Profile : Even Russians Concede Kravchuk Is 'Crafty Fox' : * Ukraine's leader wheels, deals and bluffs with one goal: to create a completely independent state.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At home, Ukrainian President Leonid M. Kravchuk is admired as the old-style Communist apparatchik who had a change of faith and led his people's drive for independence from the Kremlin. In Russia, he is known as the first Ukrainian with the audacity to say "no," repeatedly, to Moscow.

And to both Ukrainians and Russians, Kravchuk is the "crafty fox" who knows how to play the game of politics--better, arguably, than any other leader in the former Soviet republics.

"His style reminds me of a world-class chess player," Oleg G. Belorus, Kravchuk's campaign manager and adviser, said. "He focuses all of his power and strategies on his main goal--making Ukraine a completely independent state."

In the name of Ukraine's independence, Kravchuk has snarled the divorce hearings between the republics of the former Soviet Union and stalled the planned concentration in Russia of all Soviet tactical nuclear weapons.

Ukrainians see these maneuvers as evidence of Kravchuk's political skill and boldness. But his flip-flops on issues as important to the world as nuclear arms control and the orderly breakup of the Soviet Union are raising questions both in Moscow and abroad.

Certainly, Kravchuk's public profile has increased along with his influence on issues of global importance. President Bush and other world leaders are finding it necessary to maintain close telephone contact with the Ukrainian president.

Kravchuk, 58, first emerged from the pack of former republican leaders when he refused to go along with the new treaty that former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev hoped would hold the former Soviet Union together. Instead, the Ukrainian started working behind the scenes to create a new alliance that would make the Soviet Union obsolete.

After serving the Kremlin for most of his life as part of the Communist Party apparatus, Kravchuk won popular election as Ukraine's president last November by pledging to free his compatriots from Moscow. Just a month later, he played the decisive role in finishing off the Soviet Union by launching the Commonwealth of Independent States.

But since then, at meetings of Commonwealth leaders, he has continued as a naysayer, preventing the loose alliance of former republics from becoming a military bloc or sharing a single currency, and thereby vastly curtailing its authority. Kravchuk's assessment of the last Commonwealth meeting, which he hosted in Kiev, was so negative that many now predict that he will pull Ukraine out of the alliance, effectively dooming it.

It is his stubborn devotion to the goal of making Ukraine an independent state that has brought Kravchuk to impasses with Moscow and its vision for the Commonwealth.

At a press conference earlier this month, Kravchuk said that Ukraine was suspending the previously agreed transfer of tactical nuclear weapons to Russia. Russian officials, who had not been informed in advance, were shocked.

Mikola G. Khomenko, the secretary of Kravchuk's administration, defended his boss's motives, saying Kravchuk wanted to create a sensation to show the world that Russia is collecting the weapons, but not dismantling them. But Khomenko conceded that the unconventional approach to dealing with issues as important as nuclear weapons may reflect Kravchuk's inexperience in international politics.

In Moscow, officials say they have learned fast that Kravchuk will agree to nothing that he feels could compromise Kiev's sovereignty.

"His policies are tough," said Alexander G. Granberg, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin's state adviser specializing in relations between the republics of the Commonwealth of Independent States. "He moves very boldly to assert Ukraine's independence. When this path infringes on the interests of other republics, he does not avoid conflicts.

"Of course, a president must think about the interests of his own state and his own people," Granberg continued. "But it is a well-known rule of international relations that if his actions cause harm to his neighbors, then, in the final analysis, he will be the loser."

Although Yeltsin and Kravchuk frequently disagree, relations between the Slavic leaders seem surprisingly warm. During a press conference after a Commonwealth meeting at the end of last year in Minsk, Belarus, Kravchuk and Yeltsin, who were sitting next to each other, whispered in each other's ears and carried on like schoolboys in a classroom.

"Yeltsin clearly respects Kravchuk, despite their disagreements," Lev Aksionov, a reporter for the Russian Information Service, said.

"Kravchuk has positive feelings about Yeltsin as a democrat and a person who helped to break up the Soviet Union," Vladimir I. Shlyaposhnikov, Kravchuk's spokesman, said.

Kravchuk has significant clout in the Commonwealth, but he has no ambitions to become a leader of any grouping of the former Soviet republics.

"For Kravchuk there is no higher post than president of Ukraine," Shlyaposhnikov said. "He, like the majority of politicians in Ukraine, believes there should be no leadership of the Commonwealth. His personal dream--and I know this without a doubt--is to create an independent Ukrainian state . . . which will play its own role in world history."

While playing hardball with other republics, Kravchuk is the conciliator in domestic politics. His success is credited to his ability to dodge political confrontations and attract former adversaries to his side.

Kravchuk has made concessions to residents of predominantly Russian-speaking Eastern Ukraine, who were upset by a new law making Ukrainian the only official language. He pushed through an exception for areas with high concentrations of Russians. Meanwhile, he tries to please the ultra-nationalist Western Ukraine by speaking only Ukrainian at home.

Critics charge that in his efforts to please everyone, Kravchuk fails to get anything done. He gets a lot of heat for lagging behind Yeltsin in launching his economic reforms, for example.

His governing team is sometimes depicted as too diverse to make strong policy. Kravchuk has handpicked nationalists, who used to be his opposition, for important government posts, but also has appointed many officials who, like him, had been part of the Soviet power structure in Kiev for decades.

"There are no key figures in his team," Shlyaposhnikov conceded. "He seeks advice from many people, but he makes all his decisions on his own."

While retaining an approval rating above 60%, Kravchuk does not have a popular following like Yeltsin's.

"He's not a charismatic figure," Khomenko said. "Yeltsin has this aura around him, but the Ukrainian people are not head over heels about Kravchuk. They have a good grudging respect for him, and this is healthy."

The most frequent complaint about Kravchuk is that he has failed to enact the economic reform his country needs.

"He had no economic plan and no clear ideas of how to reform the economy," complained Svetlana Shlinchenko, 29, a homemaker, as she walked down a Kiev street with her 6-year-old son. "He only takes steps after Russia does something. Russia raised prices--he raised prices."

Others distrust Kravchuk because he is a product of the Communist Party system that they have overwhelmingly rejected.

"He looks 100% like an old-style apparatchik," Vladimir Klemenko, 44, a taxi driver said. "We should have put a new person in power, but there was no one to choose."

With his carefully combed gray pompadour and fleshy face, Kravchuk does look the part of the typical Soviet-era bureaucrat. He grew up in rural Ukraine as the son of peasants and spent most of his long career as a Communist Party apparatchik.

"If at the time when I joined the Communist Party I had the information which I have now--about the (1932-1934) famine in Ukraine (following forced collectivization), the repression of intellectuals and other horrible things that happened under (former Soviet leader Josef) Stalin, I would not have become a member and would not have served the party," Kravchuk said in a recent interview with Argumenty i Fakty newspaper. "I learned all this only in 1989."

"You cannot imagine what a strong influence documents have made on me," he added. "My attitude about the (Soviet) state and its policy and the Communist Party changed overnight."

In July, 1990, Kravchuk was selected out of a pool of 27 candidates as the chairman of Ukraine's Parliament and started maneuvering to make his office--instead of the traditionally all-powerful post of Communist Party chief--the most influential in the republic. Kravchuk declared his victory some months later by claiming the republic's airplane, formerly used by the head of the Ukraine Communist Party, as his own.

Despite his self-proclaimed political conversion in 1989, Kravchuk remained a Communist Party member until after the August coup in Moscow. Also, he was slow to come out against the coup plotters--a mistake that was used against him during the presidential campaign.

Although he sat on the fence during the Moscow putsch, Kravchuk was a principal architect when it came to finishing off the Soviet Union a few months later.

Kravchuk proudly recounted in a televised interview last month how he initiated the meeting in Belarus where the Commonwealth of Independent States was born, and how he manipulated the outcome by telling Yeltsin that Ukraine would only enter an alliance of a new type, a commonwealth.

With the authority he won through his crucial role in breaking up the Soviet Union as well as his mandate to make Ukraine into a free-standing state after centuries of domination by Russia, Kravchuk will surely continue to sway things his way in dealings with Russia and other former Soviet republics.

Biography

Name: Leonid M. Kravchuk

Title: President of Ukraine.

Age: 58

Career: Reared in rural Ukraine. Son of peasants. Spent most of career as Communist Party apparatchik. Advanced to chief of Ukrainian Communist Party Central Committee's propaganda committee. Chosen as chairman of Ukraine's Parliament in July, 1990. Elected Ukraine president in November, 1991. Helped launch Commonwealth of Independent States in December, 1991.

Quote: "It was Ukraine that changed the course of history in the late 20th Century. It has destroyed the (Soviet) empire."

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