Polls may help Soviet empire strike back

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IT IS perhaps the most important issue since the collapse of the Soviet Union: is the empire back? This is the question confronting three Slavic components of the defunct Soviet Union this weekend as two of them, Ukraine and Belarus, hold run-off elections for president, watched closely by the third, Russia.

At stake, says Ian Brzezinski, an adviser to the Ukrainian parliament in Kiev and son of Jimmy Carter's geo- politics guru, is whether Moscow will get a chance to 'retrace the Curzon Line', the old frontier between Poland and the Soviet Union. 'This is a choice between joining Europe or retreating into some sort of Slavic hug,' he says. Advocates of the latter range from Alexander Solzhenitsyn to Mikhail Gorbachev. Such views are no longer on the fringe but occupy Russia's political mainstream.

Belarus and Ukraine get a chance to air their views on Sunday. In Belarus, a key issue is how swiftly they can get rid of its currency - the zaichik or hare - and bring back the Russian rouble, originally traded at one-to-one but now worth a dozen times more. In Ukraine, Russia's role dominates all debate.

Ukraine's choice is between the incumbent president, Leonid Kravchuk, a former Communist Party ideologist who champions Ukrainian statehood and boasts of his pull with Bill Clinton, and Leonid Kuchma, a one-time prime minister who looks to Moscow.

The race is close and can only deepen a gulf between parts of Ukraine passionately committed to independence, western areas where nationalist guerrillas held out well into the 1950s against Soviet troops, and a bleak eastern zone of factories and mines constructed under Communism and populated almost entirely by Russian speakers.

Russia is deeply troubled by the cost of rebuilding an empire. But in Ukraine its preference is clear. Bias in favour of Mr Kravchuk by state-run broadcasting in Kiev is balanced by support for Mr Kuchma in the Russian media, most importantly Ostankino television, which has more viewers in Ukraine than Ukrainian television. Last summer an opinion poll gave Mr Kravchuk an approval rating of less than 5 per cent. The period since has only increased economic misery - and demonstrated Mr Kravchuk's cunning: he could win on Sunday.

In Belarus, the two remaining candidates vie with each other over nostalgia for the Soviet Union: 'Why did you break up the country? More than 70 per cent of the people regret what happened,' Alexander Lukashenko, the surprise winner in a first round, taunted his rival, Vyacheslav Kebich, the premier, during a television debate on Thursday. Both want to dump the zaichik but Mr Kebich says only he has the contacts in Moscow to do this quickly.

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