Crowds rally in Ukraine ahead of vote

Posted in Europe | 23-Dec-04 | Author: Noelle Knox| Source: USA Today

Supporters of Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko shout during a rally in Kiev, Ukraine.
Decked out in orange hats and scarves, supporters of the pro-West opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko were buoyed by polls that showed him 10 percentage points ahead of Viktor Yanukovych, the prime minister who is backed by the outgoing president and by Russia, Ukraine's neighbor and biggest trading partner.

"We want to show that Ukraine woke up as a country and is far away from being part of the Soviet Union," said Vasyl Kisil, a native of Kiev and Yushchenko supporter at the rally.

The presidential election here has become one of the most important political dramas in Europe in 2004. Ukraine is a critical fulcrum for U.S. and Russian interests and influence. The country, the second largest in area in Europe, is a potential member of NATO and the European Union — two groups that have riled Russia by expanding their reach into former Russian satellites such as Hungary and Poland.

The election saga also has had some bizarre and interesting twists:

• The last vote, a runoff on Nov. 21, was overturned by the Supreme Court amid charges of fraud by the opposition and international monitors.

• This month, Yushchenko was diagnosed with dioxin poisoning. The opposition leader has said he believes he was poisoned at a Sept. 5 dinner with the heads of the Ukrainian secret police. (Related item: Q&A on the effects of dioxin poisoning)

• After the runoff was voided, Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced the United States for what he called meddling. U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, a Republican from Texas, has alleged that the almost $60 million the United States spent on promoting democracy here led to Yushchenko's "orange revolution."

"This situation goes beyond politics," says Pavol Demes, director of the Central and Eastern Europe office of the German Marshall Fund. "The elections in the Ukraine are influencing the dialogue about the European framework, values, society, democracy and the relationship between the East and West."

If Yushchenko wins, as expected, he will face big challenges. He must unify a country divided between the Russian-leaning and -speaking east with the pro-West side of the country. He also has to build a genuine democracy, weed out corruption, overhaul the economy and deal with Russia, while pursuing his goals of membership in NATO and EU.

"The country has indeed split in half and this is evident, even in many households where husbands are arguing with their wives over support for the two candidates," says Mikhail Reutsky, who runs an independent Ukrainian news Web site.

Yushchenko also must "find a common language with Yanukovych supporters," Reutsky adds. "He has to let them know that his coming to power does not mean the end of the world, but a new beginning, and driving home that message will be a difficult and protracted process." This week, a Yushchenko campaign caravan of 50 cars was turned away from the eastern town of Donetsk by hundreds of Yanukovych supporters.

To avoid problems Sunday, there will be no absentee ballots nor will people be allowed to vote at home — practices that were questioned last time.

More than 6,000 observers from the Central Election Commission, which has a new chairman, and other international organizations will monitor and count the votes.

"I don't think they will be perfectly fair, but I think with the changes in the laws, it will be better. There won't be the magnitude (of fraud) we saw in the first round," says Ihor Zwarycz, a volunteer election observer. The banker from Basking Ridge, N.J., spoke while on a flight to Kiev on Wednesday.

The son of Ukrainian emigrants who left during World War II, Zwarycz says, "I want the people of my heritage to become a free society, without an oppressive regime of the Soviets or the oligarchs. Just give these people a chance to prove themselves."

The election could be the most significant event in Ukraine's history since 1991, when it gained its independence from the Soviet Union. For the past decade, the country has been run by Leonid Kuchma's pro-Russia government.

But to people on the streets here, Ukraine already has changed. "Ukraine is a different country today than a month ago. Russia will not be able to operate here as before," Reutsky says.

Contributing: Wire reports