East-west rupture threatens Ukraine after election upset: With the country approaching collapse, 'it was a choice of more of the same or change. People voted for change'

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WHEN Ukraine declared itself independent two-and-a-half years ago it gave itself a new flag, renamed the Lenin Museum at the end of Kiev's main avenue as the House of Ukraine, and hid the Bolshevik leader under a 20ft-plywood box covered with pink cloth.

The rupture it confronts now is potentially more wrenching.

On the streets of Kiev yesterday the most notable change since elections turfed out the old president, Leonid Kravchuk, on Sunday, was the weather: heavy rain had given way to glorious sunlight. In the corridors of power, however, an entire whole world had been turned upside down.

'No one is saying it but everyone is uncertain inside,' said one official. 'You can see it on their faces. Everyone fears for their position.'

Mr Kravchuk, a former Communist Party ideology secretary, and countless other officials in power when Communism collapsed, negotiated the transition from Soviet satrap to nationalist servants of a new state with ease. Now, perhaps for the first time, they are scared.

The metamorphosis from Communist to nationalist is common across the former Eastern bloc. In Ukraine it has produced an economic disaster and aggravated a deep regional fissure, dangerous developments in a country still armed with the world's third largest nuclear arsenal.

Mr Kravchuk was himself so sure of victory he kept issuing decrees right up until the last minute. Since election day, though, he has not appeared in public, retreating from view more like an ousted party official than the elected president of 52 million people, which he still is until the victor, Leonid Kuchma, is sworn in next weekend.

Mr Kravchuk did the same in August 1991, waiting until the putsch had fizzled in Moscow before announcing to a disbelieving audience in Kiev that he had in fact torn up his Communist Party membership days before.

But fancy footwork - Mr Kravchuk has the nickname 'Raindancer' because he is said to dodge even raindrops - will not change this result. 'It was a choice of more of the same or change. People voted for change,' said Myron Wasylyk, director of the Council of Advisers to the Ukrainian Parliament.

The victor, former director of a Soviet missile plant, faces immense problems: the economy is in ruins; the country needs a new constitution; parliament is chaired by the Socialist Party leader, Alexander Moroz, and stacked with foes of privatisation and other reforms Mr Kuchma promises; and, most dangerous of all, Ukraine is split into two potentially antagonistic parts.

The newspaper, Kievskie Vedomosti, yesterday devoted its front page to a map of Ukraine, severed down the middle by a black gash. The west of the country - where Mr Kravchuk won 12 electoral regions, including Lvov with 94 per cent of the vote and Ivano-Frankivsk with nearly 95 - was shaded dark. The rest - where Mr Kuchma won 15 regions with votes of 88 per cent in Lugansk and nearly 90 per cent in Crimea - was white.

'This election has crystallised the split between a Euro-Slav and a Russo-Slav vision of what Ukraine should be,' said Ian Brzezinski, an American adviser. 'It reflects a tremendous disillusionment with the West and the idea that Ukraine will ever really be allowed to join it.'

Mr Kuchma, who served briefly as prime minister at the end of 1992, has promised closer economic relations with Russia, including membership of the Commonwealth of Independent States economic union. For most people the appeal of Russia is simple: salaries there are 10 times higher.

Many authentic nationalists, not merely career apparatchiks, backed Mr Kravchuk because of this. They fear that under Mr Kuchma, Ukraine might squander its best hope for real independence since Bohdan Khmelnytsky aligned Ukraine with Moscow against Poland in 1653.

Britain, the United States and other Western countries also favoured Mr Kravchuk, thankful to him for Ukraine's promise to rid itself of nuclear arms and worried by Moscow's ambitions. 'Everybody is in a state of shock,' said Yaropolk Kulchyckyj of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. He said diplomats kept phoning to ask if there had been a mistake when his organisation issued preliminary results predicting Mr Kravchuk's defeat.

The CIA has warned Ukraine might degenerate into chaos if economic collapse continued to widen the rift between east and west. But the split is more cultural than ethnic, a division between new and 'Sovietised' factory towns, and coal mines and old Hapsburg Empire cities such as Lvov.

(Photographs and map omitted)