Ukraine uncertainly readies for elections

June 25, 1994|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Sun Staff Correspondent

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine is heading into the first round of presidential elections tomorrow in a state of national wariness and suspicion.

The candidate most likely to emerge the winner is the current president, Leonid Kravchuk, a former Communist Party apparatchik who presided over 2 1/2 years of economic collapse and is now running as the champion of radical economic reform -- even though he just appointed a Communist as prime minister.

In a country so deeply divided that it would seem to have no chance of hanging together, Mr. Kravchuk is also a man who, geographically, has made a complete switch of sides. While his one-time powerful base of support in the industrial, Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine dribbles away, his former enemies in the nationalist, Ukrainian-speaking west flock to his side.

Few accuse Mr. Kravchuk of being a man with strong scruples, and even supporters have little love for him. But, except in the Crimea, few people hate him, either. That may be his strongest point in a country going through such tumultuous ethnic and economic upheaval.

"Kravchuk has experience and an outstanding ability to be flexible in his opinions," said Ivan Musienko, a Socialist Party official campaigning for one of Mr. Kravchuk's opponents, Alexander Moroz.

Ukraine is at a dangerous moment in its history. Only 10 percent of its enterprises have been privatized, and the big, Soviet-era factories are shutting down from a lack of materials, customers and money.

The east has been particularly hard hit and is looking longingly at neighboring Russia for help. Separatists in the Crimea are growing louder, probably with the covert aid of nationalist forces in Russia.

All this has put the prickly Ukrainian west on guard.

Ukraine, meanwhile, remains the third-largest nuclear power in the world. Mr. Kravchuk has been attacked by nationalists for the deal he struck with the United States last January to dismantle Ukrainian missiles -- but a clear majority of voters want to get rid of nuclear warheads, and in the end the nationalists have no one else to turn to.

Adroitly, Mr. Kravchuk moves left and right, east and west.

In the west he is for a free market; in the east, for bringing Communists into the government. He is the defender of all things Ukrainian and a leader who would reach out to everyone. Of all the major candidates, he is impeccably fluent in both

Ukrainian and Russian.

There are seven candidates, but only two stand a real chance of winning -- Mr. Kravchuk and his former prime minister, Leonid Kuchma.

A recent poll asked Ukrainians to identify each man's most striking attributes. At the top of the list for Mr. Kravchuk were, in order: cunning, tolerance, indecisiveness and intelligence. Mr. Kuchma scored high on competence, energy, concern for people and fairness. Mr. Kravchuk is now the front-runner.

Conversations with ordinary Ukrainians from all parts of the country found a general sense that Mr. Kravchuk was at least not worse than his opponents.

"I have hopes for Kravchuk, although he can't act decisively and he didn't carry out his promises," said Feodor Lishinsky, 67, a construction engineer in Kiev.

Alexander Velichko, 29, lost his construction job in Russia -- "We're considered foreigners now," he said -- and returned to his native Vinnitsa. His family also backs Mr. Kravchuk because, "well, we're used to him now."

"I hope he'll take us out of this economic situation -- though I don't know how," Mr. Velichko said.

In Kharkov, in the Russian-speaking east, a typical endorsement went this way, from Anatoly Malushitsky, 59, a gas station operator: "We were late with reforms. The government hesitated. It took the Ukrainian government a long time to get out of the habit of looking to Moscow and obeying Moscow. Well, if Kravchuk is re-elected, I am sure then he will move decisively toward reform."

Yet, the issue of Ukrainian relations with Moscow, more than the economy, has dominated campaign. Mr. Kravchuk, with the vast array of government-dominated press at his disposal, has hammered away at the theme of defending Ukrainian statehood. For most people, that means standing up to Russia, being tough with the Russian nationalist movement in the Crimea and the east, and keeping Russian business out of the Ukrainian economy.

Mr. Kuchma has tried to argue that Ukraine already has statehood and that the best way to preserve it is to rebuild strong economic links with Russia. He said that Mr. Kravchuk's policies amounted to "self-isolation."

He called for "restoring all mutually beneficial economic, spiritual and cultural ties with the former Soviet republics, and first of all with Russia."

But Mr. Kravchuk's campaign has hit a responsive chord. Polling directed by Valery Khmelko, a Kiev University sociologist who spent a semester at the Johns Hopkins University last year studying polling techniques, found that 54 percent of Ukrainians said statehood issues were the most important in deciding whom to vote for.

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