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Europe

Who'll Save Ukraine?

Dissatisfaction with the ruling elite is likely to help opposition forces in Ukraine's parliamentary election on Sunday, but they are divided and to win must endure harassment by officialdom.

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Ukraine's President Leonid Kuchma cast his vote in Kiev on Sunday

One of Europe’s largest countries holds parliamentary elections March 31, but most of Europe has not noticed.

Ukraine, with its population of 50 million, is Europe’s fifth largest country after Germany, Britain, France and Italy – or the sixth, if one counts Russia as European with its 147 million citizens.

Obscure as the former Soviet republic seems to many, Sunday’s polls will have serious consequences for the European Union, which will border Ukraine following its anticipated enlargement in 2004, and for much of the former Soviet region, since the government in Kiev is a key in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Russia under President Vladimir Putin has, by many accounts, begun to get its act back together. But Ukraine under President Leonid Kuchma is stuck firmly in a post-Soviet era of instability and corruption that cripples its political and economic potential.

Sunday’s poll, in which Kuchma’s grip on power will be tested – though his executive seat is not actually up for grabs – offers Ukrainians a chance to improve their lot.

Main parties

No single party is expected to win a majority in the parliament, but the divided opposition may find a way to come together to form a government, in cohabitation with Kuchma, after the ballots are counted.

A weak showing by the current government, though, is key if they are to achieve this result. Prime Minister Anatoliy Kinakh’s party of pro-Kuchma politicians, For a United Ukraine, was running poorly at the time of the last public opinion poll, with 8 percent.

On top has been Our Ukraine, a liberal party led by former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko, with 28 percent. Though he opts not to describe Our Ukraine as an "opposition" party, it is a favourite with many liberals who want to end the Kuchma era.

Kiew Ukraine in der Abenddämmerung

A principal bell tower and Assumption Cathedral of the Kiev Pechersk monastery (11th cent.), situated on the picturesque hills of the Dnieper river, at sunset in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev

The Communist Party, the largest faction in the previous parliament, still runs strong, polling at 19 percent. But as the heirs to the party of Ukraine’s Soviet era the Communists alienate many voters with their calls for union with Russia and Belarus.

The United Social Democratic Party has picked up 8 percent of public opinion polls, running on a centre-left plank though its leaders are powerful industrialists.

Chasing the top parties is another major candidate, former Deputy Prime Minister Julia Tymoshenko, one of the president’s harshest critics yet a powerful person in her own right as one-time controller of the country’s energy systems. Tymoshenko’s bloc, named after herself, is driven in the polls by her attractive personality and unashamed opposition to Kuchma.

Doubting fairness

Kuchma has lashed out against countries and institutions expressing concern about potential government meddling in the election process. "Is the Ukrainian nation a soccer ball?" the president was quoted as saying by Russia’s Interfax news agency.

Yet there is significant concern. Opposition candidates have reported harassment in the campaign season, as have the country’s few independent media outlets.

Early in March, the parliament approved an appeal to the country’s top prosecutor, demanding criminal investigation of the president, regarding suspected ties to money laundering and contract killings.

Tymoshenko’s bloc appealed to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) earlier this week, saying, "We are forced to appeal to you for help and ask that you make a real estimation of Ukraine’s situation, intervene in the process to the extent of your authority not to allow total unlawfulness during the election campaign."

But the OSCE had already issued warnings. "Obviously there’s ground for concern," said Adrian Severin, chairman of the group’s parliamentary assembly.

Kuchma’s "soccer ball" comment came in response, reportedly, to a resolution passed 408-1 by the United States House of Representatives, calling on Ukraine to conduct "fair, transparent and free" elections.

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