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Supporters greet Ukraine's Regions Party and the Presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovich during a rally in Kiev. Ukrainians go to the polls on February 7, 2010 to vote on the second round of the presidential elections. (SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
Supporters greet Ukraine's Regions Party and the Presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovich during a rally in Kiev. Ukrainians go to the polls on February 7, 2010 to vote on the second round of the presidential elections. (SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)

Ukraine marches to polls, leaves hope behind Add to ...

For a young publishing-house worker named Dmitry Yurchenko, as for many Ukrainians this weekend, the bright election posters covering every surface in Kiev's Independence Square feel like a cruel joke on the country's recent history.

A little more than five years ago, Mr. Yurchenko, now 27, joined hundreds of thousands of his fellow students, setting up in the square for weeks on end to protest against an election that had been stolen by the country's Russian-dominated ruling faction. He became an organizer, helping build an orange-bannered tent city that captured the world's attention.

The students won the day when the Supreme Court ordered a new election, which reformist presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko ultimately won. It seemed that Ukraine had come out of the cold. The presidential ballot that Ukrainians will face tomorrow, the first election since those revolutionary days, feels like a reversal of all the gains.

Gone from the ballot is Mr. Yushchenko, the Orange Revolution president, whose air of corruption and mismanagement froze progress, split the country into angry factions and precipitated an economic crisis and painful bailout by the International Monetary Fund. He was defeated in the first round of voting last month.

Ukrainians will now choose between Viktor Yanukovich, the Russian-influenced ex-leader whose election was ruled fraudulent in 2004, and Yulia Tymoshenko, the "gas princess" who became Prime Minister after the Orange Revolution vote but fell out with her presidential partner.

Ms. Tymoshenko would seem to outsiders to be the obvious candidate. But she is lagging far behind Mr. Yanukovich, a thuggish-looking figure who spent much of his youth in prison for violent crimes and who has campaigned to make peace with Russia and to keep Ukraine out of NATO.

Many Ukrainians have decided, after years of Ms. Tymoshenko as Prime Minister, that her appeal is skin-deep and her policies in practice differ little from her opponent's. It has not helped that she launched her campaign last year by striking a détente, and making an unusually rich gas-pipeline deal, with her Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

A Tymoshenko rally, a carefully stage-managed event inside an arena, is steeped in the culture of Soviet-style leadership. There are lengthy readings of five-year plans and numeric targets, with little explanation of how they will be delivered, and endless video tributes from uniformed managers saluting the workers of Ukraine's many state-owned enterprises. There is no sense of economic or social change.

Mr. Yanukovich's backers say that they offer all the same things as Ms. Tymoshenko without the uncertainty and turmoil of the past five years.

"The Orange forces have been anti-Russian, and for what? They have cost us our largest trading partner, and gained us nothing with Europe," said Boris Kolesnikov, a businessman who is Mr. Yanukovich's chief adviser and financier. The result is hard to predict. Mr. Yanukovich emerged stronger from the first round of voting, with 35 per cent to Ms. Tymoshenko's 25. (The incumbent Mr. Yushchenko garnered only 5 per cent.) But it isn't clear how supporters of smaller parties, most of them liberal-minded centrists, will shift their ballots, or if they will vote at all.

The result could be close, leading to a dangerous deadlock - especially since Ms. Tymoshenko's supporters are accusing Mr. Yanukovich of vote-rigging and fraud. (Thousands of Western election observers will monitor tomorrow's vote.) Some observers are predicting violent protests on Monday morning.

For Mr. Yurchenko, the disillusioned revolutionary of Independence Square, it is an impossible choice. "We had such lofty and detailed hopes, and not only have they vanished, but things are actually worse than before," he said. "Our only hope is the next election, in five more years, when another generation of politicians might arrive."

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