Divided Ukraine nearing repeat presidential vote

Yushchenko favored in election tomorrow

December 25, 2004|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ODESSA, Ukraine - Voters will return to the polls here tomorrow in a presidential election contest that has split Ukraine along ethnic and cultural lines, and increased tensions between Russia and its old Cold War rivals.

In their choice for president, Ukrainians have been tugged toward integration into Europe by one candidate and toward a tighter embrace of Russia by the other. Whatever the outcome of the vote, the contest could influence the political course of other former Soviet states.

It is far from sure that the election results will end the political uncertainty, especially given the surprises of the past few months.

Tomorrow's voting will mark an unexpected extra chapter of a campaign that included the poisoning of the opposition candidate, Viktor A. Yushchenko, and an apparent victory last month by his opponent, Prime Minister Viktor F. Yanukovych. After weeks of street protests in Kiev, Ukraine's supreme court declared the vote invalid because of fraud and ordered the new runoff.

Residents of this Black Sea port city have taken the election seriously.

Aleksandr Karpenko, an architect and builder, described it as a chance to rid Ukraine of a Soviet legacy of corruption, cronyism and lawlessness.

"In making this choice, I'm thinking of my children," he said. "This way, they will live in a more civilized society. Our country's path is in that direction, toward Europe and the West."

For Grigori Kvasniok, a gravel-voiced Odessa newspaper editor, tomorrow's election is a chance to save the country from self-styled reformers, who he fears would cut Ukraine off from the Russian language, Russian culture and Slavic ethnic solidarity.

"We never had a border with Russia because we were part of Russia and we are Russians," he said. "Today, the Russian language in our schools is considered a foreign language, which we can't accept. This is the language of our mothers and fathers, our grandmothers and grandfathers."

"How can it be foreign?"

Yanukovych started his campaign with support from the current president, Leonid D. Kuchma, and the Kremlin. Yushchenko, his opponent, is a former central banker and is more sympathetic to the West.

During the campaign, Russia and the United States traded charges about meddling in Ukraine's affairs. This week, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin warned the West against "policies which tell other people how to live." He complained that the United States was trying to isolate Russia from other former Soviet states.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has defended U.S. financial support for independent civic groups that played a significant election role here, saying that "fundamental freedoms, democracy and the rule of law are of legitimate concern to us all."

Most experts here say Yushchenko, the opposition candidate, is the clear front-runner. A poll published this week by the Ukrainian Institute of Social Research and the Social Monitoring Center last week found Yushchenko leading Yanukovych 51 percent to 31 percent.

If Yushchenko wins and acts on his promises of reform, Ukraine will become the first of the three nations that were the core of the Czarist Russian empire - Russia, Belarus and Ukraine - to turn toward Europe for economic and political models.

If that happens, many Ukrainians who speak Russian as their first language fear that they will become second-class citizens.

Many of them think they are discriminated against now. In recent years, most schools have introduced compulsory classes in Ukrainian, and all official forms must be in Ukrainian.

"Everyone labors over them," said Aleksandr Ivaneyev, 28, a Yanukovych supporter.

"When Yushchenko supporters say Ukraine is for Ukrainians, it doesn't work here in Odessa," said Svetlana Kaminskaya, 50, a Yanukovych campaign worker whose desk is covered with letters of concern and support from pensioners. "Yanukovych would preserve the cultural and language environment we are used to."

Odessa, established by Catherine the Great of Russia in 1794, straddles the divide between the country's Ukrainian-speaking west and the Russian-speaking east.

Sixty percent of the city's trade and investment is linked to Russia, officials say, and Russian is the mother tongue of more than two-thirds of city residents. But Odessa, a city of immigrants, also has historic ties to Europe and the affectionate disdain many former colonies have for their colonizers.

The local headquarters for the Yushchenko campaign is in a drab Soviet-era building amid elegant 19th-century neighbors on a tree-lined street.

Oleksey Kozachenko, a businessman whose factory produces hydraulic steering systems for tractors, is Yushchenko's local campaign chairman.

In his office hangs a facsimile of a Yushchenko poster, presumably created by Yanukovych supporters. In the counterfeit, the candidate's eyes and nose have been replaced with those of President Bush. The real poster carries the slogan "Yes to Yushchenko!" The counterfeit declares: "Yes to Bushenko!"

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