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Struggling Ukrainians Vote for Change

Bitter over poor economy and eager for closer ties with Moscow, voters take aim at president

IN the shakedown of Ukraine's weekend elections, early results yesterday indicated a widening rift between nationalists and pro-Russian forces in the former Soviet republic. But a surprisingly high turnout showed that the usually apathetic electorate of this Slavic nation of 52 million is anxious for change.

The only clear loser in Ukraine's first post-Soviet parliamentary elections on Sunday was President Leonid Kravchuk.

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The enthusiastic voting - about 75 percent of the electorate cast a ballot - could foil President Kravchuk's prediction that elections would fail to produce a full-fledged parliament and his plans to seek additional authority to avoid a ``power vacuum'' in Kiev.

``People don't support the way things are going today, otherwise they would not have turned out as they did,'' says Kiev sociologist Mykhailo Pogrebensky. ``People are pragmatic. Most understand you cannot return to the past. They are looking for future stability, which necessitates reforms.''

Ukraine's economy, barely touched by market reforms, has slid downward steadily since the Soviet breakup, stymied by high inflation and plummeting industrial output. The relative wealth of neighboring Russia has promoted Ukraine's 12 million ethnic Russians to lobby for closer economic ties with Moscow.

Preliminary results showed at least 47 of 450 seats had been filled in the first round. Centrists and nationalist candidates took 19 seats mainly in the patriotic western Ukraine and in Kiev, but Communists and socialists won 14 seats in a strong showing in the Russia-oriented east.

The low number of clear victors was expected because of a cumbersome election law requiring victors to win 50 percent of the votes in their districts. An overwhelming 5,800 candidates flooded the field, with up to 31 candidates in one district.

Observers said the high turnout portends that Ukrainians will care enough to participate in a second round in two weeks, in which the two top contenders in each district will compete.

In western Ukraine, three ultranationalist candidates emerged short of a majority but in good position for the second round, elections officials reported. In the eastern industrial region of Lugansk, 7 out of 25 seats were decided in the first round, with 6 seats going to members of the Communist Party.

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``There is a certain schizophrenia in Ukraine,'' says Ian Brzezinski, an American adviser to the Ukrainian parliament. ``This election reaffirms a significant shift of the center of power from western Ukraine to the east.

``This definitely does not jibe with Kravchuk's plans. He was clearly betting on apathy carrying the day. A parliament in place also makes it harder to call off presidential elections.

Prominent Kravchuk foes of various political colors took seats in both eastern and western Ukraine, spelling trouble for hopes that a new parliament would ease months-long political deadlock between the president and the legislature.

The president's chief political rival, former Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma, swept his district with 91 percent of the vote. His Interregional Bloc of Reforms, whose platform includes closer ties with Moscow, was likely to emerge as a major force in the parliament. Very popular in eastern Ukraine and a certain presidential contender, Mr. Kuchma criticized Kravchuk on election day, accusing him of fearing to face the nation at the ballot box.

In the west, Kravchuk foes of a different stripe also easily took seats. Vyacheslav Chornovil, leader of Rukh, the largest nationalist group, won his district. Presidential critic Viktor Pynzenyk, the former deputy prime minister and top economic reformer, also won easily.

The sharp division of parties and ideologies between candidates winning seats on either side of Ukraine underscored growing ethnic and regional tensions. Unofficial results from three separate opinion polls held alongside the elections in Eastern Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula indicated strong support in these regions for links with Russia.

In the industrialized Donbass coal basin, voters cast ballots 10 to 1 in favor of two polls on renewing severed economic ties with Russia.

A smaller majority of voters in the Russian-speaking Donetsk and Lugansk regions also approved another question on turning Ukraine into a federated state.

In Crimea, between 70 and 90 percent voted in favoring of loosening the semi-autonomous region's ties with Kiev in a poll organized by its new pro-Russian president Yuri Meshkov. In a nose-thumbing gesture to Kiev's leadership, Crimea also moved its clocks two hours ahead for daylight savings time to coincide with Moscow, not Kiev.

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