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Ukraine braces for tense election

First round of voting this Sunday offers divided electorate stark choices between East and West.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 28, 2004


Earlier this month, Ivan Parasunko's chickens, two pigs, and a horse dropped dead on his little farm in Ukraine's Cherkass region. A crudely scrawled note found at the scene confirmed evidence of poisoning: "This will happen to all of you."

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For Mr. Parasunko, this was the cost of backing Western-minded opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine's tense presidential race.

He suspects supporters of the government-backed front-runner, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, may have been trying to intimidate him. "I don't have any enemies around here, so what else could it be?" he asks.

Livestock aren't the only casualties in a race that analysts are labeling the dirtiest campaign - and the most crucial choice - in Ukraine's post-Soviet history.

Ukraine is a quintessential 50/50 nation. Its population of 50 million is divided between the passionately nationalist western provinces and overwhelmingly Russified eastern ones.

For more than a decade, Ukraine has balanced precariously between the conflicting appeals of Moscow - which provides subsidized energy and raw materials - and the promise of integration with the European Union (EU) and NATO.

But with an increasingly authoritarian Kremlin now pushing its own plan for economic union, and domestic reforms stalled, experts say the hour of choice has arrived for the country.

"There are stark and essential differences between the two main candidates," says Volodimir Gorbach, an analyst with the independent Institute of Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kiev. "Each represents a different orientation and scale of values; each would take Ukraine forward into a different future."

More than 20 candidates are on the ballot for the first round of voting Oct. 31. The latest surveys suggest a dead heat, with Mr. Yanukovich at 34 percent and Mr. Yushchenko at 32 percent.

If neither candidate wins an outright majority Sunday, the two will face each other in a runoff on Nov. 22.

Dirty tricks alleged

Reports of dirty campaign tactics have often overshadowed the candidate's messages. Yushchenko was hospitalized last month after what his staff insist was an attempt to poison him. Human rights groups say that pro-Yushchenko activists are routinely harassed by police and barred from media access.

"The level of official abuse is unprecedented," says Alexander Chernenko, head analyst for Voters of Ukraine, an independent monitoring group.

Yanukovich, a career bureaucrat backed by big industrialists closely linked with Russia, would drag Ukraine back into Moscow's orbit, Mr. Gorbach says.

Yanukovich is the chosen heir of Ukraine's current president, Leonid Kuchma, who is required by law to step down when his second term ends in December. As incumbent prime minister, he has doubled pensions and slapped popular price controls on gas and oil. He also pledges to make Russian the second official language, after Ukrainian, and permit Ukrainians to hold Russian citizenship.

But his supporters insist he will also pursue better relations with the West. "Yanukovich is pro-Ukrainian, and nothing else," says Raisa Bogatyrova, a pro-Yanukovich parliamentarian.