- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 31, 2002

DONETSK, Ukraine The first thing that strikes a returning visitor here is the number of blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags that line the main boulevard, Universitetska Street. They are everywhere in this mainly Russian-speaking city: at every stoplight, lamp post and street corner.
Indeed, so many banners have appeared in the past five years that Donetsk may well display more of the national insignia than the capital, Kiev.
"What did you expect," asked Victor Janukovich, governor of the Donetsk region. "This is our symbol."
Political parties in today's parliamentary race will closely watch the returns in both the eastern and western parts of Ukraine. A victory in the west will signal they have won the Europe-oriented, nationalistic region. Strong showings in the east, however, will prove they have the support of the nation's backbone; elections are usually won or lost here.
Whoever wins today will face a nation united in its contempt for the ruling elite particularly President Leonid Kuchma and by a desire to give anyone else a chance to lead and by the fervent hope the country will move forward politically and economically.
With 5 million residents, the Donetsk region is the ultimate political prize. It is also the trickiest. Parliament will have to contend with local leaders who have little tolerance for Kiev and the centralization it represents.
That won't be an easy task. In the 10 years since Ukraine became independent from the Soviet Union, the Donetsk region has increasingly forged its own path. To Kiev's dismay, it created a special economic zone, formulated its own energy policy, is forging investment ties with neighboring Russia and is trying to keep more tax revenues at home, rather than sending them to the national capital.
Indeed, in the relationship between the region and the center, it is Donetsk, not Kiev, that calls the shots, according to political analysts.
That is not entirely surprising. Many of Kiev's current leaders have ties to the neighboring region of Dnipropetrovsk, which has been at odds with Donetsk for a very long time. As Donetsk's economic fortunes have grown, so has its political muscle.
The result is a region transformed.
The city of Donetsk, the regional capital, no longer resembles the drab coal mining town it was several years ago. Instead, the downtown of this city population, 1.1 million is made up of sleek shops displaying the latest European fashions. Round-the-clock grocery stores are commonplace, as are the Toyota Land Cruisers and BMWs parked in front of them.
The regional government is experimenting with wind power, hoping to eventually lessen its dependence on coal.
"Our region makes up more than 20 percent of Ukraine's GDP," said Mr. Janukovich, a towering man who fits well into his smartly cut suits. "Our relationship with the center is normal. But we also need to have economic development within this region."
The pro-presidential political bloc For a United Ukraine is expected to do well here, along with Ukraine's Communist Party. Yet it is the Party of the Regions, which advocates greater regional autonomy, that is the dominant political force.
Mr. Janukovich remains mum about his allegiance, but is believed to be a sympathizer. Despite urging, he opted not to run for parliament, saying he could do more good at home as governor.
Like others, Mr. Janukovich said he believes these elections will be a uniting, not divisive, force.
"Political activism is growing," he said. "If before there was a division between eastern and western Ukraine, now there's more of a consolidation. We are united in our questions."
On the other side of Ukraine, in the provincial town of Buchach, Mariyka Hnyp stood on the porch of her dilapidated home, looking across a field planted in potatoes, beets and red poppies.
"I like Yulia Tymoshenko," said Mrs. Hnyp, a former political prisoner who spent eight years in a Siberian labor camp. "This country needs people like that."
She agreed that unhappiness with the current regime has played a role in uniting the region. Mrs. Hnyp has also gained admiration for the people of the east; they have business savvy that her own people should learn.
Western Ukraine, home to more than 30 percent of the country's 49 million people, doesn't have the kind of wealth Donetsk has. It has always been an agricultural region; here, plains of wheat greet the visitor as far as the eye can see. Unlike in the east, where cities seem to endlessly merge one into another, the centuries-old villages that mark the western Ukrainian countryside seem more an accompaniment to the landscape, rather than its dominant feature.
Unemployment here is high many families have been separated for years as mothers and wives have fled to Portugal, Italy or the Czech Republic to find work as housekeepers or prostitutes. Indeed, in some villages women are scarce. At a wedding last summer, one burly man told a foreign reporter he hadn't seen his wife who is working as a maid in Italy for two years.
"I'm raising our three children on my own," he said sadly. "I doubt she'll be back. I think she has found someone else."
Both Mrs. Tymoshenko, whose political party is named after her, and Our Ukraine's Victor Yushchenko are expected to sweep western Ukraine. Mr. Yushchenko, with his love for anything Ukrainian, is seen as a true patriot.
Mrs. Tymoshenko, although an easterner from Dnipropetrovsk by birth, has won points because of her gutsy break with the president and ruling elite. Despite repeatedly accusing her of corruption and money laundering, Kiev authorities have been unable to make the charges stick.
"These people can make economic reforms happen," said Mrs. Hnyp. "You see what's happening. Why should our people go abroad to make a better life?"


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