Yeltsin's Key Partners

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As Ukraine's top ideological watchdog in the 1980s, Leonid Kravchuk was responsible for stamping out all traces of nationalism. But two weeks ago, after deftly shedding his party past, Kravchuk, 57, rode a wave of nationalist sentiment to election as President of an independent Ukraine, the most powerful of the republics after Russia. Then he went one step further, joining Russia and Belorussia with a plan to form a loosely knit commonwealth.

The move marked the culmination of a stunning political metamorphosis. After August's aborted coup, Kravchuk, then chairman of the Ukrainian parliament, straddled the fence, neither endorsing nor categorically condemning the coup leaders until failure was no longer in doubt. In quick succession, he resigned from the Communist Party and anointed himself the main champion of statehood. His 11th-hour conversion coincided with the political awakening of a majority of the republic's 53 million citizens.

Born to peasants in western Ukraine, he earned the equivalent of a master's degree in political economy at Kiev University, then embarked on a career as a party apparatchik, rising to head the propaganda department of the Ukrainian Communist Party. Authoritarian by nature, he has the acumen necessary to secure a powerful position alongside Yeltsin. To those who question his sincerity, Kravchuk responds, "A man cannot keep the same views all his life." All people undergo changes, he argues. His just happened to come all at once.

Stanislav who? Even Sovietologists had to scramble last week to gather information about Stanislav Shushkevich, the distant third member of the commonwealth troika.

Although he is a burly man, he seemed to shrink a bit last week as he posed for pictures beside his charismatic commonwealth partners. While the more publicity-wise Yeltsin and Kravchuk stared straight ahead, Shushkevich, 57, bowed his head, his hands clasped humbly in front of him. Technically he and the other two are equals, but there seems little doubt that he will exercise the least influence.

Of the three, only Shushkevich was not a professional party apparatchik. The son of a poet, he won a doctorate in physics and math, then served as deputy rector for science at Lenin State University in Minsk. He was long a party member, but did not turn to politics until after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, when he joined a campaign to expose official attempts to cover up the damage. His reputation as an outspoken critic earned him a seat in 1990 in the Belorussian supreme soviet, where he was elected chairman last September.

Shushkevich did not leave the party until after the August coup attempt, and he has steered clear of identification with any faction. He has also repeatedly stressed that his republic is unlikely to lead the charge for radical economic or political change. With Belorussia's independence just four months old, Shushkevich's primary concern seems to be to thwart backsliding, while not winding up isolated.

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