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Divided Ukraine Drifts Neither East nor West

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No one is quite sure how to think about Ukraine. It's as big as France, lies in the geographic center of Europe, and boasts 50 million citizens.

But just who are they? Do Ukrainians identify with Russians, seeking closer ties with Moscow?

Or are they central Europeans, proud of their national traditions and hoping for a return to Europe?

You won't get clear answers by asking the people you meet in Kiev, the capital. Most of them will speak Russian until they hear Ukrainian, and many will claim to be of both nationalities.

If you travel further east, toward Russia, you'll find that the Ukrainian language all but disappears from public use. But if you take a westbound train, toward Poland, Russian vanishes and Ukrainian takes its place.

Does this mean that the country is divided, that its future as a sovereign state is uncertain?

Sunday's Ukrainian parliamentary elections seem to support such a view.

The Communist Party was triumphant, drawing the bulk of its support from central Ukraine and the Russian-speaking east.

Finishing second was the patriotic Rukh Party, whose voters hail from Ukraine's western regions.

With the east voting for communists, and the west voting nationalist, what is the future of the Ukrainian state? What will hold it together?

Despite appearances, both of these political extremes have strong interest in an independent Ukraine.

It goes without saying that Ukrainian patriots cannot countenance the thought of losing any of their vast state's territories. And whereas Rukh's leaders are motivated by the emotive demands of patriotism, Ukraine's post-communist elites are driven by calculations of power.

The clans of post-communist politicians that dominate Kiev hail from the industrial cities of Ukraine's east.

Were the country to split and these lands go to Russia, people who are now national leaders would suddenly find themselves provincial nobodies.

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