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6 CHALLENGE PRESIDENT IN UKRAINE ELECTION

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President Leonid Kravchuk, a former Communist boss and now the favorite of Ukrainian nationalists, faces six challengers Sunday in presidential elections in this former Soviet republic.

Kravchuk, elected 2 1/2 years ago by a comfortable margin to steer Ukraine to independence, faces a much tougher battle this time around.The conviction that independence would bring higher standards of living has since evaporated. In its place are economic decay, disillusionment with political leaders and the emergence of extremist organizations pitted against each other along regional lines.

With more than 2 million of Ukraine's 53 million people officially out of work and the average monthly salary below $20, Kravchuk's rivals have made the moribund economy the centerpiece of their campaigns.

Former Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma, Kravchuk's principal rival, claims to have a quick fix to Ukraine's woes: economic union with former Soviet republics, with special attention to restoring close ties with Russia.

That message and a promise to elevate Russian to the status of an official language is sure to win votes among Ukraine's Russian-speaking minority, which is concentrated in the depressed in-dus-trial south and east bordering Russia.

"We rely on Russian raw materials, energy and spare parts to keep our enterprises working," said Victoriya Miroshnichenko, 39, an assembly-line worker in a turbine factory in the eastern city of Donetsk. "It doesn't take a genius to see we need a common currency with Russia and the removal of trade barriers."

But in staunchly nationalist western Ukraine, in provinces that were not absorbed into the Soviet Union until the 1940s, Kuchma's program implies the end of Ukrainian statehood and the return of authority to Moscow.

"I have not got much from independence or Kravchuk," said flower seller Galina Skoropaskaya in Lviv, the regional western capital, "but we are no longer a colony, and psychologically that means something to people here."