Ukrainians decide to go their own way Independence commands 92% majority

December 03, 1991|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- In an overwhelming vote for independence, people from every corner of the hefty republic of Ukraine left Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev with very few cards yesterday in his last urgent attempts to form a new union.

Results poured in from every region of Ukraine -- from the once-Polish west to the strictly Russian Crimea, from the steppe to the coal fields, from the countryside and from the cities -- and everywhere the message from Sunday's referendum was the same: yes to independence, yes to President Leonid M. Kravchuk, no to Moscow.

In an unexpectedly high turnout, 80 percent of eligible voters went to the polls; of those, 92 percent chose independence.

The referendum had been expected to pass, but in passing by such a huge margin it dealt what could be a fatal blow to Mr. Gorbachev's vision of a central government.

With their votes yesterday, Ukrainians decisively carved out of the Soviet Union a new nation with 52 million people, 25 percent of the Soviet economy and a land area nearly the size of Texas.

In one stroke, Ukraine joined the front ranks of European nations.

President Boris N. Yeltsin's Russian republic promptly recognized Ukrainian independence last night, Russian television said, adding that Mr. Yeltsin had called a new partnership between Russia and Ukraine a key factor in preserving security and stability in Europe and the world.

He also expressed "a conviction that Ukraine recognizes and will observe all international pacts on limiting nuclear weapons and their non-proliferation, and will secure nuclear-free status for itself."

Trying to put a good light on the results, Mr. Gorbachev congratulated Mr. Kravchuk yesterday on his victory over five opponents in the race for the Ukrainian presidency (a seventh candidate dropped out last week). Mr. Kravchuk took 60 percent of the vote.

Once a Communist Party chieftain, he has walked gingerly but unerringly through a political minefield of nationalism, ethnic Russian uneasiness and the comeback ambitions of hard-line Communists to win the often-grudging support of the electorate.

Mr. Gorbachev held out the hope yesterday that an independent Ukraine might still choose to join a political union, although he acknowledged that, "taking into account the existing realities," such a union would have even fewer powers than he had proposed last month.

Indeed, in the days leading up to the referendum, ordinary Ukrainians frequently pointed out that no one really knew what kind of independence they were voting for. In a country where pronouncements are made but nothing ever becomes quite final, all sorts of cooperative arrangements with other republics are plausible.

But the mood in Ukraine is not one that would allow Moscow much of a role, if any. No one sees the Kremlin as a problem-solving institution. And if Ukraine decides to spurn the central government, Mr. Yeltsin has said he may follow suit.

That would be the end of the line for Mr. Gorbachev.

The split of Russia and Ukraine goes to the very heart of the union, despite the 10 other republics that might participate. Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, was once the religious and cultural center of old Russia. Only when it came under attack by Muslim warriors in the Middle Ages did it lose its primacy to Moscow.

Under the czars, the steppes leading to the Black Sea coast in the south were Russified, and Russian workers flocked to the Donbass coal fields in the east. Western Ukraine, long a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was absorbed into the Soviet Union at the close of World War II.

Yet even with its mix of Cossacks, Germans, Russians, Ukrainians, Poles and others, every region of the republic voted for independence, including the most haughtily Russian precincts of the Donbass.

For months Mr. Gorbachev and his aides were acting as though Ukrainians didn't really mean it. Even yesterday, Ivan Silaev, who runs Mr. Gorbachev's government, was quoted as warning Ukrainians that Moscow could make things very expensive for them if they tried to act too independently.

But the referendum results leave all that somewhat beside the point. Ukraine's economy is in fact closely intertwined with Russia's, but Ukrainian independence only further strengthens the Russian government at the expense of Mr. Silaev's central government.

Internationally, Poland and Canada wasted no time in recognizing Ukrainian independence yesterday.

The Ukrainian government wants to create a 450,000-man army, although Ukrainians themselves ask who the potential enemy might be that would require such a large force.

Ukraine has promised, though, not to seek control over Soviet nuclear missiles on its territory, proposing instead a joint commission of the four formerly Soviet republics that possess nuclear weapons -- besides Ukraine, they are Russia, Kazakhstan and Byelarus (which was formerly known as Byelorussia).

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