Sometimes Yulia Timoshenko feels like a Soviet dissident.
She's been threatened with arrest. The government shut down a newspaper supporting her opposition party, Hromada. Despite a lavish war chest, her party can't even get its campaign spots for Sunday's parliamentary elections aired on the three national television channels in Ukraine.
"They say they have no time to sell us," says a dubious Timoshenko, the executive director of the party.
Hromada, the largest of 30 parties competing in the elections, gets air time only when the government levels the newest in a litany of criminal allegations against its leader, former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko.
As 38 million eligible voters try to sort out more than 4,000 candidates and an alphabet soup of political parties, the shape of the next parliament is proving impossible to predict--and full-fledged democracy remains a goal rather than an achievement.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the marshaling of government power against political opponents of President Leonid D. Kuchma.
Serhij Naboka, a Soviet-era political prisoner and now co-chairman of the independent Elections '98 Press Center, compares the campaign to Soviet efforts to censor criticism and trump up crimes against opponents of the regime. Back then, the favorite allegations were possession of hard currency or drugs. Now, they're tax evasion or abuse of office.
In the mayoral race for the Black Sea port of Odessa, for example, the regional governor dispatched anti-graft and crime-fighting forces against the incumbent, a member of an opposition party.
"The truth of the allegations isn't the issue," Naboka says. "What's wrong is that the ruling elite only enforces the laws against its political opponents and not its supporters."
Nevertheless, Hromada's leaders hardly fit the image of political victims.
Timoshenko and Lazarenko are reputedly among Ukraine's richest people. No one knows what links them, aside from opposition to Kuchma. But they have transformed Hromada from a mere blip on the political spectrum into the country's biggest party.
Many of the parties in Sunday's race were formed only last fall, when a new election law set aside half of parliament's 450 seats for parties winning at least 4% of the national vote. The remaining seats are apportioned among local districts.
Known popularly as "clans," the parties make for some strange bedfellows.
The Green Party's ticket includes directors of some of Ukraine's most environmentally unfriendly smokestack industries. Thirty capitalists are on the Communist ticket. Of the five people on the ticket of the Women's Initiatives party, two are men.
But the most famous clan is from Dnipropetrovsk, 250 miles south of Kiev. Known for giving the Soviet Union its longest-serving postwar leader, Leonid I. Brezhnev, the Dnipropetrovsk clan has given Kuchma, Timoshenko, Lazarenko and his successor, Prime Minister Valery Pustovoitenko, to independent Ukraine.
Because Hromada announced "direct opposition" to the government only after Kuchma fired Lazarenko and Timoshenko's company lost a lucrative gas monopoly last summer, many analysts view the split in the Dnipropetrovsk clan as a rivalry not over policy but over power.
In fact, Hromada's program is so similar to that of the People's Democratic Party headed by Pustovoitenko that one daily recently quipped, "The PDP is Hromada in power, and Hromada is the PDP out of power."
"But few voters know that, because there's little objective coverage of the elections in the media," Naboka says. "Television is largely controlled by the president, and nearly every newspaper is backed by a political party."
The partisan media might have shed light, even if one-sided, on the elections had they been allowed to operate freely.
Since January, however, Hromada's mouthpiece, Pravda Ukraine, has been shuttered; the live radio broadcasts of parliament that gave the Socialist speaker access to every household were silenced; and the co-owner of an anti-government tabloid was arrested.
With little information in the media--and no track record by which to judge the new parties--voters such as Serhij Stepanenko are in the dark. "I don't want to waste my vote on a party that won't make it," says Stepanenko, who remained undecided.