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Skepticism Dogs Ukrainian Poll

In richest ex-Soviet republic, voters express disaffection for government amid faltering reforms and high inflation

LIKE almost everyone else in this westernmost part of Ukraine, Viktor Chobit supported the reformist-nationalist movement that led the fight for freedom from the Soviet Union two years ago. Now as Ukraine heads toward its first parliamentary election as an independent nation, he has decided not to vote.

``I have no time for politics,'' explains Mr. Chobit, an electrician, stopping briefly to talk in this city's charming market square, lined with 17th and 18th century imitations of Italian Renaissance palazzos. He works three jobs to survive in Ukraine's super-inflationary economy and complains that the deputy whom his factory supported has not shown his face since the last election.

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In a four-day swing from the Ukrainian capital of Kiev in the country's center to this western city in the foothills of the Carpathian mountains, this sense of disillusionment and political apathy among Ukraine's voters was widespread. After more than three years in which a parliament dominated by old-style Communists and bureaucrats stymied attempts at reform, it is now widely feared that Sunday's election holds no real possibility of change.

Many observers worry as well that the country's confusing election laws could yield a situation where no working parliament can be seated. Western diplomatic sources in Kiev say aides to President Leonid Kravchuk are working on plans for an interim period of direct presidential rule if that happens.

Thrill is gone

The election mood is testament to the deep sense of disappointment many feel over the lack of accomplishments in a free Ukraine, the second largest and richest of the former Soviet republics. Even in Western Ukraine, the stronghold of the nationalist movement where anti-Communists swept to victory in 1990 elections held while the Soviet Union still existed, there is little optimism.

``We won't see the enthusiasm of 1990 again,'' says parliament candidate Yuri Kluchkovsky, a physicist who heads the Lvov regional branch of Rukh, the main democratic-nationalist party. ``One can see disillusionment with politics in general and people losing hope that anything can be changed.''

Little more than a week before the vote, the lack of campaign activity is striking. Campaign posters are hard to spot in the capital, though more numerous in the politicized west. Television appearances are limited by law and candidates spend their time speaking to whatever small audiences they can find.

At every level of government, from the Rukh-controlled regional administration in Lvov to the central government, voters express the belief that government cannot solve their problems. ``Nobody trusts either the old parliament or the candidates,'' says Stepan Pisotsky, an agronomist at a Rivne region collective farm that includes his village of Ptycha.

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No questioning independence

In the west, where the soft endings of the Ukrainian language are the dominant tongue, there is little questioning of the correctness of independence from Russia. ``We have some questions about the quality of our leadership but not about independence itself,'' Mr. Pisotsky says.

That skepticism also extends to Rukh, which has at times backed President Kravchuk in his wavering support for reform and Ukrainian resistance to Russian pressures.

Rukh, which began as a broad front, has splintered into numerous parties now competing, often viciously, against one another. Economic depression is weakening support for moderate nationalists here, with more extreme ultranationalists gaining some ground.

In the more heavily populated east and south, where there is a greater concentration of Russian-speakers and of heavy industry, backing is growing for those who advocate closer ties to Russia. The former Communists, organized into a Communist Party and a Socialist Party, are the strongest organized groups, while many power blocs of the state-run industry and their allies are running as independents.

But the vote for the Supreme Rada, as the 450-seat parliament is called, is unlikely to produce a clear picture of political sentiments. In contrast to Russia, where half the seats were allocated proportionally on a party basis, the Ukrainian election law was deliberately written to weaken political parties, where the democrats and nationalists tend to be better organized. Instead it favors independents who come from the still powerful state and industry apparatus. Former Premier Leonid Kuchma, a former missile factory director who is now considered the most popular politician in Ukraine, heads such a group.

The law allows for candidates to be nominated by small groups of voters, by work places, or by parties. There are a huge number of candidates competing: 5,825 for 450 districts with up to 20 candidates for some seats. Only 11 percent of these are party nominees, the most numerous from the Communists, Socialists, Rukh, the Ukrainian Republican Party, and the Ukrainian Peasant Democratic Party.

Parties have a strong presence in the west and in urban areas. But in Ukraine's vast rural lands and small towns, the candidates are almost all independents.

Still Rukh officials in Kiev believe that they can win 25 percent of the seats, with another 10 percent going to Rukh-allied parties. Together with pro-reform independents, they see the possibility of forming a reformist government.

Viktor Pynzenyk, the economist who briefly was minister of economic reform, is heading a ticket of independent reformers, New Wave, in the west. He predicts a core of 150 radicals will form a nucleus that can push through reform.

But many consider such scenarios highly optimistic. ``It is hard to see any grouping or party having a clear majority or ability to take charge of the Rada,'' says a Western diplomat in Kiev.

Majority required

To complicate matters further, the law requires that the winner get a majority of the votes, with a second round in two weeks between the two highest vote-getters. The law also calls for a more than 50 percent turnout of registered voters in both rounds to be valid. Many observers, including in the Central Election Commission, worry that with voter apathy, turnout will be low and even less in the second round, leaving the Rada short of even a majority of its members to seat the new parliament.

Under these circumstances, President Kravchuk may try to rule by himself. ``If there is some form of presidential administration, they might get some reforms through,'' the Western diplomat says.

But such an attempt could trigger new conflicts, even a resumption of the mass miners strikes in the east, which forced a pledge for new presidential and Rada elections last fall. Others see an increase in tensions between Kiev and Russian-speaking regions such as Crimea and the coal- mining Donbass region.

``This place could be in a lot of trouble in a very short period of time,'' concludes Ivan Lozowy, director of international relations for Rukh.

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