Stakes High in Post-Communist Ukraine Election : Politics: In today's vote, widespread apathy competes with frustration toward the government's inability to stop the economic hemorrhage.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

Crimean residents will also be asked to vote to give their strategic peninsula more autonomy, a move some see as a precursor to secession from Ukraine and reunification with Russia. After legal squabbles with Kiev, both referendums were downgraded to legally non-binding plebiscites. Although the proposals outrage Ukrainian nationalists, they are expected to pass.

Fighting for the mainstream vote are two new coalitions that each claim the reformist mantle. The voice of the east is ousted Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma, now leading the Interregional Bloc for Reform. Kuchma argues that the West doesn't care about Ukraine, so partnership with Moscow is essential.

"They think that if they re-establish ties with Russia, everything will be fine," said Kravchuk adviser Mikola I. Mihalchenko, who argues that Russia has enough industrial white elephants of its own to have designs on the obsolete metals plants and inefficient coal mines of eastern Ukraine. "It cannot be, because neither Ukraine nor Russia are what they were before."

The voice of the west is nationalist Vyacheslav Chornovil, head of the Rukh movement and a veteran of the Ukrainian independence drive. Chornovil and his Ukrayina Democratic Coalition have fielded 342 candidates and hope to claim a fifth of the seats in Parliament.

It won't be easy for voters to even figure out who's who. Three-quarters of the 5,833 candidates are running as independents, even though they may have party ties. The average ballot will list 13 names, and voters will have to cross off every candidate they don't want in order to elect the one they do.

Despite all the obstacles, "this is the first election where the Communist Party does not control all the levers of power as it did before," said former U.S. diplomat Myron Wasylyk.

That is no guarantee that the new Parliament will be a paragon of civic-minded reform, but Wasylyk believes it will be better than the last legislature, in which Communists held 239 of the 450 seats, Democrats and centrists believed "compromise" meant "sellout," and none could cooperate with Kravchuk, a former Communist.

"It can't be worse," Wasylyk said. "It just can't be worse."

Reports of election law violations, petty and less so, have poured into Kiev. In Dnepropetrovsk, candidates were warned to mind their campaign-trail manners after some promised voters free funerals--an attractive offer fo impoverished pensioners.

In the Poltava region, gasoline prices dropped abruptly after the chairman of the State Commission on Oil and Gas announced his candidacy there, according to Elections 94, a Kiev-based watchdog group.

On election eve, a candidate from the Ukrayina coalition was accosted in the eastern region of Dnepropetrovsk by four attackers who stomped on his Ukrainian flag and shouted anti-Ukrainian slurs. Two of his supporters were hospitalized and two attackers jailed, authorities said.

But there were also signs of a real attempt to make the election fair. A young Rukh activist who in past elections had voted for himself and for his parents went to cast an absentee ballot on the outskirts of Kiev on Friday. Election officials handed him a huge list with 25 candidates to choose from, but they would only give him one ballot.

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