of these secessionist movements," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow.

But separatist notions are greeted with fury among Yushchenko's supporters, who fear Ukraine's fragile 13-year- old independence will collapse without a strong central government to impose the Ukrainian language upon the country's largely Russian-speaking population, and a separate economic path that weans the country from subsidized Russian energy, raw materials, and agricultural markets.

"Our national identity is not strong," says Yevgeny Bystritsky, director of the Soros-funded International Rennaissance Foundation in Kiev. "The independence we gained in 1991 is the foundation of our state. This must not be lost."

Mr. Bystritsky says the autonomy movement now gaining ground in the east is just a "blackmail tactic" by pro-Yanukovich forces to counterbalance the Yushchenko supporters surging through the streets of Kiev.

Those supporters show no sign of losing stamina.

"If the court decision goes against us, it will just be the start," says Taras Ilchyshyk, a bakery worker from Lviv who ardently backs Yushchenko. "We will rise up, peacefully - only peacefully - and there will be a national strike. I want democracy."

But Yanukovich backers, who allege "abuse and irregularities" in some west Ukrainian precincts, say they see no reason why his victory should be overturned.

Yanukovich, backed by much of the electorate in Ukraine's heavily Russified eastern zones, supports economic integration with Russia and acceptance of Russian as Ukraine's second official language.

Yushchenko, whose voters are concentrated in the more nationalistic western part of Ukraine, stands for joining NATO as early as 2008 and carrying out painful market reforms to make Ukraine a viable candidate for European Union membership within a decade.

Ukrainian experts play down the threat of a national split, saying the industrial east needs the markets, government subsidies, and other support provided by the rest of the country. "Autonomy is a utopia," says Mr. Gorbach.

But some experts say Russia could still play a major factor. "These secessionist movements in the east of Ukraine pose a real risk of Kremlin meddling," says Mr. Petrov.

Indeed, Russia supports much smaller secessionist enclaves in other post-Soviet states, including Abhazhia and South Ossetia in Georgia and the Trans-Dneister Republic in Moldova.

For all the external pressures on Ukraine, observers say the leading impetus so far has been the crowds of people rallying peacefully throughout the country.

"Gandhi showed the way of nonviolent resistance and Christ teaches this too," said Ivan Podzyubaichuk, a farmer from Volyn in western Ukraine, who has been rallying in Kiev all week.

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