By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 26, 2006
KIEV, Ukraine, March 25 -- For a man who was supposed to be politically dead, Viktor Yanukovych has a light step. With a bounce in his stride, he emerged onto a downtown stage Friday evening, faux-marble columns framing his salute, as a crowd of thousands chanted his name in four hard beats: "Yan-U-Kov-Ych."
The Kremlin's favorite for power in this former Soviet republic, he was vanquished 16 months ago by the weeks of marches and sit-ins known as the Orange Revolution. Now, opinion polls predict that his party will win the largest number of seats in parliamentary elections Sunday.
His comeback reflects the advent of genuine democratic freedoms in Ukraine, a nation of 47 million people on the shores of the Black Sea, and the rapid disintegration of the political coalition the revolution brought to office. President Viktor Yushchenko and his former allies on the streets now trade accusations of corruption, incompetence and betrayal almost daily.
Russia is watching the vote closely. Yanukovych is the country's hope for the central goal of its foreign policy: the fostering of sympathetic governments in the former Soviet republics that share its borders. In the months since the revolution, Ukraine has aligned itself firmly with the European Union, the United States and NATO; Yanukovych has said that any government he heads would swing back toward Moscow.
Across the border in Belarus, elections last weekend brought results that pleased Russia, an official 82 percent victory for pro-Moscow President Alexander Lukashenko. On Friday and Saturday, riot police were crushing the seeds of what the opposition was calling the Denim Revolution. The West has promised sanctions. Russia has nodded its approval of the conduct of the election and the police response to the demonstrations.
Russia last year signed a military cooperation agreement with Uzbekistan, which closed a U.S. air base and is rounding up dissidents, but elsewhere, the Kremlin has failed to keep the former republics in its orbit. The three Baltic states, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, are now E.U. members; Georgia has a strongly pro-Western president.
Following independence with the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine remained largely in Russia's camp. State television and newspapers hardly mentioned the opposition; permits for rallies were rarely granted; and protesters were often harassed. There were accusations of politically motivated murders.
In late 2004, Yanukovych campaigned with Moscow's backing against Yushchenko. Drawing most of his votes from Ukraine's large Russian-speaking population in its eastern region, Yanukovych was declared the winner. That brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets, led by Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, a charismatic businesswoman and politician. A new vote was ordered; this time, Yushchenko was declared the winner.
But in September, Yushchenko dismissed Tymoshenko from the post of prime minister, sundering the alliance that was at the heart of the demonstrations. The political divorce heightened deep public discontent with Ukraine's weakening economy under their stewardship.
Economic growth fell dramatically in 2005 and is now stalled. In the first two months of this year, the economy expanded at an annual rate of only 2 percent, one of the slowest in Eastern Europe.
"There was a crash of illusions, a crash of expectations," said Kost Bondarenko, a political analyst. "A year ago, Yushchenko was an unambiguous hero."
In addition, tensions mounted with Russia. This winter, Russia's state-controlled energy firm Gazprom briefly cut off natural gas supplies in a pricing dispute that was seen here as punishment for the government's westward turn.
A recent opinion poll by the Democratic Initiative Fund and Ukrainian Social Service projected that Yanukovych's party would win 30 percent of the vote, the biggest of any group, assuring it the largest share of seats in the 450-seat parliament.
At his rally Friday, Yanukovych declared 2006 to be "the year of unification and revival. They deceived one part of the nation and put the other part on its knees," he said, referring to the Orange Revolution leaders. "We should never again allow such irresponsible power."
Jostling for second place in the polls is Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party, with 17 percent of the vote, and Bloc Yulia, the political arm of Tymoshenko, with a slightly smaller figure.
After the vote, Ukraine will likely face weeks of backroom negotiations on the formation of a government. And while Yushchenko and Tymoshenko may yet reconcile and overcome their months of bitter sniping, a once unimaginable possibility has floated out of the wreckage of their alliance: a government formed between the parties of Yushchenko and Yanukovych.
"It is sad that those who falsified the elections only yesterday and humiliated citizens are shouting about comeback today," said Yushchenko, 52, in a televised address to the nation Friday night. But he did not rule out the possibility of working with Yanukovych. Tymoshenko, however, has. "Why did we have a revolution then?" she asked at a meeting with foreign reporters Thursday.
Bondarenko, the analyst, sees positive potential in an alliance. "For Yushchenko," he said, "a coalition with the Party of Regions can offer a period of stable development and it may also legitimize his presidency in eastern Ukraine" among Russian speakers there.
But other analysts believe that such a shift could leave Tymoshenko as the sole inheritor of the Orange Revolution and its voters in future elections. "Going with the Party of Regions will be a political death for Yushchenko," said Volodymyr Polokhalo, editor in chief of Political Thought, a political science journal.
While the shape of the future government and Ukraine's strategic direction remains uncertain, the Orange Revolution has bequeathed one visible legacy, vibrant politics.
The election campaign, though fueled by the funds of local tycoons who continue to wield enormous influence behind the scenes, is competitive; foreign monitors expect it to be largely free and fair.
Until Friday night, the official end of the campaign, the streets here were alive with the colors of parties -- 45 in all -- that are vying for seats. Not just Yushchenko's orange, Yanukovych's blue and Tymoshenko's white, but the pink, greens, yellows and reds of smaller parties. The airwaves crackled with the kind debate and analysis that doesn't exist in many other parts of the former Soviet Union.
"It's very confusing and I think there are too many parties, but you can't deny the competition and I like that," said Larysa Bilevych, a 58-year-old pensioner.
Supporters of opposing parties mingled easily, unlike in 2004, and phalanxes of flag-waving activists marched around the city, which was dotted with the tents of all the major parties.
It's a stark contrast with Belarus. International election observers called the election there seriously flawed. Thousands of opposition supporters, seeking to emulate the Orange Revolution, took to the streets in a small but unprecedented defiance of the government.
The Kremlin congratulated Lukashenko and accused the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a transatlantic group that monitors elections, of bias and incitement.
Belarusian police waited until the middle of the night Friday, when the strength of the crowd was at its weakest, and then cleared a central square that demonstrators had occupied. On Saturday, they sealed off the square and dispersed reassembling protesters with baton charges and tear gas. "I declare the creation of a popular movement for the liberation of Belarus," opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich told his supporters Saturday.
The opposition announced that no new rallies were planned until April 26, the 20th anniversary of Chernobyl nuclear disaster.