Ukraine's east-west divide: An election has belatedly alerted the West to a dangerous split, argues Tony Barber

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SINCE declaring independence in August 1991, Ukraine has been one of the few former Soviet republics to be spared political violence. But for how much longer?

At one level, Sunday's presidential election was a peaceful democratic exercise that resulted in a triumph for the challenger, Leonid Kuchma, over the incumbent, Leonid Kravchuk. But at another level, the vote widened ethnic, regional and ideological fault lines in Ukraine and raised the biggest question mark yet over the republic's ability to avoid conflict.

Mr Kuchma, a former prime minister and director of the world's largest nuclear missile and space production plant, based his campaign largely on a call for closer ties with Russia. His strongest support came from pro-Russian eastern and southern regions. Mr Kravchuk, who led Ukraine to independence as the Soviet Union crumbled, won most votes in Ukrainian nationalist western regions.

Since Mr Kuchma could not rely on the ethnic Russian vote alone for victory, it seems that the election turned on the decision of many Ukrainians, mainly in central regions, to abandon Mr Kravchuk on the grounds that his spell in office had produced little but economic hardship. In any event, Ukraine's politics are marked by regional and linguistic divisions that are now sharper than ever.

These found expression last March and April in Ukraine's parliamentary elections. Then as now, the great majority of Ukraine's Russian population took a clear stance in favour of closer relations with Russia. Then as now, the western Ukraine - which was never part of Russia or the Soviet Union until 1939 - took an equally clear stance in favour of unadulterated Ukrainian independence.

How to reconcile Ukraine's internal differences, which are reflected in a broader crisis in the relationship between the Russian and Ukrainian states, is now the task of the hour. If Russians and Ukrainians fall out, then crisis will engulf the entire former Soviet Union, just as the collapse of the Serb-Croat relationship threw the Balkans into turmoil.

The first flashpoint could well be the Crimean peninsula, where the Russian majority is flirting with secession from Ukraine. The presence of the enormous former Soviet Black Sea fleet, whose status is disputed between Russia and Ukraine, injects a dangerously unpredictable factor into the Crimean equation.

Ukraine's troubles are rooted in a crisis of state identity. About one in five of Ukraine's 52 million people are Russians, but the figure rises to more than 40 per cent if those who use Russian as their first language are included. Ukraine lacks a strong tradition of statehood and, whereas regions such as Galicia and Rivne-Volyn in the west were under Austrian-Polish rule for centuries, regions such as Donetsk and Crimea look to Moscow rather than Kiev for guidance.

In December 1991, Ukraine's multi- ethnic composition seemed not to matter much as Ukrainians and Russians alike endorsed independence from Moscow in a referendum. But since then, political stagnation, economic crisis and public frustration have risen to such levels that the very integrity of the state is under threat.

Not many specialists on the former Soviet Union voice optimism about Ukraine's immediate future. In a report last month for the Economist Intelligence Unit, Vladimir Sobell wrote: 'It appears that this key former Soviet republic lacks the requisite amount of political consensus, administrative skill and experience to survive as an independent state after centuries of Moscow's rule.'

The picture could have been brighter if Mr Kravchuk had performed better on the economic front. But Ukraine's supersonic inflation rate, slump in industrial output and almost complete absence of reform measures have played into the hands of those who, like Mr Kuchma, argue that salvation lies in restoring close ties with Russia.

In the Russian-majority Donbass, heartland of the old Soviet mining industry, workers who once received salaries up to 30 per cent higher than the Soviet average are angry that since 1991 they have become worse off than their fellow Russians across the border. Aware that Ukraine needs Russia as an export market and as a supplier of oil and gas, and suspicious of attempts at linguistic Ukrainianisation of their region, the Donbass Russians see little positive in Ukrainian statehood. Donbass Communists openly advocate the return of the Soviet Union.

However, ultra-nationalists in western Ukraine are unlikely to remain peaceful if threats to the republic's sovereignty continue to grow. Far right groups such as the Ukrainian National Assembly, with its paramilitary arm, the Ukrainian People's Self-Defence, scent a chance to exploit the gathering crisis for their own benefit.

The presidential election produced a deceptive result in that Mr Kravchuk, while receiving most votes in western Ukraine, was hardly that region's favourite politician. As a former high-ranking Soviet Communist who never fully espoused Ukrainian nationalism, Mr Kravchuk won support only because he was perceived as less pro-Russian than Mr Kuchma.

Mr Kravchuk's defeat means that western Ukrainians, fearful that Ukraine will turn into a Russian client state, will be less likely to cast votes for moderate centrist candidates in the future. Indeed, they may choose extra-parliamentary methods to defend their position.

At the G7 summit in Naples, Western leaders responded to the Ukrainian crisis by pledging dollars 4bn ( pounds 2.67bn) in aid - as long as Ukraine's leaders introduce market reforms. They also offered up to dollars 200m to help close the Chernobyl nuclear reactors.

It is virtually certain that such promises are too little, too late. Ukraine's economic collapse is so serious that recovery will not come soon enough to appease the Russians of the east and Crimea. In any case, the crisis is as much national and ideological in character as it is economic.

At present Western governments stand for Ukraine's independence in its existing borders. That may seem more a pious hope than a policy, but at least it recognises the danger of allowing Ukraine to break up. Still, geography, economics and tradition argue in favour of an economic and security partnership between Ukraine and Russia. In the unique case of Crimea, never part of Ukraine until 1954, there is a strong case for giving the peninsula special political status.

Ukraine's moment of truth is fast approaching. The West has woken up late to the crisis, but there is just still time to pull the fat from the fire.

(Photograph omitted)

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