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Into Moscow's orbit?


WHEN THE Soviet Union disintegrated, independent Ukraine became Europe's second largest and fourth most populous country. Shared borders with Russia, Belarus, Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland give it a pivotal strategic location.

This geographic centrality - and access to the Black Sea - has often made Ukraine a vassal of more powerful neighbors. Russia has had a strong political and cultural influence. Although Ukrainians make up 65 percent of the population, 32 percent identify themselves as ethnic Russians.

Since gaining independence a decade ago, Ukraine has been building bridges to the West. Such efforts, particularly a relationship with the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization, have caused disquiet in Moscow.

When Viktor Yushchenko became prime minister 16 months ago, the Kremlin quickly noticed that he had an American wife. Two other characteristics were also noted: Mr. Yushchenko seemed honest, and he resisted attempts by state-owned Russian corporations and private investors to gain domination of vital sectors of Ukraine's economy.

A sinister coalition of communists and shady plutocrats has ousted Mr. Yushchenko, despite his impressive record as an economic reformer and stabilizer. His crime: He did not play ball with the power elite, which is accustomed to doing things its way, however detrimental that might be.

Mr. Yushchenko's ouster is a disaster that Ukraine can ill afford. The country has been in constant political turmoil since November, when President Leonid Kuchma was linked to the disappearance of an opposition journalist, who was discovered beheaded.

With Mr. Yushchenko gone, Ukraine could plunge into economic chaos. If paralysis reoccurs, the only beneficiary will be Moscow. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin already has concluded political alliances with Belarus and Moldova. Russian domination over Ukraine would be a giant step toward re-creating a Slavic union.

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