- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 31, 2002

KIEV The fight over Ukraine's future is in full swing here. In the final days before today's parliamentary elections, paid campaign workers handed out leaflets at street corners, while others knocked on doors of apartment buildings, delivering handwritten pleas from candidates urging residents to vote.
Television stations daily aired sidewalk interviews gauging public opinion on issues of the campaign and voters' complaints. People gathered in twos and threes and debated politics over a cigarette or beer.
While opinions differ over the direction Ukraine has taken since independence from the Soviet Union over a decade ago, the one thing clear from all the talk is the high level of discontent; Ukrainians are ready for change.
As voters head to the polls today, almost everyone agrees the election will be Ukraine's most important.
"These elections will demonstrate Ukraine's final break from the Soviet Union," said Danylo Yanevsky, director of the nongovernmental Institute of Political Modeling in Kiev. "We will also get the answer to this question: 'In what direction is Ukraine moving?' … Either it will go the way of a Western civilized nation, or it will follow the model of Latin American countries."
Although Ukraine has more than 100 registered political parties, three political blocs have emerged as the most viable contenders for control of the 450-seat parliament. The groupings are led by Victor Yushchenko, the reformist former prime minister who heads Our Ukraine; Victor Medvedchuk of the Social Democratic Party of Ukraine (United), who was ousted as parliament's first vice speaker at the end of last year; and Anatoliy Lytvyn, President Leonid Kuchma's chief of staff who heads the pro-Kuchma For a United Ukraine.
While the Communists are expected to do well particularly in eastern Ukraine they are unlikely to enjoy the kind of support they had in previous elections.
Each of the three leading candidates represents a different ideal for Ukraine, Mr. Yanevsky said:
"Yushchenko gives voice to the hopes of millions of people who want to live in a regular, democratic, market-oriented country. Medvedchuk personifies a government-clan capitalism, like the kind America had at the beginning of the 19th century. Lytvyn personifies the 'nomenklatura' of the old Soviet system."
The most recent public opinion polls, from March 15, showed Our Ukraine leading with 28 percent of the popular vote, according to the Razumkov Center, a Kiev-based think tank. The Communists were second with 19 percent, the Social Democrats third with 10 percent, while For a United Ukraine had a popularity rating of 8 percent. Ukrainian media are by law banned from publishing opinion poll results from March 15 to March 31.
Under the new election law, 225 lawmakers will come from what are called single-mandate districts, where residents will vote for the person they want to represent them in parliament. Deputies from the single-mandate districts can be aligned with a party or run as independents.
The other 200 lawmakers will come from party lists. People will vote for a party, not an individual, and parties winning more votes will get more seats. In this case, who becomes a lawmaker will depend on his rank on his party's list.
Given the complexity of this arrangement voters will have to fill out six ballots in total for the parliamentary and local elections the parties worry about fraud. Each has trained election observers who will join the 2,000 or so Western observers to watch for irregularities, particularly after the polls close after 8 p.m. today.
President Leonid Kuchma has said a transparent election is critical for democracy to flourish in Ukraine. The government has taken pains to ensure that Western observers have free access and that foreign media have an adequate communications infrastructure.
A high-tech press center in the center of Kiev has been set up where journalists from more than 70 foreign news organizations will be able to get the latest results from the central elections commission, as well as file their dispatches.
Already, though, a number of irregularities have been noticed by Ukrainian media. The national television station, 1+1, aired a story where elections officials in a Kiev neighborhood said the number of registered voters living in one apartment building was four times greater than the actual number.
Kiev's Election District 218, which has 106,000 voters and 30 candidates running for the single-mandate post the largest number of any district in the country has had problems getting local government officials, who are responsible for such things, to install telephone lines, tables and even safes where ballots are to be kept at polling places.
"I wouldn't want it to appear that someone is trying to undermine the elections," Anatoliy Tsipko, the district's elections secretary, said after an emergency session last Sunday by the elections commission to sort out the problems. "But it's always a question."
Meanwhile, Yulia Mostova, considered by many of her colleagues to be the country's leading journalist, said that no matter what the outcome, Mr. Kuchma's full apparatus will work to discredit Mr. Yushchenko and the ideals he represents.
"The goal is so they can fully get control of the country and put in place all of [Mr. Kuchmas] people," said Mrs. Mostova, who is managing editor of the influential weekly, Zerkalo Tyzhnya. "He doesn't trust Yushchenko. He thinks he is part of an American plan to get rid of him."
Indeed, Mr. Yushchenko was the focus of a British-made film aired on Ukrainian television twice in recent weeks about the disappearance of Internet journalist Georgiy Gongadze, who wrote about reputed corruption within the Kuchma administration. The film indicated Mr. Yushchenko and last year's so-called cassette scandal where Mr. Kuchma was reportedly heard on secretly recorded tapes telling aides to get rid of Mr. Gongadze were at the heart of a plot cooked up in the United States to replace Mr. Kuchma with the former prime minister.
It is widely speculated here that the film was financed by people close to Mr. Kuchma.
"The elite understands Yushchenko will be the future president of Ukraine so they will do everything to compromise him," said Mr. Yanevsky of the Institute of Political Modeling.
Meanwhile, candidates last week reacted angrily to a resolution of the U.S. Congress calling for fair, free and transparent elections, seeing it as interference in Ukraine's internal affairs.
Leftist candidate Natalia Vitrenko even called for sending home the U.S. ambassador. Most understood, however, that Ukraine is the third largest recipient of U.S. aid and weren't willing to support that response.
For their part, officials in Moscow have come out in favor of pro-Kuchma parties.


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