Yegor Lupan calls himself "the most honest presidential candidate" in the country. In his campaign videos, he admits that he'll rig the results in order to win, and once in power, plans to embezzle state funds. Ukrainians also shouldn't expect a rise in pensions under his leadership, he says. "When you see my villas, you'll understand why."
Lupan is the invention of a Ukrainian comedian, not a real candidate. But he's perfectly captured the mood of the country on the eve of the Feb. 7 presidential election. The orange revolution of November 2004 is now a distant memory, discredited by the leaders that Lupan mocks. And sadly, the two contenders facing off in the final round of voting offer little fresh cause for hope. In the conservative corner is dour former mechanic and factory boss Viktor Yanukovych, 59, whose disputed victory in the 2004 poll sparked massive protests and a fresh vote. In the opposite corner, though hardly a paragon of change, is Yulia Tymoshenko, 49, a former gas tycoon and a pivotal figure in the orange revolution. The main message of both campaigns: vote to prevent the other candidate coming to power. "We should line them all up against a wall," grumbles Andriy, a taxi driver in the eastern city of Dnipropetrovsk, who declined to give his last name. "They promise everything, but give us nothing."
It was a different story when pro-Western reformer Viktor Yushchenko swept into power five years ago. His victory, millions of Ukrainians believed, would tear the former Soviet republic from neighboring Russia's orbit and set it firmly on a course toward integration with the rest of Europe. But Yushchenko and his allies failed to make good on their promises of implementing democratic reforms, ending rampant corruption and creating a better quality of life. The stirring rhetoric of the revolution soon crashed against the sobering reality of Ukrainian politics, dominated since independence in 1991 by powerful business leaders and a deeply embedded system of patronage and graft. The fiery Tymoshenko, who wears her hair in a peasant braid like a crown, became Yushchenko's Prime Minister, but disagreements between the two hindered their attempts to govern. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, wiping 50% off the Ukrainian currency's value in a few weeks, Yushchenko tried to disband Parliament to oust his foe. "It's depressing," said one Western banker at the time. "The economy is falling apart, and all he cares about is destroying Tymoshenko." Once seen as a Barack Obama figure with approval ratings topping 70%, the sitting President finished fifth in first-round voting on Jan. 17 with just 5%.
Little wonder. GDP shrank by 15% last year and factories laid off thousands of workers. Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index for 2009 placed Ukraine 146th out of 180 countries, on the same level as Zimbabwe. "Things were better under Leonid Kuchma," says Stepan Grechkivskiy, who owns a milk factory in western Ukraine, referring to Yushchenko's authoritarian predecessor. "There was order, but now there is chaos."
The reformists' failure has opened the path for the return of Yanukovych, who won 35% of the vote in the first round, leading Tymoshenko by 10 percentage points. Yanukovych is a rags-to-riches figure he was jailed twice in his youth for assault and robbery who relies on the pro-Russian east and south of the country for support. His strategy this time round has been simple: remind voters of the mess the country is in and point the finger at his opponents. "Precisely while the orange government has been running the country, Ukraine gained one of the leading places in the world in terms of corruption," he told TIME in a recent interview. (The problem actually predates Yushchenko Ukraine ranked 122nd in Transparency International's 2004 ratings.) "Since 2005, they have been accusing each other and members of their teams of corruption, an inability to manage the state properly and all other mortal sins," he added. "Not only are the Ukrainian people fed up with this, but [so too are] a lot of Ukraine's partners in the world."