Anton Buteiko, the Ukrainian ambassador, has the contemplative, content gaze of a man with a clear conscience and firm convictions. He is taking with fortitude the news that he has to quit his post here after a year of exceptional service. His marching orders came three days ago.

If he comes across as steely, it is not because there is a bulawa--a wooden club with a heavy Sputnik-like sphere atop it--resting near his desk. The club is a symbol of power dating from the early 18th century, when it was bestowed on elected Ukrainian leaders, then taken away when constituents were dissatisfied.

Recent elections that returned President Leonid Kuchma to power included first-round absentee ballots that disappointed the president. These ballots--tallied under the supervision of U.S. observers--were cast in Chicago, New York and Washington, and the political fallout is roiling Ukrainian diplomatic ranks. Ukraine's consul general in Chicago, Boris Bazylevsky, has been here for four months; two weeks ago, he was told to return to Kiev by Jan. 5. His New York counterpart, Yuri Buhayevsky, here for two years, received similar instructions. In the first round of the vote, Kuchma got 30 percent of the votes cast in Washington, while in the second round he got 70 percent. In Chicago, he finished neck and neck with candidate Eugen Marchuk. When asked if he had been pressed to work on improving Kuchma's results in the second round, Buteiko smiled and said: "I am not a person anyone can exert pressure on." His vote was secret and personal, he added.

What the three diplomats have in common is membership in Ukraine's Centrist Constitutional Party, which has backed Kuchma's economic reforms but was critical on other issues. "If [his recall to Kiev] is in the interest of Ukraine, perhaps for [Kuchma] it is clearer," Buteiko said stoically. "I have gotten used to things that happen in diplomatic life, but I think I have a good professional team. The embassy did everything possible with limited resources." He received more than 70 Ukrainian delegations in Washington, organized two presidential visits and one for his prime minister, and sought to intensify the dialogue between the two countries on fighting organized crime, privatization of Ukrainian state property, energy issues and the dismantling of weapons of mass destruction.

The ambassador also helped focus interest on Ukrainian issues in Congress. When he arrived on Dec. 1, of last year, there were 30 commercial disputes between U.S. and Ukrainian firms; now there are four, and more than 962 American companies invest in Ukraine, he said.

In July, the Kiev government newspaper quoted Buteiko as telling a conference of Ukrainian ambassadors that the "non-bloc" status of Ukraine is harmful to its interests. "In this position [vacillating between Russia and the West], we cannot make use of the advantages of either, and we lose with both," he was quoted as saying. His party is also critical of the slow pace of reform.

A Memorable Sequence

After telling Diplomatic Dispatches she knew nothing of plans for a meeting earlier this month between Iranian hard-line clerics and anyone in Texas Gov. George W. Bush's campaign organization, his foreign policy doyenne, Stanford University's Condoleezza Rice, had a flashback 14 hours later. It turns out such an encounter was discussed, and the Bush campaign representative involved was Rice herself.

"It only hit me then; sorry," she said Wednesday. Rice said John Esposito, the head of Georgetown University's Center of Muslim-Christian Understanding, got in touch with her to inform her of a workshop he had planned with the Iranians. "A friend, Toby Gati, asked me if I would take a phone call from this person [Esposito], and I did. He asked if I would be interested in attending this seminar and meeting them. I said I would be happy to do that but would not be in Washington on Dec. 2. I said it sounded very interesting but let me know if they are going to be here at some other time. But I certainly did not make arrangements to have a meeting, and he made no follow-up call," she said Wednesday morning, adding that she gets hundreds of requests daily. Maybe.

The hard-line clerics, staunch adversaries of reformist Iranian President Mohammed Khatemi never made it to Washington, opting to fly back home after being subjected to fingerprinting at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on Nov. 30. It is not unusual for radical Iranian groups to send out feelers to Western governments or strike deals ahead of electoral campaigns to try to gain leverage at home.

In the past, Esposito has organized workshops with Iranian think tanks and theological groups on civil society and Islamic secularism in Tehran and Qom, an Iranian religious center. Esposito, who had set up the conference at Georgetown, said Rice called him this week and left her name and a message: " 'We have spoken before. You know what this is about,' which is an odd thing to say in a message. I find it curious--her name is not familiar, and I can't even remember if I called anyone at Stanford in the last couple of years," he said yesterday. Someone here has thespian talents, or needs a memory-enhancing vitamin supplement. Ginseng or gingko biloba anyone?