A Clash of Styles, Generations for Ukraine Voters


In a chilly, darkened schoolhouse that bears witness to the energy crisis that is sapping Ukraine's economic vitality, Environment Minister Yuri Kostenko looks as worn as his old gray overcoat.

"Had more attention been paid to Ukraine's energy supplies two or three years ago, then our economy would not be in such a terrible state today," the 42-year-old physical chemist said.

In a stump speech that contained more unpleasant "truth-telling" than most Americans might hear from politicians in a lifetime, Kostenko blamed his own government for incompetence and said Ukraine is being hijacked by "horrible corruption and Mafia clans that are uncontrollable and that, together with the executive branch, are making decisions that are disastrous for the economy."

Kostenko is a respected democrat and longtime activist in the Rukh independence movement. But only 15 voters braved the damp, raw evening to come hear him.

On the other side of the district, Semen V. Yufa was engaged in a different kind of "truth-telling." The 33-year-old businessman, one of Kiev's most famous entrepreneurs, had rented a downtown movie theater to meet with voters who were drawn in by street hawkers with megaphones.

"I want us to live like human beings at last, for us to tell each other the truth," said Yufa, who looked like a young Donald Trump in a snazzy blue double-breasted blazer with gold buttons, a crisp white shirt and a power-yellow tie that probably cost several times the average monthly salary here.

"Now, we not only don't love each other, we hate each other," Yufa said. "We lie to each other constantly, and we think this is normal."

Several people in the crowd of more than 100 nodded in agreement.

To his fans, Yufa is a tycoon, living proof that a creative, energetic person can succeed despite a business climate that remains decidedly hostile. To his enemies, he is a Mafiosi, a term used loosely here to describe anyone from a racketeer to an entrepreneur who cuts bureaucratic corners or avoids taxes, as nearly all private businesses must do.

The contest between Kostenko and Yufa, who are competing with 21 other candidates for their district's seat in the new Parliament, is as much a clash of generation and style as of ideology.

Kostenko, like virtually all Ukrainian intellectuals, was educated in the Russian language, but as a political statement he will speak only in Ukrainian or not-quite-fluent English. Yufa, a former cook turned restaurant owner, then trader and investment fund manager, addressed his voters in Russian, the native language of most of Kiev.

Election law specifies that no candidate can spend more then $150 on his or her campaign. Kostenko claims that Yufa's slick color campaign brochures alone cost more than that--but so far no one is enforcing the new campaign finance law.

Both men support a free market and nuclear disarmament. But Kostenko, a nationalist, is concerned that Russia is not fairly compensating Ukraine for the value of the metal in Kiev's dismantled nuclear warheads.

Yufa is more concerned about the stifling Ukrainian tax code, which he calls disgusting, and the inequities in the proposed privatization plan. His campaign goal has universal appeal.

"I want very much to live in a country where everyone is rich," he said.

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