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Ukraine and Belarus Elect New Pro-Russian Leaders

Moscow eager to build closer economic cooperation

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THE former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Belarus swept out the establishment in presidential runoff elections this weekend, enthusiastically embracing two men who favor reforging closer ties with Russia.

Ukrainians gave former Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma, an ardent advocate of an ``economic union'' with Moscow, a healthy seven-point lead, with 53 percent of the vote. His victory over incumbent Leonid Kravchuk underscored deep dissatisfaction with economic decline less than three years into independence from the Soviet Union.

It also emphasized a severe regional division in the country of 52 million. Mr. Kravchuk, viewed as a guarantor of Ukrainian sovereignty, won as much as 90 percent of the vote in nationalist western Ukraine. But Mr. Kuchma, who says Ukraine cannot survive without closer ties with Moscow, garnered up to 80 percent in areas of the industrialized, Russian-speaking east.

In Belarus, voters gave anticorruption crusader Alexander Lukashenko an overwhelming 80 percent victory over Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich, the assumed favorite, who boasted the support of parliament and government.

Mr. Lukashenko, a state farm director-turned-populist politician, made a name for himself with strident attacks against all levels of government. He appeared to be even more in favor of integrating Belarus with Russia than Mr. Kebich, whose chief campaign pledge was monetary union with Moscow.

Moscow is sure to be anxiously watching the final tally in both elections, particularly in Ukraine, significant because of its size and vast agricultural and industrial potential. Politicians in all three countries have toyed with the idea of the emergence of a new Slav troika - possibly with Russia at the helm.

Since the Soviet collapse, the three countries' economies have been hampered by the transformation to a market economy. Russia lost its markets for shoddy, Soviet-style goods, and energy-poor Ukraine and Belarus have run up large debts for oil and gas to Moscow.

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