Improv in Kiev

April 11, 2002

UKRAINE IS A confounding sort of country, where the usual scripts just keep going awry.

After emerging from the wreckage of the Soviet Union, Ukraine first went through a period of infatuation with the West, coupled with such a complete inability to adopt any Western ways of doing business that neighboring Russia looked positively gold-plated by comparison.

More recently, Ukraine slid into a sort of state gangsterism and officially paranoid anti-Americanism, as if it were trying to wrest the title of worst-run European nation away from Belarus.

At the end of March, Ukrainians went to the polls to elect a new parliament. International observers were unanimous in decrying the cheating, rigging and patently unfair practices of the party associated with President Leonid Kuchma. In most places, when you hear charges like that, the only question to ask is whether the winners got 80 percent or 95 percent of the ballots cast.

Not in Ukraine. The people around Mr. Kuchma rigged the election -- and they still got only 12 percent of the vote. They came in third.

The largest bloc in the new parliament will consist of pro-Western reformers who call themselves Our Ukraine. Their leader is Viktor Yushchenko, Mr. Kuchma's former prime minister. While he held that post, the Ukrainian economy briefly seemed to be staggering to its feet. He railed against the thievery of corrupt business interests, most of which have ties to Russia. This made Mr. Yushchenko exceptionally popular among ordinary Ukrainians, which naturally did not endear him to the jealous Mr. Kuchma.

A year ago, the monopolists and the Communists joined forces and rounded up enough votes in the old parliament to push Mr. Yushchenko from office.

Now he's back. It's a serious and very pleasant surprise. But it's not quite a glorious revolution. None of the six parties in parliament has a controlling bloc. Our Ukraine will have to look for allies. Mr. Kuchma, who is as malleable as he is incompetent, might try to make up. The Russians are likely to stir up trouble, which isn't hard in a country where there's a bitter divide between Russian-speakers and Ukrainian-speakers, and where a lot of the electricity and all of the natural gas come from the big neighbor to the north.

Ukraine is the size of France, and it straddles Europe's east-west divide. It's not quite a lost cause. But history is improvisational there. Watch the action, and forget the script.

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