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Ukraine's new, bumpy path

Its embrace of democracy contrasts with Belarus, this week's elections show.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 24, 2006


Two very different elections, held within a week of each other in the neighboring republics of Belarus and Ukraine, illustrate a deepening schism between former Soviet states. Some are moving decisively toward democracy, while others are sliding into the political orbit of an increasingly authoritarian, energy-rich Russia.

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In contrast to the tight government control that largely squelched opposition forces in Belarus ahead of last weekend's elections, Kiev's main square is a veritable bazaar of competing voices. Nearly 50 rival political parties are heading into the final leg of parliamentary polls slated for Sunday. The roughly 2,000 foreign observers here have noted no serious irregularities, and Ukrainian experts say these are the freest and most open elections in the country's history.

"There is absolute transparency, and an equal playing field for all parties," says Alexander Chernenko, an analyst with the Committee of Ukrainian Voters, a grass-roots monitoring group. "There is no fear, no coercion. People feel this is irreversible."

The same could not be said of Belarus. President Alexander Lukashenko, Moscow's sole European ally, was elected to a third term last Sunday with an 83 percent majority that few experts believe to be genuine.

During the campaign, police arrested hundreds of opposition workers, closed most independent media outlets, and cracked down on nongovernmental groups. Protesters occupied the capital, Minsk's, central square in an effort to force fresh elections, as happened in Ukraine's 2004 "Orange Revolution," but by Thursday only a few hundred remained.

Nearly 100 have been arrested since Sunday, human rights groups say, but the key reason for their fading hopes may be a sullen lack of public response.

"Lukashenko succeeds because a big part of society acquiesces," says Yaroslav Romanchuk, vice chair of the opposition United Civil Party in Minsk. "This longing for a firm hand that will provide stability and order is very deep among Belarussians. Once you've got him, you have to let that strong man do whatever he wants."

Many Ukrainians feared a Belarus scenario in 2004 when presidential elections were allegedly rigged in favor of Kremlin-backed candidate Viktor Yanukovych, who supports economic integration and political alliance with Russia. Tens of thousands of people thronged to the square and stayed for nearly two weeks, until the supreme court overturned the polls. In a fresh round of voting, Ukrainians elected pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko.

Belarus leader wary of Ukraine effect

Ukraine's democratic upsurge in 2004 may have been the key reason Mr. Lukashenko has cracked down so hard - with Moscow's support - on Belarussian opposition and civil society groups, experts say.

"That wave of color revolutions scared Lukashenko, and it made the Kremlin back away from any idea of holding dialogue with any other political forces in Belarus," says Oleg Manaev, a sociologist in Minsk. "The Ukrainian example looks like poison to them."

Russia's support comes with a price