Ukraine's will for reform put to test

UKRAINIANS will decide today whether to persevere with painful market reforms or to retreat to a communist system.

Generations are divided and the country is also split along geographical lines as voters choose between the incumbent president, Leonid Kuchma, and his Communist opponent, Petro Symonenko, in the second and final round of elections.

Like other parts of the former Soviet Union, Ukraine, which gained independence from Moscow in 1991, has found the transition to capitalism traumatic. Freedom has been won at the cost of economic hardship, and the older generation in particular question whether the advantages outweigh the losses. Many of these pensioners, nostalgic for the security of Soviet times, will cast their vote for Mr Symonenko, the 47-year-old ex-bureaucrat who now leads the Communist Party.

In many ways the race in Ukraine resembles the 1996 presidential elections in Russia, when Russians faced the same choice between going backwards or shuffling forwards. Younger Ukrainians are expected to give a second chance to Mr Kuchma, 61, a former Communist but a man who, like the Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, has struggled to change himself and his country.

Apart from age, geography and history determine voting patterns in Ukraine. People in the western part never really accepted Soviet rule and most will vote for Mr Kuchma, seeing him as the better guarantor of Ukraine's continued independence. Mr Symonenko, a moderate Communist who advocates a "Slav Union" with Russia and Belarus, is expected to do better in the east, where industrial decline has cost many jobs, and where there are many ethnic Russians.

For the workers who have lost their jobs or who have not been paid for months, bread and butter issues are often more important than arguments about a possible "Slav Union". Acknowledging that he still had not won over the disgruntled proletariat, Mr Kuchma devoted the last stage of the campaign to the mining region of the Donetsk, but he refused to apologise for reform and urged people to see the task through to the end.

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