Disaster looms as Ukraine stumbles from one crisis to another: A volatile mixture of issues threatens the former Soviet republic, writes Tony Barber, East Europe Editor

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The Independent Online
NATIONALIST tensions, religious rivalries and economic chaos are threatening to turn Ukraine into one of Europe's most dangerously unstable regions in 1994. The former Soviet republic's relations with Russia are entering a period of renewed strain, exacerbated by the recent electoral success of the extreme nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who wants to extinguish Ukrainian independence.

Western governments, alarmed at the unfolding crisis in Ukraine, are putting extra pressure on President Leonid Kravchuk and his government to give up the country's 176 intercontinental nuclear missiles. The United States has warned that Ukraine will receive little aid unless it renounces the weapons. Willy Claes, the Belgian president of the European Union's council of foreign ministers, has said Ukraine will be excluded from Nato's 'Partnership for Peace' programme for Eastern Europe if it reneges on its disarmament promises.

Many Ukrainian politicians are digging in their heels, arguing that their country's sovereignty is imperilled by a resurgence of the Russian imperial spirit. Commenting on the Russian elections of 12 December, Mr Kravchuk said: 'I am alarmed because millions of Russian citizens voted for the slogan of 'a great and indivisible Russia'. I hope that the present authorities, the President of Russia and all democratic forces, will not allow these revanchist ideas to develop into state policy. If they do, this would signify the start of huge cataclysms in Europe and the world, leading to carve-ups and partitions.'

Ukraine's fears centre on the ethnic Russians who make up one in five of the republic's 52 million people. They are concentrated in eastern and southern parts of Ukraine and have traditionally felt close to Moscow. Many voted for Ukrainian independence in 1991, but their attitudes have changed as the country has slipped into economic crisis. Many are agitating for closer relations with Russia in the Commonwealth of Independent States, a position that Ukrainian leaders suspect could evolve into a challenge to Ukraine's borders.

Russian autonomy movements are active in the Donbass area and even more so in Crimea, where Russians make up 67 per cent of the population. Crimea was transferred from Russia to Ukraine in 1954, but the former Russian parliament declared that act invalid. Even more moderate Russians question Ukraine's right to the peninsula.

Tensions are also rising over the return of the Crimean Tatars, a nation deported by Stalin to Central Asia in 1944. At least 250,000 Tatars have arrived in Crimea since 1989, and their demands for land, jobs and political rights have set them at odds with local Slavs. A Tatar leader, Yuri Osmanov, was found murdered in November.

Religious antagonisms have added to Ukraine's problems this year as conflicts have broken out between Russian Orthodox churchgoers and followers of the breakaway Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Riot police have entered small towns and villages to stop parishioners fighting over church property. There is also hostility between Orthodox believers and members of the Uniate church, which uses Orthodox rites but is loyal to Rome.

The disorder has developed against a background of hyperinflation, poverty, industrial strikes and disastrous energy shortages. Inflation runs at 70 per cent a month and the temporary currency, the karbovanets, is weaker than the Russian rouble. After paying their bills and rent, state pensioners have only enough money to buy a pound of bread and a pint of milk a day, government economists say.

Ukraine imports almost all its oil and 70 per cent of its gas from Russia. Moscow began demanding payment at near world price levels last February. Lately Russian producers have refused to deliver energy to Ukraine because it is not meeting its bills. The result has been more social hardship and economic upheaval, and increasing Russian-Ukrainian tensions.