Ukraine's new, bumpy path
Its embrace of democracy contrasts with Belarus, this week's elections show.
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Experts say that Lukashenko, who has used Russian subsidies and strict economic planning to improve living standards, could probably have won a fair election - though foreign observers judged that nothing of the sort took place in Belarus last week. Ukrainians, meanwhile, have no interest in following the Belarus model - despite indirect pressure from Russia such as the January cutoff of crucial natural gas supplies to the country after it refused to agree to a quadrupling in price. Belarus, meanwhile, pays just one-fifth the market price for its energy from Moscow.Skip to next paragraph
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"The Belarussian road means dependency on Russia for cheap energy and other favors, which must be purchased at a steep political price," says Oleksandr Shushko, an analyst with Kiev's independent Institute of Euro-Atlantic Cooperation. "Ukrainians have turned away from that; we made a choice to join Europe and the world."
But Ukraine is deeply divided between the industrialized, russified east - Yanukovych's stronghold - and its Ukrainian-speaking Western provinces, where aspirations to join Europe and NATO are strong. Though the Kremlin has not interfered directly in these elections, as it did in 2004, the economic fallout of the gas dispute could aggravate the country's postrevolution slump. The GDP has fallen from 12.1 percent in 2004 to 2.6 percent in 2005.
"Yanukovych was able to tell his supporters that this wouldn't have happened if he had been president," says Mr. Shushko.
So in an ironic twist, Ukraine's exuberant new democracy could bring the former president back to power - this time with full legitimacy.
One key factor working in Yanukovych's favor is disunity among Orange leaders. A survey completed this week by the independent Kiev International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) puts Yanukovych's Party of Regions in the lead with 37 percent. Trailing are the parties of estranged Orange leaders, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko's bloc with 19 percent and Yushchenko's Our Ukraine at 18 percent. "Yanukovych has consolidated his electorate, while the Orange parties have split and squabbled among themselves," says Volodimir Paniotto, director general of KIIS. The split between Tymoshenko and Yushchenko, whose firing of Tymoshenko last September opened a breach in Ukraine's pro-democracy forces, "has been Yanukovych's main advantage," says Mr. Paniotto.
While Lukashenko appears to have safely ensconced himself in power through dubious polls, Ukraine may face protracted political crisis thanks to its embrace of democracy. If Sunday's vote produces no parliamentary majority, the new legislature may fail to form a government, paralyzing the state.
But experts say there will be no backpedaling for Ukraine. "Democracy is already in the [people's] way of thinking," says Dimitry Vydrin, director of the European Institute of Integration and Development in Kiev. "We've made our choice, and we're not going back".