Kravchuk banks on desire for 'bad peace': Ukraine is in an economic mess but the President seems set for re-election because of popular fear of unrest

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The Independent Online
SHORTLY after Ukraine split from the Soviet Union, the Lenin Collective Farm called an urgent village meeting to decide whether it was perhaps time for a change of name. Alexander Velikhotsky, the farm director who chaired the gathering at the House of Culture, recalls: 'Ninety per cent said 'No, let things stay as they are. How is change going to help us?' '

Leonid Kravchuk, President of Ukraine, is calculating that the same mood will keep him in power. In a final push to win votes ahead of yesterday's presidential election, the second since independence at the end of 1991, the 60- year-old former guardian of Communist Party ideology in Soviet Ukraine paid a visit to this village some 200km (125 miles) east of Kiev. Flanked by two senior officers dangling medals, and a phalanx of aides, he stood on the steps of the House of Culture, the place where stalwart villagers rallied to save Lenin, and asked that they stick with him too.

'After the war the country needed more than just a couple of years to get back on its feet,' he told farmers, local officials and guests from a rural wedding put in the shade by the arrival on Saturday afternoon of the President's bullet-proof BMW limousine and a convoy of police cars. 'We need time now too. Clearly, things need time, we must unite, not argue.'

The seven-way presidential race will most likely go to a second round, with Mr Kravchuk squaring off against Leonid Kuchma, 55, one-time Soviet missile-maker, former prime minister and champion of closer links with Moscow.

Some last-minute opinion polls suggested a surge for Alexander Moroz, an unashamed socialist recently sworn in as chairman of Ukraine's parliament, where Communists now form the biggest bloc. Mr Moroz has capitalised on unease about even the timid economic reform enacted so far and mocks Mr Kravchuk as a turncoat. The one gung-ho reformer candidate is 42-year-old Volodymyr Lanoviy. He may do well in Kiev but has little chance elsewhere.

Probably the most dazzling act of political legerdemain belongs to Mr Kravchuk: the economic mess left by his administration has not, so far, led to any large-scale switch to the opposition.

The statistics are grim: industrial production down by 40 per cent in only a year; a national currency so feeble it takes 20 to buy a Russian rouble, 45,000 a US dollar; a per capita GDP lower than parts of Africa; dollars 2.2bn ( pounds 1.5bn) owed to Russia and Turkmenistan for unpaid fuel bills covering only the last four months. For the moment, however, Ukraine has dragged itself from the abyss of hyper- inflation. With much of the economy at a standstill, inflation in May was under 6 per cent; it was 90 per cent in December.

The entire country is falling back on the habits of the Lenin Collective Farm - not Communism, but farming. Some 30 per cent of Ukraine's 52 million people live in the countryside and as many again have their own plots.

After trailing badly in opinion polls, Mr Kravchuk has fought his way back with a strong campaign built around his reputation as a safe pair of hands. The nub is contained in a campaign poster pasted on the wall of the Lenin Collective Farm's most thriving enterprise, a dirty shop ladling out home-brew beer into jam jars: 'While tanks were firing on the streets in Moscow and former Soviet republics were spilling blood the wise Ukrainian people preserved their land and homes from the great tragedy of fratricidal war,' the poster says.

KIEV - Early returns put Mr Kravchuk ahead in the west this morning and scoring well but behind Mr Kuchma, in the industrial east, Reuter reports. It was certain a second round would be required on 10 July.

(Photograph omitted)