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Next Step : World Comes Calling on Rich Ukraine : Russia is unhappy about the new popularity of its neighbor. The bad feelings are widening the rift in the struggling Commonwealth.

February 11, 1992|MARY MYCIO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

KIEV, Ukraine — A new world has opened up for Ukraine.

Overshadowed for centuries by neighboring Russia, Europe's wallflower is suddenly one of its most popular consorts. U.S. senators, World Bank officials and even Iranian oil merchants have to wait their turn to woo this newly discovered partner, with her dowry of 52 million people and rich industrial and agricultural resources.

Ukrainian news programs are a parade of smiling envoys bearing the diplomatic equivalents of candy and flowers--notes of recognition, trade deals, cultural and educational exchange programs. Each new suitor is welcomed with open arms.

"Peace, friendship and understanding are the alpha and omega of our internal and foreign relations," says President Leonid Kravchuk, who proudly notes the 90-odd countries that have recognized Ukraine since its landslide vote for independence last December.

From Kiev, however, it seems as though Russia isn't very happy with Ukraine's international debut. Although Moscow has also recognized the independence of what had been its prized colony for 350 years, officials here fear that Russia's commitment to democracy stops at the Ukrainian border.

"Many so-called Russian 'democrats' just can't adjust to Ukraine's independence," complains Dmytro Pavlychko, chairman of the Ukrainian Parliament's foreign relations committee. "They keep looking for a way to hitch Ukraine back to Russia."

But the Ukrainians want nothing of it, and the conflict forms the leitmotif of today's widening rift between the two biggest powers in the new Commonwealth of Independent States. Their quarrels over the Black Sea fleet, the Crimea and the division of the former Soviet Union's debts and assets are more than simple property disputes. They symbolize profoundly different approaches to post-Soviet existence.

Over the weekend, Ukrainian representatives refused to sign a series of key agreements that would preserve old Soviet trade links and maintain a common market among the Commonwealth's 11 members--a refusal that could bring the group's collapse as the successor to the Soviet Union.

With the end of communist ideology, all the ex-Soviet republics are retreating into their own brands of nationalism. In Ukraine, that means full independence. In Russia, "nationalism means chauvinism," charges Ivan Zajets, a prominent member of the Ukrainian Parliament. "They look at the territory of other states as their own," he says, pointing to Russia's attempts to reclaim the Black Sea's Crimean Peninsula, which was transferred from Russian to Ukrainian jurisdiction in 1954 by the late Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev.

Many other Ukrainian politicians agree with Zajets, and as evidence they point to Russia's role in the new Commonwealth. "Some Russian politicians see it as a way to preserve imperial institutions," contends Pavlychko, who thinks that's why Russia is actively supporting a united Commonwealth military force.

Ukraine's opposition to a unified military is closely tied to its view of the Commonwealth. "It is a mechanism for negotiations," Kravchuk insists of the Commonwealth--not a country.

Mechanisms don't have militaries. Nations do. Therefore, the Ukrainians see Russia's attempts to preserve the military as a slippery slope from Commonwealth back to empire.

"Ukraine's goals in the Commonwealth are completely opposite to Russia's goals," says Serhij Holovatij, another member of Parliament. "Russia wants to strengthen it. Ukraine sees it as temporary." The difference has split the C.I.S. ranks.

"There are two centers in the C.I.S.: Russia and Ukraine," declares Pavlychko, and the military issue is an acid test of their differing views. The Ukrainian-led bloc, including Moldova, Belarus, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, all want their own militaries as steps towards full independence. The rest of the republics have thrown their weight behind the Russian-dominated C.I.S. force.

Friction over the issue has become so heated that it is likely to focus attention on Kravchuk when he shuttles off this week to another meeting of the Commonwealth heads of state in Minsk.

Kravchuk has been hinting for over a month that Ukraine may leave the Commonwealth. He derides what he sees as Russia's attempts to dominate the union, its territorial claims and its opposition to Ukraine's efforts to build its own armed forces as symptoms of "imperial sickness." And he has warned that the C.I.S. has no future "if attempts are made to return to imperial times."

The economic entanglements that bind Ukraine to Russia and the other former Soviet republics would make life without the Commonwealth difficult. But even if Ukraine remains in the C.I.S. for now, Pavlychko predicts: "It will be much easier for Ukraine to orient towards (Western) Europe than to stay in this Commonwealth that has nothing to offer except a single army."

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