Ukrainians head to polls today

Three-way race expected to show nation's progress in democracy


KIEV, Ukraine -- Less than a year and a half after President Viktor A. Yushchenko rose to power in a historic contest filled with clashes over corruption and fraud, voters head into parliamentary elections today in which the tone is much closer to the nuanced politics expected of a democracy.

The pro-Western coalition that brought Yushchenko victory through the Orange Revolution has broken up into competing factions. That sets the stage for a three-way race featuring the Party of Regions, headed by Viktor Yanukovich, the pro-Russian former prime minister who lost in the 2004 presidential race, Yushchenko's Our Ukraine and the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc. None of these parties is expected to win a majority, but any combination of two probably could name the next prime minister.

Yushchenko contends that by bringing democracy to this former Soviet republic of 48 million, the Orange Revolution is an irreversible success, whoever comes to power this time.

"This is the first democratic election," Yushchenko said at a recent news conference. "Colleagues, it is sufficient for us to be proud of."

Polls show that Yanukovich's party, with its strong base in industrialized eastern Ukraine, is likely to finish first, with about 30 percent of the vote, and the two main parties that led the Orange Revolution are each expected to have a share of 15 percent to 20 percent. Seats in the 450-seat parliament are allocated proportionally according to the vote count. A total of 45 parties and blocs are competing in the election.

No matter who comes out the winner from this election, the most important changes triggered by the Orange Revolution are permanent because "the train has already moved way too far toward Europe and democracy and freedom," said Denis Bohush, who is running on the Pora-PRP ticket, which unites Orange activists and the Reforms and Order Party.

"People had perceived themselves as a second-class nation, or the younger brother of Russia. Now we are very proud of our country, and you can't kill that," Bohush said. "That's the main thing. Second, censorship in the media is gone." Unlike the early rounds of balloting in 2004, this election will be honest, he said.

University student Aleksandra Dubnya, a fervent supporter of the Orange Revolution, has one worry as the country heads into today's election: She fears that parties loyal to the two leaders who clashed so bitterly in the 2004 presidential race could end up running the country together in a post-election "grand coalition."

"I think that's something that might happen," she said. "I would be very sad about it. We have a saying that `You can't mix holy things and sins.'"

For Dubnya, the "holy things" are the people and dreams that came together two years ago around Yushchenko's campaign, which achieved victory only after huge protests against electoral fraud forced a repeat runoff with Yanukovich, who was then the prime minister.

The orange-bedecked revolutionaries viewed Yanukovich - who in his youth was sent to prison twice for assault - as the representative of corrupt business interests from the country's generally pro-Russian eastern region, while Yushchenko's supporters wanted to remake Ukraine in the image of a Western European country.

Many observers think it's conceivable that Yanukovich, the disgraced loser of 2004, could end up back in the prime minister's post. That is what Dubnya, 20, fears.

Her friend Victor Kusnezh, 23, a graduate student in physics who also backs Yushchenko, is more sanguine.

"Everything was seen as black and white: Yanukovich was a thief and an enemy, and Yushchenko was the hero of the Ukrainian nation," Kusnezh said. "But it was impossible for that to be completely accurate. There were many different kinds of people on Yushchenko's side - they can't be `holy.' I think even if Yushchenko makes a deal with Yanukovich, that's not terrible."

Tymoshenko has said she would never join forces with Yanukovich. But Yushchenko has kept the door open to that possibility. Supporters of a Yanukovich-Yushchenko coalition think it would help unify Ukraine's disparate regions and ensure steady economic development, but critics contend it would mark a sellout by Yushchenko of the Orange Revolution's democratic and pro-Western ideals.

Anna Bychkova, 66, a pensioner in the eastern city of Alchevsk who moved from Russia to Ukraine in 1958 to take a job at a chemical factory, is typical of those who hope that Yanukovich will come back to power and boost government backing for state-run industries. "Yanukovich speaks Russian more, and he's more for the simple people," she said.

Although most Ukrainians can speak the Ukrainian and Russian languages, those in western Ukraine tend to prefer Ukrainian while those in the eastern part of the country are more likely to think in Russian.

David Holley writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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