Ukraine puts faith in reformer as Communists are trounced

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The Independent Online
UKRAINIAN VOTERS appeared last night to have given Leonid Kuchma a five-year mandate to continue painful economic reforms. Preliminary results from the second and final round of the presidential elections showed that Mr Kuchma had won a substantial victory: 56 per cent of the vote compared with 37 per cent for his rival, the Communist Party leader, Petro Symonenko. Final results will be announced today.

Like Russians in 1996, Ukrainians had stood at a crossroads, deciding whether to press on to the free market or to retreat to the safety of Soviet-style command economics. Four years ago, Russians gave Boris Yeltsin a second chance to make capitalism work and yesterday Ukrainians did the same for the incumbent Mr Kuchma, even though many of them regard him as a flawed leader.

The result came as little surprise to analysts, who had predicted that Ukrainians would opt for the devil they knew rather than the devil they did not, providing only that the turn-out was high enough. A low turn- out would have favoured Mr Symonenko, as Communist supporters are traditionally more disciplined than other voters. But in the event, bright autumn weather brought the electorate to the ballot boxes.

As expected, Mr Kuchma seemed to draw most support from the west of the country, where nationalists saw him as the better guarantor of continued Ukrainian independence. The Communist vote was highest in the economically depressed east.

Observers from 35 countries monitored the elections and no serious violations were immediately reported. Mr Symonenko, 47, a moderate Communist, struggled to get his message across, using grass-roots organisations that had survived from Soviet times. Mr Kuchma, 61, representing the new post-Soviet establishment, had the advantage of a powerful election machine.

Ukraine used to be the bread basket of the old Soviet Union. When it won independence from Moscow in 1991, it seemed that it would have a golden future. Its people were renowned for their thrift and it was thought likely that the big Ukranian diaspora in the United States would help ease the transition to capitalism.

The reality has turned out to be very different. Ukraine has been thrust into poverty and plagued by corruption since the collapse of Communism. Ukranian guest workers travel in their thousands to take menial jobs in Russia, which they see as being relatively prosperous, although some Russians complain that their country is now "the Third World with an Arctic climate".

Before the ballot boxes opened, it had been predicted that many impoverished Ukranians would register a protest against Mr Kuchma by supporting Mr Symonenko. A strong Communist vote had been expected among the elderly and in the east, which has seen massive job losses in coal mining and other heavy industries.

Meanwhile, Mr Kuchma, a former Communist, comparable in some ways to Boris Yeltsin except that he is younger and in better health, had expected most of his support to come from young people, although there were pensioners prepared to persevere with reform for the sake of the next generation. The incumbent president had also been counting on the vote of nationalists in western Ukraine, who once thought he was too close to Moscow, but who now see him as the lesser of two evils.

Mr Kuchma, respected in the West, has defended Ukranian independence while developing a friendly relationship with the master of the Kremlin in Moscow. Mr Symonenko, on the other hand, would have watered down Ukranian independence by bringing his country into a "Slav union" not only with Russia but also with the Belarus of Alexander Lukashenko, a leader with worrying dictatorial tendencies.

The election campaign was dirty, even violent. One candidate was injured in a bomb attack before the first round on 30 October.

In the second round, Mr Kuchma had warned that the Communists would bring back the gulags in which millions of Ukranians died in Stalin's time. Mr Symonenko, who says he and his party have learnt from past mistakes, responded with accusations that Mr Kuchma had presided over the rise of a corrupt mafia.

But Mr Kuchma strengthened his position by appointing Yevhen Marchuk, the former opponent who had criticised him for corruption, as his national security chief.