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It's hard to tell who's in charge of what in Ukraine

If you think we have a leadership problem here in the United States, look on the bright side: At least we know who's supposed to be running the place.

Which is a lot more than you can say about Ukraine, the second-biggest country to emerge from what used to be the Soviet Union. Over there, the president and prime minister both are trying to call the shots and it's by no means clear who's in charge of what or how things will turn out.

If this were just another one of your average countries, the argument between President Leonid Kravchuk and Leonid Kuchma, the prime minister, might not be such a big deal.

But Ukraine isn't just another country and one of the things the two Leonids don't agree on is whether it should keep the more than 800 nuclear warheads it inherited when the Soviet Union collapsed two years ago.

Kravchuk says that the warheads should go and that Ukraine should renounce all intentions of being a nuclear power. Kuchma says the warheads should stay, at least for the time being, so Ukraine can solidify its independence from Russia.

Whether you're sitting in St. Petersburg, Russia, or St. Petersburg, Fla., this is a big deal.

When next-door neighbors start arguing over nuclear weapons, it's serious business. And when the neighbors are as suspicious of each other as Russia and Ukraine, it's very serious indeed.

That's why even the Clinton administration, which has an aversion to sticky international disputes, is actually getting involved in this one, at least diplomatically.

One of the big problems, maybe the big problem, is that the Russians aren't really convinced yet that Ukraine is an independent country. Even Russian President Boris Yeltsin occasionally talks as if Ukraine is a misbehaving little brother who needs a good smack upside the head now and then to keep him in line.

That's because what's now known as Ukraine has been under the control of other powers, especially Moscow, on and off for the past 700 years. Until only two years ago, it was just one of the 15 republics of the Soviet Union.

So it's understandable that in the Kremlin _ whether the chief resident was an imperial czar or a Communist Party general secretary _ running affairs in Ukraine was part of the job description.

Not surprisingly, today's Ukrainians, all 50-million of them, don't see things quite that way. Since their country became independent again in 1991, the national obsession has been to make sure Moscow never gets another shot at running their affairs.

That's why Kuchma and others are talking about keeping the old Soviet nukes as an insurance policy. They figure that if Ukraine has 46 of its own SS-24 ballistic missiles and a few cruise missiles to boot, the people in Moscow won't be getting any funny ideas.

Which brings us back to Kuchma and his problem with Kravchuk, the president.

We Americans sometimes have a hard time understanding the parliamentary system of governing, especially the difference between presidents and prime ministers and what it is they do. Sometimes even the French and British get confused and they've been at it a long time.

The traditional explanation is that the president is the "chief of state" and the prime minister is the "chief of government."

The prime minister's duties are fairly straightforward: He or she runs the day-to-day affairs of government. It's the president's duties and powers that cause trouble.

In some parliamentary systems, the president is only a symbol of national unity and doesn't have much real power. Britain and Israel are good examples of this, though in Britain they have a monarch instead of a president.

In other countries, the president has a lot of power over things such as foreign policy, defense and whether the prime minister stays in office. France is a good example of that.

The problem in Ukraine is that they haven't settled yet on what kind of parliamentary system they've got. Hence the Kravchuk-Kuchma dispute.

And their disagreement over nuclear weapons is only part of the problem.

Kravchuk is a former Communist Party ideologue who likes to keep a tight rein on power. Under his rule, Ukraine has made only limited progress in either democratic or economic reform.

Kuchma, an industrialist who went into politics with great reluctance, is anxious to push ahead with political reform and wants to break up state monopolies so that a real market economy can take hold.

The dispute got especially hot this past weekend when Kuchma bitterly complained that Kravchuk was trying to define his job out of existence.

Ukraine's parliament is supposed to debate the question of who has power over what this week but it's also unclear what power, if any, parliament has to impose its will.

Ordinarily in a dispute like this, you'd think an American president would naturally incline toward someone like Kuchma, who's more ideologically in tune with the thinking in Washington. But because of his talk about keeping the Soviet nukes, the Clinton administration so far has been dealing with Kravchuk as the man in charge.

The way they look from here in Washington, the nuclear-weapons question is the front-burner issue. Only after that gets sorted out can anybody think clearly about politics and economics.

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