KIEV, Soviet Union — Wrenching themselves from Moscow's orbit, Ukrainians voted overwhelmingly for independence, and their new president said Monday that the former Soviet republics, and not the Kremlin, should now take collective command of the country's nuclear arsenal.
"A new Ukraine has been born. A great historical event has occurred which will not only change the history of the Ukraine but the history of the world," declared Leonid M. Kravchuk, the wily ex-Communist who became his republic's president-elect.
According to preliminary returns compiled by the Central Election Commission, more than 90% of the 31.5 million people who cast ballots in Sunday's election approved a formal break with Moscow--an outburst of separatist sentiment practically dooming chances of reconstituting the Soviet Union.
"You and I are going through a unique event: Last night marked the end of what probably had been the worst empire in the history of the world," Ukrainian writer and legislator Volodymyr Yavorivsky said.
With the resounding Ukrainian vote, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's ambitions for a political pact among the constituent Soviet republics have become "moot," Mikhailo Horyn of the Rukh pro-independence movement said.
But Gorbachev put a good face on the referendum's outcome, contending that with their independence more secure, republics could be free to make a more considered decision on joining the revamped Soviet Union he is still struggling to create. In that sense, independence "can be the basis of a new union," Gorbachev said, according to the Russian Information Agency.
Russian Federation President Boris N. Yeltsin made only a passing nod to Ukrainian independence, with television reports quoting him as saying, "Boris Yeltsin expressed his conviction of the possibility and the need to quickly establish new interstate--including diplomatic--relations between Russia and the Ukraine."
In Washington, the Bush Administration said Monday that it is moving toward "full diplomatic recognition" of the Ukraine, which Secretary of State James A. Baker III will visit soon. The Canadian government indicated it would likely recognize the republic's independence quickly.
Meantime, in Warsaw, the Polish government swiftly announced that it will recognize the Ukraine, its neighbor and powerful trading partner, while the 12-member European Community took a more cautious approach, urging Ukrainian officials to honor Soviet international commitments, particularly regarding the republic's nuclear weapons. The EC foreign ministers fell short of moving toward diplomatic recognition.
In the Ukraine itself, election results from around the republic were still being communicated to Kiev by telegram and telephone calls. But by midday, Mykola Khomenko, head of the Ukrainian Parliament's Secretariat, felt confident enough to announce that Kravchuk, 57, had beaten out five rival candidates for the presidency with some 60% of the vote.
Vyacheslav Chornovil, a former political prisoner and the regional governor of Lvov in the western Ukraine, ran a distant second, receiving 26.7% of the vote in Kiev.
The independence vote placed unprecedented pressure on the disintegrating Soviet state, with Soviet and Russian leaders denouncing the secession campaign and Ukrainians sometimes replying that the Russians, like their ancestors, were colonialists.
In remarks to a meeting of foreign observers who came to the Ukraine to monitor the elections, Kravchuk said that improving the deteriorating relations with Russia is now of a "priority order." The republics of the "former Soviet Union," he said, "should have the closest contact."
The United States and other Western nations are very concerned about the fate of the nuclear weapons now based on Ukrainian soil--according to some estimates, a full third of the Soviet arsenal--and Kravchuk devoted much of his first series of post-election comments to the arms.
"As to the problem of nuclear weapons and strategic forces, we are going to pursue the principle of collective security," he said. "We will stand for the liquidation of nuclear weapons, tactical and strategic, and this should be done in a process of negotiations with all countries. The Ukraine only wants control over the weapons on its territory, but it doesn't want a button," Kravchuk assured the U.S., Canadian and other election monitors. "We cannot allow several nuclear powers to form on the territory of the ex-Soviet Union."
Instead, Kravchuk endorsed forming a collegial decision-making body on which the Ukraine would sit with the other republics that have nuclear arms on their territory, namely, Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Significantly, he did not mention any role for Gorbachev or the fast-imploding central Soviet government. The four-member body "would have a joint function and joint responsibility for those weapons," he said.