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Ex-Soviet States Chart Own Course

Election outcomes in Ukraine, Moldova and Armenia underscore a determination to break from Moscow's influence.


MOSCOW — Fed up with unfulfilled promises of looming prosperity, Ukrainians have chosen a fractious kaleidoscope of politicians to fill their next legislature, a move that will likely deepen the political paralysis gripping their country.

In neighboring Moldova, voters this week were swayed by nostalgia for the stable poverty of the Soviet era and gave Communists a fresh chance to rule.

Across the Black Sea, in the roiling Caucasus region that was also once Soviet territory, Armenians endorsed a fiery patriotic-nationalist movement.

While all three elections occurred within a relatively compact corner of the Kremlin's erstwhile empire, about the only common themes in the balloting were cries of foul play among the losers and forecasts of additional stumbles in their economic transitions.

What the votes in Armenia, Moldova and Ukraine showed to the world--which often seems to regard the former Soviet Union as a surviving political entity--were the markedly different courses chosen by these sovereign states.

Almost seven years after a hard-line Communist coup against Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev shattered the image of a cohesive and functioning federation, even the poorer republics on the ex-Soviet periphery have established full independence from Moscow.

That the once-dominant Russia has reacted with near disinterest testifies to the irreversible nature of the Soviet breakup and the likelihood that each former Soviet republic will continue to decide its own fate.

"Russia certainly respects this choice by the Armenian people," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennady Tarasov said after Robert Kocharyan's election to the Armenian presidency was confirmed Wednesday.

Those sober words represented a diplomatic about-face from less than two months ago, when Russian officials warned that the ouster of Armenia's then-president, Levon A. Ter-Petrosyan, could herald a new era of conflict in the Caucasus region.

Monday's runoff between former Premier Kocharyan and Soviet-era Communist leader Karen S. Demirchyan was more a referendum on the importance of maintaining the nation's grip on the Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh territory in neighboring Azerbaijan than on the economic difficulties that are a constant in the former Soviet Union.

In fact, the 3.6 million citizens of Armenia, many of whom depend on remittances from relatives in the West to make ends meet, made clear that they attach a higher priority to holding sway in Karabakh than to investing in industrial recovery.

The choice of Kocharyan, a former leader of Karabakh and standard-bearer for those who refuse to accept Azerbaijani rule of the territory, appeared to commit the country to expensive new arms outlays, criticism for refusing a foreign-mediated compromise on Karabakh and exclusion from the oil bonanza flowing from the Caspian Sea.

In Ukraine, Communist deputies won more than a quarter of the 450 seats in parliament--a subtle realignment of political power that will make it even harder for President Leonid D. Kuchma to carry out tentative reforms. But the party that ruled in Soviet times did not manage to cobble a majority to effectively oppose Kuchma; the new lawmakers are primarily independents from across the political spectrum.

"This election was a victory for democracy but a defeat for democrats who couldn't unite," said Serhij Naboka, head of the independent Elections '98 Press Center in Ukraine.

Ukraine owes $3 billion to government workers and pensioners, and many of its 50 million citizens are underemployed. In light of that, a worsening case of political gridlock in parliament can only be expected to deal a further blow to the economy.

The Kremlin's only public reaction to the Ukrainian vote was to cast Russia as the more successful builder of a post-Soviet market economy.

Voters in Moldova, an impoverished country of 4.3 million people that is landlocked between Romania and Ukraine, appeared more determined to turn back the political clock, awarding 40 of 101 legislative seats to candidates from the Communist Party.

If Communist Party leader Vladimir Voronin can enlist the support of a centrist party, the Communists will hold the reins of power in one of the few countries in the region where real authority rests with the legislature instead of the president.


Special correspondent Mary Mycio in Kiev, Ukraine, and Times staff writer Vanora Bennett in Yerevan, Armenia, contributed to this report.

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