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Polls Favor Kravchuk in Ukraine Vote : Election: Independence-minded president’s chief opponent is Russia-leaning former premier. Runoff is likely.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ukrainians voted in large numbers Sunday in a presidential election that boiled down to a referendum on whether post-Soviet Europe’s most disastrous peacetime economy should remain at arm’s length from its former masters in Moscow.

Pre-election polls indicated that President Leonid Kravchuk, who led Ukraine to independence 2 1/2 years ago, is ahead in the seven-man field but will get fewer than half the votes. That would mean a July 10 runoff with his most popular rival, former Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma, who favors closer economic ties with Russia.

Election officials said 68% of Ukraine’s 38 million voters cast ballots Sunday. While no official returns were announced, the 60-year-old president appeared to benefit from a heavier voter turnout in independence-minded western Ukraine than in Kuchma’s strongholds in the eastern and southern industrial belt dominated by ethnic Russians.

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Ukraine has become sharply polarized since December, 1991, when voters gave Kravchuk the presidency with a 60% landslide and embraced independence by a 9-1 margin. Now many Ukrainians wonder whether the country can hold together.

Kravchuk, the former ideological chief of the Ukrainian Communist Party, and Kuchma, who once managed the Soviet Union’s biggest missile factory, share responsibility for the collapse of Ukraine’s economy after independence.

Rich in farmland but poor in energy, Ukraine underestimated its dependence on Moscow for cheap oil and gas.

As the price of those imports rose to world levels, the Ukrainian government spent heavily to keep unprofitable state-run mines and factories afloat.

Hyper-inflation, roaring as high as 80% per month, has eroded the value of the karbovanets, Ukraine’s new currency, from 3,100 to the dollar a year ago to 45,000 today.

A belated clampdown on the money supply has cut industrial output by 40% in the last year.

Having resisted the Western-style reforms under way in Russia, Ukraine lacks a dynamic private sector to absorb the millions of workers facing unemployment.

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The average monthly wage here is now $20, about one-fifth of that in Russia.

Many voters leaving the polls said they were willing to give Kravchuk more time to improve their material lot.

“Kravchuk is farsighted, like a chess player,” said Alexander Hokhstein, 36, a retired military officer who makes a living hanging out in Kiev’s Independence Square with a big, pink stuffed bunny and taking pictures of children.

But others said they viewed the president as a man paralyzed by caution or fear of change.

“Kravchuk just compromises, but we cannot sit on compromises,” said Irina Honchorova, 55, after voting with her mother in Kiev. “We have to move.”

Kuchma, the government’s most forceful proponent of economic reform before he resigned in frustration last fall, offered voters a clear-cut solution.

He argued that Ukraine already has statehood and that the only way to preserve it is to restore “all mutually beneficial economic, spiritual and cultural ties . . . with Russia.”

That, he said, would mean full participation in the Moscow-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States, which includes former Soviet republics, and official acceptance of the Russian language alongside Ukrainian.

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Kravchuk’s advisers dominated the state-controlled airwaves with warnings that Kuchma’s election could lead to civil war.

The five other presidential candidates were largely out of the picture, except for the five minutes allotted them each day on Ukrainian television under the election law.

Times special correspondent Mary Mycio contributed to this article.

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