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A `Pragmatic' Ukraine?

UKRAINE'S new president, Leonid Kuchma, was voted into office this month on a similar kind of voter backlash seen in Hungary, Poland, and the Baltics. The Ukrainian economy is in chaos, and President Kuchma, sworn in Tuesday, vows to replace what he calls the laudable but ``romantic'' policies of former President Leonid Kravchuk with ``pragmatic'' policies that combine market reform and a pro-Russian tilt.

Translated, this means closer economic and cultural ties with Moscow - something inconceivable in proud Ukraine even a year ago. Mr. Kuchma himself is a product of the Soviet defense-industry hierarchy. His election was secured by the Russian population in East Ukraine and by former communists. The latter had an especially easy job campaigning on the economic disaster that since January has led to a drop of 40 percent in industrial production, an 80 percent drop in consumer-goods production, and an almost worthless currency. In a move that brought cheers as well as cries of ``shame'' in his new parliament, Kuchma also vowed on Tuesday to make Russian an official language in Ukraine.

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For Kuchma, the pragmatic test will be whether, for all his pro-Moscow rhetoric, he can keep Russian ambitions at bay. Kiev is known as the mother of Russian cities, dating back to the 7th century. There has never been a Russian empire without Ukraine. Stalin said Ukraine was the one region he could never afford to give up. Even last year, two years after Ukranian independence, 74 percent of Russians in a poll said they ``couldn't imagine'' a Russian state without Ukraine. An unstable Ukraine is the most potentially dangerous problem in the old East bloc.

The immediate issue for Kuchma is the Crimea on the Black Sea, where pro-Russian sentiment is high - sentiment not discouraged in Moscow. Kuchma says he will fight to keep Crimea, despite secessionist impulses there. The question is how to do so with a failing economy.

The West has promised $4 billion in aid through the World Bank -

but only if Ukraine delivers on market reforms that will actually require further integration with Russia.

Of most immediate importance to the West - Ukraine's nuclear arsenal - Kuchma indicates he will continue Mr. Kravchuk's policy of relinquishing nuclear weapons and signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. However, unlike his predecessor, he is willing to hold out for more money in exchange for such a deal. That's pragmatism.

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