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A spate of articles in the Moscow press this week have suggested that the current political crisis in Kyiv is already increasing regional tensions in Ukraine and could lead to the disintegration of the Ukrainian state.

But like similar reports just before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, these commentaries appear less a genuine prognostication of what is likely to occur than an obvious effort to put pressure on the Ukrainian government to turn to Moscow for its security needs.

As the political crisis in Ukraine has deepened over the last few weeks, the Russian media have been full of ever more items concerning the challenges President Leonid Kuchma faces in trying to quiet demands that he resign because of his alleged involvement in the murder of independent journalist Heorhiy Gongadze last fall. Moscow outlets have given extensive coverage both to the Gongadze case and to demonstrations against Kuchma.

This week, however, the Russian media have contained some more apocalyptic predictions. Moscow's "Nezavisimaya gazeta," for example, on 21 March featured an interview with the president of the ethnic Russian community in Ukraine who said that Russians there are angry at the Ukrainian authorities and now seek to develop closer ties with the Russian Federation in order to promote the creation of a new union state.

The next day, Russian wire services carried the results of a poll in Ukraine showing that the citizens of that country have ever less trust in the central Ukrainian government and ever more trust in regional authorities. And earlier this week, another Russian article explicitly suggested what many had talked about a decade ago but which has seldom been discussed in recent years: the possibility that Ukraine could in fact disintegrate into three sections.

The article in question argued that not only was there the possibility that Ukraine could split between the ethnic Russian eastern portion and the ethnic Ukrainian central portion, but also that the six western oblasts of Ukraine, the most nationalistic region of all, might break away as well, given its orientation toward Rome rather than toward the Orthodox east.

Such articles inevitably attract attention by their apocalyptic quality, and indeed some of their authors may be making these predictions for no other reason than that. But the appearance of so many such articles all at once, together with increasingly explicit Russian government calls for working with the ethnic Russian population in Ukraine and elsewhere, suggests that more may be at work than the desire of some journalists for attention.

Indeed, in many ways, this current upsurge of such predictions inevitably recalls two earlier periods when Russian media carried similar suggestions. Just before the end of the Soviet Union, journalists around President Mikhail Gorbachev suggested that an independent Ukraine would inevitably break apart along ethnic lines, with a significant portion of the republic choosing to join Moscow.

A second media upsurge on this subject took place in 1992 and 1993 when Russian analysts routinely suggested that Ukraine, a compound country of Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians, Russian-speaking Ukrainians, and Russianspeaking Russians, was unlikely to be able to sustain itself as an independent country.

In both of these earlier cases, it now appears, these predictions were intended to be less a description of some future reality than a means of intimidating the Ukrainian government and even the Ukrainian people to follow Moscow's line lest they lose even more. But for most of the last decade, most observers in Russia and elsewhere have become convinced that Ukraine's multinational population is among the least of the challenges Kyiv faces.

Indeed, these analysts and commentators have suggested, Ukraine's simultaneous efforts at nation and state building have been far more successful than many had expected. The problems Kyiv faces have arisen not from ethnic or regional divisions but have been largely selfinflicted by a Ukrainian political leadership that has remained divided, corrupt, and uncertain in its goals.

Now, as almost a decade ago, Moscow appears to be invoking again the threat of Ukrainian disintegration not so much to warn of what is likely to happen but rather to put pressure on embattled President Kuchma to conclude that close ties with Moscow are his and his country's only salvation.

Some people around Kuchma may in fact be convinced, but the experience of a decade ago suggests that many Ukrainians are likely to see through this new specter of disintegration and to become more -- not less -- committed to the defense of the independence of their country. If that happens, then this specter may acquire a reality but one directly opposite to what its creators appear to intend.

RUSSIAN, UKRAINIAN COMMUNISTS TO EXPAND TIES. Gennadii Zyuganov and Petr Simonenko, the leaders of the Communist parties of Russia and Ukraine, respectively, met in Moscow and announced their intention to work more closely together, Interfax reported on 23 March. Simonenko said this is especially important because of the political crisis in Ukraine. "The problem of [Ukrainian President Leonid] Kuchma depends not only on internal, but to a greater degree on external factors. And it is becoming evident that the proWestern direction conducted by the authorities in Ukraine in foreign policy and the complete dependence of Ukraine especially in economics on the financial structures of the West has led to a catastrophic situation," he said. On 10 March, a Communist leader in Udmurtia acknowledged that the Russian Communist Party had funded the recent election campaign of the Moldovan Communist Party, Udmurtia Press reported. PG

UKRAINIAN ANTIPRESIDENTIAL OPPOSITION HOLDS 'MOURNING RALLY'... Some 5,000 people took part in a "mourning rally" in Kyiv on 24 March to commemorate those they call the victims of President Leonid Kuchma's regime, Interfax reported. Demonstrators carried portraits of independent journalist Heorhiy Gongadze (murdered last year), Vadym Hetman (assassinated in an apparent contract killing in 1998), and former Rukh leader Vyacheslav Chornovil (who died in a car accident in 1999). Lesya Gongadze, mother of Heorhiy Gongadze, addressed the rally, blaming "the Kuchma regime" for the deaths. JM

...WHILE KUCHMA ORDERS PROBE INTO CHORNOVIL'S DEATH... President Kuchma has instructed Prosecutor-General Mykhaylo Potebenko to launch an investigation into the death of former Rukh leader Chornovil, Interfax reported on 24 March. An investigation group will include lawmakers from the Popular Rukh of Ukraine parliamentary caucus. Some lawmakers alleged last year that Chornovil's fatal car crash had been organized by a special unit subordinate to Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 December 2000). JM

...AND PRO-KUCHMA PARTY HIRES INTERNATIONAL SLEUTHS TO INVESTIGATE GONGADZE CASE. The Labor Ukraine Party has concluded a contract with Kroll Associates, a New York-based agency specializing in white-collar crime investigation and security, to probe the case of murdered journalist Gongadze, Interfax and AP reported on 23 March. Labor Ukraine leader Serhiy Tyhypko said Kuchma was told about the contract beforehand and approved it. Tyhypko, former economic minister, said it was necessary to "seize the initiative" from the opposition and make the investigation of the Gongadze case constructive. He noted that the involvement of a respected investigative company could also help Ukraine boost its image abroad. JM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT FIRES INTERIOR MINISTER. President Kuchma on 26 March dismissed Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko and replaced him with Kyiv City police chief Yuriy Smirnov, Reuters reported, citing a presidential spokesman. The sacking of Kravchenko was one of the main demands of the opposition, which accuses the minister of having a role in the killing of journalist Gongadze. JM