Ukraine: a state of high tension: Tony Barber warns that an immense disaster could be brewing on Russia's border

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The Independent Online
NOT long ago a United States intelligence report predicted that Ukraine, the second most populous former Soviet republic after Russia, was likely to split apart, leaving Ukrainian nationalists controlling the west and pro-Russian politicians dominating the east and the Crimean peninsula to the south. The outcome of Sunday's parliamentary elections, and local plebiscites on forging closer relations with Russia, indicates that this prediction was not an exercise in panic-mongering.

There is now a clear rift, expressed through a democratic vote, between the nationalist west and the Russian-leaning east and south. In the Russian-populated Donbass region people voted by a margin of 10 to one in favour of closer integration with Russia. They also supported the elevation of Russian to the status of a state language alongside Ukrainian. In Crimea - where two-thirds of the 2.65 million people are Russians - voters endorsed proposals for reducing the central Ukrainian government's power over the peninsula and for allowing citizens to take Russian citizenship.

Governing Ukraine will now prove an even more arduous task than it has been since the republic declared its independence in August 1991. The new parliament will be a fractious assembly. Ukraine's leaders will find it hard to agree on a programme of serious economic reform. Soaring inflation and poverty will provide fertile ground for those who advocate militant nationalist solutions.

Trying to extract a crumb of comfort from the election results, the chief returning officer, Ivan Yemets, noted that, despite predictions of widespread apathy, the turnout had been heavy, at about 75 per cent of the 36 million-strong electorate. 'The Ukrainian people have demonstrated that they want change and are deciding their own future,' he declared.

Sadly, a high turnout in free elections and referendums is in itself no guarantee of political stability. The war of 1991 in Croatia was preceded by a democratic election in April 1990 which brought to power President Franjo Tudjman and the nationalist Croatian Democratic Union.

It inspired the revolt of the Serbian minority of the Krajina region. The Bosnian war, which erupted in April 1992, was touched off by a referendum in which Muslims and Croats voted for independence while Serbs refused to take part. If other factors in a political equation point to tension and hostility, then the rites of democracy cannot always stave off conflict.

Ukraine's elections must be seen in the context of the cold war that has defined relations between Ukraine and Russia since the Soviet Union's disappearance at the end of 1991. While the two countries have not come to blows, their relationship has been marked by fear, suspicion and rivalry over issues such as Ukraine's nuclear status, ownership of the Black Sea fleet and the powers of the Commonwealth of Independent States. In the past four months, the situation has taken a distinct turn for the worse.

Russia's parliamentary elections last December witnessed the defeat of liberals at the hands of nationalists and Communists who stand for the reaffirmation of Russian power over Ukraine and other former Soviet republics. The most extreme nationalist, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, is dedicated to the destruction of Ukraine as an independent state. Politicians outside parliament, such as Boris Yeltsin's former Vice-President, Alexander Rutskoi, have revealed their true colours by calling for the restoration of the Soviet Union.

Then, in late January, an ominous development occurred in Belarus, which borders Ukraine and Russia. Hardliners in parliament removed the reform-minded president, Stanislau Shushkevich, and installed Mechyslau Hryb, formerly the chairman of the security, defence and law enforcement committee.

The new leadership is intent on forging a close alliance with Russia on economic and foreign policy matters - so close, in fact, that it is unclear whether Belarus will preserve its independence in any meaningful sense.

At the same time, presidential elections in Crimea produced a victory for Yuri Meshkov, a politician who had campaigned on a platform of unification with Russia. Though he has lately toned down his demands, it would be nave to think he has abandoned them altogether. Equally, most politicians in Moscow remain unreconciled to permanent Ukrainian control of Crimea.

Western governments have pinned their hopes for a peaceful resolution of the disputes between Russia and Ukraine largely on the political skills and sense of responsibility of Boris Yeltsin and the Ukrainian president, Leonid Kravchuk. But this takes too little account of the fact that it is precisely under Mr Yeltsin's leadership that Russia has adopted a more interventionist stance towards former Soviet republics. Protection of the 25 million ethnic Russians who live outside Russia, and calls for Russia to have special 'peacekeeping' powers in the former Soviet Union, are policies that have Mr Yeltsin's full endorsement.

The Western approach also ignores the fact that Mr Kravchuk may not be around for much longer. His chief rival, Leonid Kuchma, scored a convincing victory on Sunday in his constituency of Chernihiv, near the Russian border, and is well placed to challenge for the presidency in elections which are to be held in June.

Mr Kuchma is a former director of an enormous nuclear missile and space production factory in Dnipropetrovsk, and it would not be unfair to class him as a man whose outlook is strongly influenced by his many years of service to the Soviet state.

The heart of the matter is that too few Russian politicians can accept Ukraine as an independent state. It is hard for them to forget that the first medieval Russian state emerged on what is now Ukrainian territory. They also think it is illogical for Ukraine to keep Crimea when it was transferred from Russian ownership in 1954 on the whim of Nikita Khrushchev.

The fate of independent Ukraine is now at stake. Extreme nationalists in the west are already parading in uniforms with swastika-like insignia. Russians who live in the east openly mock the symbols of Ukrainian statehood. Whether the West can help Russia and Ukraine ease these tensions is debatable.

Clearly, the West cannot dictate solutions to problems such as the contested control of the Black Sea fleet. But it must make an effort to encourage a course of compromise and negotiation. It can also insist that both countries honour nuclear disarmament agreements. If such steps are not taken, a disaster of immense proportions looms.

(Photograph omitted)