Ukraine Vote Returns Same Old Cast

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Viktor Drachev / AFP / Getty

An supporter holds portraits of Prime Minister of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovich, leader of the pro-Russian Regions party, in Kiev, September 27, 2007.

Ukraine's 2004 presidential election captured the world's attention with its dramatic contest between a Moscow ally and opposition forces that eventually took to the streets in the peaceful "Orange Revolution" to claim the victory their candidate won at the polls. By contrast, this Sunday's Verkhovna Rada legislative election seems like an endless soap opera with the same tired cast of characters struggling to keep the audience awake.

Already by March 2006, it was clear that the Orange Revolution had began to turn sour, when the Party of the Regions (PR) led by Victor Yanukovych — the Moscow ally who had lost the presidential race to Yushchenko — won a 32% plurality of the votes in the legislative election. The BYUT party of Yuliya Tymoshenko, erstwhile flamboyant princess of the Orange Revolution who had been fired as premier by Yushchenko six months earlier, finished second. Yushchenko's Our Ukraine (OU) barely made the third place.

Political paralysis followed as the squabbling Orange leaders failed to mend their fences, leaving Yanukovych to build a legislative majority coalition to elect him premier. As Orange deputies defected en masse to the Yanukovych-led coalition, it threatened to grow powerful enough to marginalize the President. Yuschenko responded by dissolving the legislature and calling a new election.

Campaigning for Sunday's vote, all the parties have rolled out familiar themes in the hope of stirring up the electorate. The unsolved mystery of Yushchenko's dioxin-poisoning ordeal during his presidential showdown with Yanukovych has been raised by the President's allies. But one of his opponents, Socialist Interior Minister Vasyl Tsushko, accuses the President's men of poisoning him during the summer. Both sides have been doing their damnedest to bring people back to Kiev Independence Square, the heart of the Orange Revolution. But the enthusiasm of that moment has long given way to disenchantment and cynicism, and there's little enthusiasm for another chapter of political intrigue among the same cast of power brokers.

The main question over Sunday's election appears to be which of Yuschenko's rivals — Yanukovych or Tymoshenko — finishes first; the President's party is almost assured of third place. That, of course, is when the real intrigue will begin, since neither Yanukovych nor Tymoshenko is expected to win an absolute majority, meaning that the politicians will again retreat behind closed doors in search of a new coalition deal.

While the strongly nationalist Tymoshenko won't join Russia ally Yanukovych in a coalition, it's quite possible that President Yuschenko's party will agree to share power with his erstwhile presidential rival. Right now, the President is keeping his options open, having already begun the backroom horse-trading. There will also be smaller factions, such as the Communists, seeking to profit from serving as make-weights in a coalition government.

A Yushchenko-Yanukovych coalition — with Tymoshenko leading a strong parliamentary opposition — might even resolve Ukraine's ongoing political tug-of-war. Yanukovych's PR has grown into a party of big business that, all the lip service to Russia notwithstanding, wants to open up to the West, albeit not as rapidly as Yushchenko desires. Nor has Ukraine done too badly despite the political turmoil: the economy has grown at an annual rate of 7.5% in the first six months of this year (versus 5.5% the same period last year), says Alla Kovtun, a Kiev-based economist. Its currency stable, and foreign investment keeps flowing in — $3.3 billion from January through August.

The tired public might welcome the coalition of strange bedfellows that gave their country political freedom and economic growth. Not the worst of all possible combinations — particularly, if kept in check by the fiery Tymoshenko from the opposition bench.