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Obituary: Vyacheslav Chornovil

VYACHESLAV CHORNOVIL, who was killed in a late-night car crash as he was returning to Kiev from an election meeting, managed the difficult transition from Soviet-era dissident to politician, but never quite achieved the success he had hoped for in realising his ideal of an independent Ukrainian state.

Leader since 1992 of Narodny Rukh ("Popular Movement"), one of the main nationalist parties, he was a member of the Ukrainian parliament. As party leader he faced a difficult choice, whether to support the ex-Communists who had turned reformers, such as the current president Leonid Kuchma, or to side with the opposition, which was largely made up of Communists who had not disavowed their past.

A veteran of the Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko era labour camps, Chornovil was quick to take advantage of the openness under Mikhail Gorbachev to revive the activities of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group. He was a constant advocate of national rights and supporter of independence for Ukraine. He was instrumental in forming the pro-independence Rukh in 1989.

At the first semi-free local elections in March 1990, Rukh swept the board in the more nationalist western Ukraine and Chornovil became head of the Lviv regional council, the first former political prisoner to attain such high office in the Soviet Union. He immediately brought in radical measures such as the privatisation of land, shops and homes and ousted the Communist Party from its privileged position.

As confusion over the ill-fated putsch against Gorbachev reigned in Moscow in August 1991, Chornovil was one of the most vocal initiators of a vote in Ukraine's parliament which approved breaking away from the Soviet Union. The vote was later confirmed in a nationwide referendum. But Chornovil came second to Ukraine's first post-Soviet president Leonid Kravchuk in the 1991 presidential election with a quarter of the vote.

Chornovil was born the son of village schoolteachers in central Ukraine in 1937, and studied journalism at Kiev University. He began work as a journalist in the city before moving to the western town of Lviv. By now already active in the burgeoning human rights movement, he had been deeply affected by the wave of arrests that struck nearly two dozen Ukrainian intellectuals during the previous year and produced an account of this persecution that was later published in English as The Chornovil Papers (1968).

He was ousted from a Lviv newspaper in 1966 for refusing to testify at a political trial and was himself arrested in 1967 and sentenced to three years in prison, a term later cut in half. After release he became head of the Ukrainian Helsinki Monitoring Group and edited the underground publication the Ukrainian Herald. In 1972, he was again arrested and sentenced to six years in prison and three years in exile for "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda". His strength of character was evident to his fellow political prisoners in labour camp. "The soul of the prison block is Chornovil," one wrote during a 100-day hunger strike in the summer of 1977.

"Conversations between cells are forbidden, but every day he reads us the latest news. The head of the camp, Pikulin, called Chornovil our general." He served his term in exile in the Siberian region of Yakutia. In April 1980, the Soviet authorities again sentenced Chornovil to five years in prison, but he was released in 1983.

Chornovil found political life in independent Ukraine frustrating. In January 1993, in response to the perceived threat of a revival of the former Communist system, Chornovil united with rival nationalist leaders in two other parties to form the Anti-Communist and Anti-Imperialist Front of Ukraine.

The fractious nature of post- Communist politics hit Chornovil's own movement. Rukh split a month ago amid bitter divisions over policy and what some members said was Chornovil's authoritarian leadership. After the split, Chornovil continued to head a half of the party he called Narodny Rukh Number One. By then, Vyacheslav Chornovil's influence was already on the wane.

Vyacheslav Maksymovich Chornovil, politician: born Erki, Ukraine 24 December 1937; married Atena Pashko (two sons); died Boryspil, Ukraine 25 March 1999.