Ukraine and Belarus unseat leaders

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IN A ballot-box insurrection against economic misery and a do- nothing post-Soviet establishment, Ukraine has unseated its incumbent president, Leonid Kravchuk, and elected in his place a former missile manufacturer who has promised to 'restore order' and move closer to Russia.

At the same time, results announced yesterday from a separate presidential poll in neighbouring Belarus point to a resounding victory for a populist anti-corruption campaigner, Alexander Luka shenko. A political nobody only a few months ago, he humiliated his rival, the Belarus Prime Minister, Vyacheslav Kebich, by securing some 80 per cent of the vote.

The victory of Leonid Kuchma in a run-off poll in Ukraine was less emphatic but none the less promises a dramatic shift in the country's orientation. Provisional results from Sunday's voting suggest he won around 52 per cent of the vote compared with 45 per cent for Mr Kravchuk.

Elected President in December 1991 on the same day Ukrainians voted overwhelming for independence from the Soviet Union, Mr Kravchuk, a 60-year-old former Communist Party ideology secretary, had tried to focus the election on the single issue of Ukrainian statehood, presenting himself as its only guarantor. Mr Kuchma, 55, a former prime minister and industrialist, hammered away instead at Mr Kravchuk's economic record: a joke currency, plunging production, salaries only a tenth of those in Russia.

Mr Kravchuk's defeat will delight Moscow, alarm Ukrainian nationalists fearful of a resurgent Russian empire and unnerve Western governments which worry that Ukraine, after only two- and-a-half years of independence, may slip back into Russia's orbit.

Provisional results show a country polarised between east and west. The rift, also evident in parliamentary elections in March, matches a dire forecast made by the the US Central Intelligence Agency in a classified report earlier this year. It warned that Ukraine's worsening economic state might split the country and propel ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers in the east to seek reunion with Russia.

On the eve of Sunday's poll, Western leaders made an ill-timed intervention into Ukrainian affairs. At their meeting in Naples, leaders of the Group of Seven promised the country dollars 4bn ( pounds 2.6bn) in return for 'genuine reform'. The sum is far bigger than anything committed previously and was seen as an attempt to boost Mr Kravchuk, who has won friends in Washington and other Western capitals with his commitment to rid Ukraine of the world's third biggest nuclear arsenal. A further dollars 200m was promised on condition that Ukraine close the Chernobyl nuclear power station.

Mr Kuchma yesterday attributed his success to a precipitous drop in the standard of living. Ukrainians now earn on average only dollars 10 ( pounds 6.50) a month compared with dollars 100 in Russia. 'The main issue is the economy and that there is now authority in the country,' said Mr Kuchma, who flew to Kiev yesterday from his stronghold in the east.

Mr Kravchuk declined to appear in public but was said to have conceded defeat, though an electoral commission stacked with his supporters had yet to issue final results by late last night.

Before serving as prime minister at the end of 1992, Mr Kuchma was director of the Yuzhmash missile plant, a key link in the Soviet Union's military industrial complex and a beneficiary of the close economic ties between Soviet republics he wants restored. As well as championing economic union with Russia, he also advocates more rapid economic reform and mocks Mr Kravchuk for constant dithering over privatisation and other key decisions. But no matter what his intentions, the strong showing by Communists in parliamentary elections will limit Mr Kuchma's ability to force a sudden shift to the free market.

Mr Kuchma's victory was based on strong support in heavily industrialised and predominantly Russian-speaking areas in the east, which have been hardest hit by the country's economic collapse. He also did well in Crimea and farming regions in the centre. Mr Kravchuk, transformed from loyal Soviet apparatchik to dedicated Ukrainian patriot in 1991, scored best in the west.

During the campaign for Sunday's poll and a first-round vote two weeks ago, Mr Kravchuk repeatedly tried to present his rival as an agent of Moscow's rather than Ukraine's interests. He warned against an attempt to 'constantly try to bring us to our knees'.

Mr Kuchma yesterday condemned such tactics as 'criminal in terms of confrontation between east and west'. But he also sought to calm fears of escalating confrontation: 'If we act intelligently we can overcome this split. But if we use the principle that things can only get worse they will indeed get worse.'