KIEV, Ukraine — In a historic but wildly confusing exercise in democracy, Ukrainians head for the polls today to try to elect their first post-Communist Parliament.
The contest could bring an end to the chronic political chaos that has plagued and impoverished this new nation of 52 million. Or it could doom a still-nuclear country the size of France to more infighting, corruption and political paralysis, deeper regional rifts, and even disintegration.
The stakes have not been higher--nor the political terrain more bewildering--since Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union in August, 1991. A staggering 5,833 candidates from 29 parties are competing for 450 seats. But the election law is so Byzantine that the contest may not produce a quorum of 301 lawmakers even after a runoff election scheduled for April 10.
If this occurs, the entire election might have to be repeated, prolonging the political turmoil. President Leonid Kravchuk has said that under such a scenario, he would ask the old Parliament to approve a draft constitution; seek expanded presidential powers, and postpone the presidential and regional elections now scheduled for June.
If the elections do manage to produce a new Parliament, it is not clear whether it will be any more progressive or competent than the old one.
"It's hard to be optimistic in view of the recent elections in Lithuania, Poland and Russia," in which Communists and nationalists scored big gains, one Western diplomat here said. "Unfortunately, much of the population identifies change and reform with what's already happened, and they're not very impressed with it."
Widespread political apathy competes with profound frustration with the government's inability to stop Ukraine's economic hemorrhage.
"Communists who repainted themselves as democrats and fathers of the Ukrainian rebirth promised us meat and fat, and then for two years they did nothing but loot Ukraine and take planeloads of hard currency," Sergei I. Shuvainikov, chairman of the Russian Party of Crimea, said in summing up the views of many Ukrainians.
A recent poll found that 84% fault the government's disastrous handling of the Ukrainian economy. Production in the state sector shrank by 25% last year, and inflation went into orbit at 6,000% to 10,000%, according to various estimates.
Not surprisingly, most Ukrainians want to throw the incumbents out. Although 52% had not decided whom to vote for, 62% vowed to vote against the incumbent lawmakers. About 150 of the 450 members of Parliament are standing for reelection, and many are in deep trouble. If voters bother to turn out, some of Ukraine's biggest political names could find themselves unemployed.
But to choose a better bunch of representatives, the inexperienced electorate will have to grapple with issues far more complex than those faced by voters in most Western democracies:
* What is the path to economic salvation? Many wonder whether Ukraine can launch long-delayed free-market reform without inviting "shock therapy."
* How can the nationalist, Ukrainian-speaking Western region, which mistrusts Russia and seeks economic and military integration with Europe, be reconciled with industrial, Russified eastern Ukraine, which seeks closer economic ties with Russia?
* Should Ukraine continue to implement the nuclear disarmament agreement Kravchuk signed with the American and Russian presidents in January, despite concern about rising Russian nationalism and separatist movements in the Crimea and the eastern region of Donetsk?
"America is doing everything possible to weaken Ukraine," said Viktor Melnick, a leader of the Ukrainian National Assembly, which favors keeping Ukraine a nuclear power. The hard-line nationalist group has candidates running in 70 districts, sympathizers in 80 more, and its own paramilitary organization.
"As soon as the last warhead is taken out of Ukraine, then armed conflict will begin," Melnick said. "It will create major instability in the heart of Europe."
Nationwide, support for such dire views is slim. Moreover, the election system, which consists of 450 individual races and requires that at least 25% of all registered voters in each district vote for the winning candidate, prevents the emergence of a national extremist leader like Russia's Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky.
But a strong showing by nationalists in the west, Socialists and Communists in the east or separatists in Crimea could accelerate dangerous forces.
Local officials in the Donetsk region called a referendum on making Russian as well as Ukrainian an official state language, making Ukraine into a federation of its regions, and becoming a full member of the economic union of the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States.