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Ukraine vote holds prospect of a replay -- but with a twist

Times Staff Writer

With politicized concerts, fervent street rallies, a barrage of political advertising and allegations of rigged voter lists, the two sides that faced off in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution are at it again.

Today’s parliamentary elections are largely a contest between the glamorous Yulia Tymoshenko, the most fiery leader of the 2004 protests, and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, the object of the protesters’ wrath. Offering sharply contrasting styles and foreign policy goals, they are the main rivals to head the next government of this former Soviet republic.

“I want us to go toward Europe rather than Russia,” said Antonina Ledeneva, a businesswoman volunteering in Tymoshenko’s campaign. “We don’t want to have the same ‘democracy’ as [President Vladimir V.] Putin has in Russia now.”

If this all conjures up a feeling of deja vu, flash back to 2004. Tymoshenko was the key ally of Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western candidate who nearly died of dioxin poisoning in a plot that some have suggested had ties to Moscow. He went on to win the presidency when the Orange Revolution forced the rerun of rigged elections.

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Yanukovich, 57, was the humiliated loser of that bitter presidential race. Perceived then as the Moscow-backed candidate, he has since remade his image, looking and acting more like a Western European politician and less like a stuffy Soviet-era bureaucrat. He mounted a comeback, becoming prime minister after his party did well in parliamentary elections last year. A standoff with Yushchenko led to today’s early vote.

Yanukovich’s power base is the country’s largely Russian-speaking eastern and southern regions. He still insists that closer ties with the West should not come at the expense of relations with Moscow, but in a gesture aimed at broadening his support, he has begun speaking Ukrainian in his official appearances rather than Russian, his first language. His campaign emphasizes the claim that he is the more competent manager.

Tymoshenko, 46, rose to fame as Ukraine’s “gas princess,” when she made millions trading in natural gas supplies. Since entering politics, she has positioned herself as a fighter against corruption and an advocate of close ties with the West. She stresses her Ukrainian character by wearing her hair braided and wound on her head in a traditional peasant style.

Today’s battle lines are essentially the same as in 2004. The Orange team, named after Yushchenko’s campaign color in his presidential race, is represented by the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc and the Our Ukraine-People’s Self-Defense Bloc. The latter group is closely linked to Yushchenko. Against them stand Yanukovich’s Party of Regions and the Communists.

Polls show the two sides in a virtual dead heat.

If Tymoshenko comes out on top, she could try to move this nation of 47 million much more rapidly toward European integration and close ties with the United States.

If Yanukovich prevails, Ukraine would remain more nearly balanced between East and West, but many observers predict that in the long run, the country will inevitably grow closer to the European Union.

Each side has accused the other of planning to cheat in the elections, largely through rigged voter lists said to include hundreds of thousands of “dead souls” and by falsification of the vote count in their respective regional strongholds.

But here’s where things veer from a replay of the 2004 race:

Yanukovich’s Party of Regions, despite its record of trying to rig the presidential vote in 2004, has been particularly vocal in accusing the Orange camp of planning to cheat this time around. That in turn has prompted fears in Tymoshenko’s circle that the prime minister might refuse to accept a defeat.

Yanukovich has indicated that if he loses in what his side believes is an unfair contest, he will seek to imitate the 2004 upheaval by bringing his supporters into the streets to challenge the results. Party of Regions activists took physical control of Kiev’s central Independence Square last week and appear intent on holding on there until the ballot-counting is complete.

“We see that the Orange team . . . will not be able to win the elections by fair means. They see that they are losing, and are preparing to rig the elections. We have enough strength not to allow this,” Yanukovich said in televised remarks Tuesday, when asked why backers were setting up tents in the square.

Such threats have met with a contemptuous response from the rival camp, which believes Yanukovich does not command the same depth of loyalty from his voters that Yushchenko and Tymoshenko enjoyed when they challenged the rigged 2004 balloting.

“True revolution is for love, not for money,” Mykola Tomenko, a key figure in Tymoshenko’s bloc, said at a news conference. “So I’m pretty sure the ‘revolution’ the Party of Regions is planning will have no effect.”

Mikhail Pogrebinsky, director of the Kiev Center for Political and Conflict Studies, said he expected postelection complaints regardless of who wins, but that he did not expect street protests to carry the day.

“I’m pretty sure that the elections will be called ‘falsified’ or ‘rigged’ by the side that loses,” he said. “And of course, this side will have grounds to say that, first of all because we do not have proper lists of voters. Everything will depend on court decisions.”

The other key postelection factor will be coalition building. Tymoshenko would be considered the strong favorite to become prime minister if the two Orange blocs win a majority of seats, but even in that case it would not quite be a sure thing.

That’s because postelection talks between Tymoshenko’s bloc and her allies in the Our Ukraine-People’s Self-Defense Bloc conceivably could break down over the details of forming a new government.

After the Orange Revolution, Tymoshenko served for seven months as prime minister, but Yushchenko dismissed her after they had a falling out. They patched up their alliance again this year.

Observers do not rule out the possibility that voting results and subsequent negotiations could develop in such a way that the Yushchenko-affiliated Our Ukraine-People’s Self-Defense Bloc ends up in a “grand coalition” with Yanukovich’s Party of Regions.

Advocates of such a deal say it would ensure stability, lead to a more technocratic government and unite the country’s disparate regions. Critics say it would mark a betrayal by Yushchenko of the Orange Revolution itself.

Yushchenko has not quite ruled out the possibility of a coalition with Yanukovich’s party, but has come close. “We have only one option,” he said Thursday during a joint appearance with Tymoshenko, “and that is forming a democratic coalition. Period. And I mean period.”

david.holley@latimes.com


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