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.
Beginning today, Kravchuk will chair a session of the Parliament that is expected to solemnly proclaim the enactment of the Ukrainian people's will to independence and install him in his five-year term as president. He has promised a formal speech on his domestic and foreign policy goals soon.
Kravchuk made no secret Monday of his desire for quick diplomatic recognition of the first independence the Ukrainian state has known since the short-lived Ukrainian People's Republic, which was declared in late 1917 and overrun by invading Bolshevik troops just months later. The Ukraine formally joined the Soviet Union in 1922.
Kravchuk said the Ukraine wants to join all European organizations, including financial ones, a step that would enable it to receive direct aid through the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
The former Ukrainian Communist Party ideology chief offered an olive branch to his political enemies, promising to consult "all our political parties and movements." Some of his foes fear that Kravchuk is power-hungry and may soon dissolve the Parliament. But he said that new elections should wait until the economy stabilizes.
Leaders of Rukh, the movement that began agitating in 1989 for Ukrainian sovereignty and who were once bitterly opposed by Kravchuk, called on the president-elect to fire Prime Minister Vitold P. Fokin and appoint a "government of consensus." Rukh had endorsed Chornovil and denounced the Communist hierarchy that Kravchuk once belonged to.
But Rukh's chairman, Ivan Drach, and Horyn took a largely benign attitude toward Kravchuk as they pondered the lessons of the election. "If we want to be real politicians and not romantics, we must take into account the will of the people," Horyn said.
He said the "silent majority" had evidently seen in Kravchuk someone who can deal as an equal with Yeltsin, Polish President Lech Walesa and other leaders.
Even before their weekend referendum, which asked voters to ratify the Aug. 24 independence declaration by the Parliament, the Ukraine was moving to print its own currency, plan for its own army and assume other functions of a sovereign state.
With the exception of the short-lived People's Republic, the Ukraine has belonged to a political union dominated by Russia since the mid-17th Century. Officials here admit that ending Moscow's domination will pose enormous problems.
"You can't imagine the problems facing the Ukraine," said Yavorivsky, who chairs a parliamentary commission on the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster. "Its economy has been virtually destroyed and it must face Chernobyl as well."
He estimated that the newly independent Ukraine will now need a total of $250 billion to treat victims of the accident, decontaminate the soil and buildings, relocate inhabitants of irradiated villages and eliminate other effects of the nuclear disaster.
Ukrainians as a whole seemed to greet the results of the election without much joy, perhaps conscious of the tremendous efforts that will be needed to simultaneously reform their economy and create a separate state.
"There are 1.5 million Soviet troops on Ukrainian territory. The old KGB continues to function under a new name," Drach said. "Can we call this a normal situation?"
Turnout on Sunday was high, with more than 84% of eligible voters casting ballots, election officials said. Pro-secession votes were in a majority in all 27 constituencies and peaked to more than 96% in the Cherkassy region south of Kiev. But on the Crimean peninsula, where ethnic Russians dominate, a bare majority--54%--favored independence. That was the lowest regional total, officials said.
At the EC, foreign ministers of the various community nations, noting that a "clear majority" of Ukrainians had voted for independence, urged Ukrainian officials to honor Soviet international commitments, particularly regarding the republic's nuclear weapons.
Times staff writers Joel Havemann in Brussels and James Gerstenzang in Washington contributed to this report.
How Big Is the Ukraine?
THE LAND AND PEOPLE
The Ukraine encompasses 233,100 square miles and has 52 million people--nearly a fifth of the total in the Soviet Union. Ukrainians make up 74% of the republic's population, with 21% ethnic Russian.
The Ukraine produces 56% of the Soviet Union's corn, 54% of its sugar beets, 25% of its wheat, 21% of its meat and milk and 26% of its potatoes. It also produces 47% of the nation's iron, 23% of its coal, 30% of its chemical industry equipment, a fourth of its agricultural machinery and a fourth of other types of construction equipment. However, the Ukraine is almost entirely dependent on the Soviet Union for oil, gasoline and natural gas.