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Vote Underlines Ethnic Split in Ukraine : Initiatives: In the east and Crimea, pro-Russians favor greater autonomy and ties with Moscow.


KIEV, Ukraine — Disillusioned by this nation's economic tailspin, pro-Russian residents of eastern Ukraine and Crimea have voted overwhelmingly for more autonomy from Kiev, according to preliminary results released Monday.

Local ballot initiatives making Russian as well as Ukrainian an official language passed easily Sunday in two regions of Russophone eastern Ukraine. Also, a huge majority of voters in depressed industrial Donetsk and Lugansk favored closer economic ties with Russia.

Early reports indicated that Communist and socialist candidates for the Ukrainian Parliament were running strongly in the east, while democrats and nationalists fared better in the pro-European western regions.

The results of Sunday's balloting, while not unexpected, confirmed fears that Ukraine's first post-Communist parliamentary elections could lead to polarization and even disintegration of this still-nuclear nation of 52 million.

"If Kiev moves forward on economic reform, they can stem the tide of separatism in Crimea and the movement for greater regional autonomy in the Donbas," the industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine, said Myron Wasylyk, a parliamentary adviser. "But considering who they are returning to Parliament, I'm not sure how interested they really are in economic reform, because every second person in the runoffs is a Communist."

Almost 75% of Ukraine's 38 million voters turned out Sunday, belying predictions that political apathy would triumph over frustration with Ukraine's disastrous economy, which contracted by one-quarter last year.

But an arcane law requires the winning candidate to receive at least 25% of the ballots of all registered voters. With 5,833 candidates running, some ballots had up to 30 names, making it impossible for all but the best-known politicians to win on the first ballot.

Of 450 seats in the new Parliament, only 47 were filled Sunday. The rest will be decided in an April 10 runoff between the top two vote-getters in each district.

The big winner was ousted Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma, who won a landslide 90% of the vote in Cherihiv. Kuchma is expected to challenge President Leonid Kravchuk in the next presidential elections, which could be held as early as June; Kuchma is running well ahead of Kravchuk in opinion polls.

Kravchuk's acting prime minster, Yefim Zviagilsky, was forced into a runoff in Donetsk.

Of the 47 winners, 14 are democrats, two are members of the hard-right Ukrainian National Assembly, 11 are Communists and socialists and 27 are independents whose political leanings were not immediately known.

A large contingent of Communist and socialist candidates seems likely to compete in the April 10 runoff. Official results in some races are expected to be announced today.

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