KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine faces a moment of truth after a prominent politician was gunned down this month. It can either succumb to a descent into political violence, or it can be shocked into resisting such degeneration.
The best test of its reaction may well be how fast it accelerates sluggish economic liberalization and gets rid of the cozy insider corruption that Mafia entanglements and feuds thrive on.
''This isn't very European, is it?'' asked one Ukrainian official to a colleague after Evehen Shcherban was shot at the Donetsk airport in eastern Ukraine.
Mr. Shcherban was a nouveau riche businessman, a member of parliament, and the brains and financier of the new Liberal party that represents the interests of the regional powerholders in Donetsk. His death is widely viewed as the opening of a no-holds-barred fight for the next presidential election, to be held two years from now, that will pit the Donetesk clan against the clan from Dnipropetrovsk that is allied with Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko.
In Ukraine, "European" tends to be the measure of civilized behavior, not assassinating politicians. In their five years of independence, Ukrainians have prided themselves on being European and avoiding the kind of violence that has wracked Russia. Now the question arises whether Ukraine's relatively peaceful "European" record reflects only a previous lack of criminal interest in this poor land -- and whether Russian-style violence will inevitably rise as wealth begins to rise.
"Will this be the new accepted norm?" asked a Western diplomat. "Or will there be a reaction saying we don't want to go this way?"
Certainly the tough coal-mining town of Donetsk, is not seen as representative or Ukraine as a whole. One of Ukraine's more colorful events in recent years was the blowing up of several alleged mafia bosses at a soccer game in the city stadium.
Nonetheless, the present escalation of violence calls into question the fond liberal hope that the new robber barons will eventually find it more profitable to go legitimate. In that analysis, those who have gotten rich by cronyism and economic monopolies could make more money long-term in open world trade than in further milking of a bankrupt state for subsidies and privilege.
Yet the intertwined political and economic power in the Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk clans tends to drag politics toward shadowy deals and extra-legal settling of accounts. The Dnipropetrovsk clan has been especially assertive in Ukraine since Mr. Lazarenko was appointed prime minister this year. It increased the already overwhelming number of high government officals in Kyiv from Dnipropetrovsk, the one-time center of the old Soviet militaryindustrial complex and the power base of former soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.
A weak 'muzhik'
Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma is generally considered not to be involved in the everyday wheeling and dealing of the Dnipropetrovsk clan. Since his election in 1994 Mr. Kuchma has led Ukraine in a pro-Western and pro-reform direction.
Mr. Kuchma started Dnipropetrovsk's predominance in the politics of independent Ukraine, however, by bringing his hometown buddies to Kyiv after he was elected two years ago. "Kuchma is a good muzhik" -- a good ordinary guy -- commented one Kiev editor, "but he is weak." The president recently announced his intention to run for re-election, but this has not stopped the maneuvering to succeed him by Mr. Lazarenko and by ex-Prime Minister Evehen Marchuk, who is allied with the Donetsk faction.
Since Mr. Lazarenko's appointment, the Donetsk clan has lost influence. The old-style cronyism will not cease to go the way of Russia, argues Halyna Freeland, unless there is real privatization and freeing of the economy from closed back-room deals. She is a Ukrainian Canadian working to help spread a democratic concept of the rule of law here as director of external relations at the Ukrainian Legal Foundation.
So long as the government controls as much of the economy as it still does and monopolies can be assured in murky back-room deals, she contends, "direct payback for the amount of investment is probably better" in such deals than in less &L shadowy alternatives. "There are various forces at play. And as the economy changes, and as the government gets rid of these subsidized enterprises -- and it will -- then I think that much of the feudal infighting will go away."
She also sensed a real change in attitudes with passage of Ukraine's fifth anniversary of independence -- and adoption of the new constitution -- this past summer. There was a euphoria among both the elites and the population at large that Ukraine has survived against Russian pressures to pull Ukraine back into Moscow's control, she found. And there has been a surprising rallying around the constitution even by the Ukrainian Communists and their leftist allies who had opposed it.
In practice, the new constitution works two ways. It provides a basis for rule of law. It also gives much more power to the prime minister, a job that had been largely a post for a fall guy who could be fired whenever the burdens of economic transformation became too unpopular.
The new power of the prime minister, who cannot now be fired without parliamentary approval, works in the short run, at least, to strengthen old-style clan politics.
That's not very "European."
Elizabeth Pond is a Knight fellow who is training young journalists in Odessa, Ukraine.
Pub Date: 11/29/96