Ukraine braces for tense election

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

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."

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.

Yushchenko, a former prime minister and central banker, says he will accelerate economic reforms to prepare for Ukraine's yearned-for entry into the EU.

Though he is a moderate liberal who stands for good relations with Russia, Ukraine's state-dominated media have relentlessly cast Yushchenko as a lapdog of Western interests. Though careful not to endorse a candidate, Western governments hope Ukraine will avoid a post-Soviet slide toward autocratic rule, as has happened in Belarus.

"Of course relations between our countries may not be so warm, but nothing dangerous for Russia will happen if Yushchenko wins the elections," says Vyacheslav Igrunov, director of the independent Institute for Humanitarian and Political Studies in Moscow.

Opposition leaders are furious over what they describe as the direct interference of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who arrived Tuesday for a three-day election-eve visit, ostensibly to attend a huge military parade marking the 60th anniversary of Kiev's liberation from the Nazis on Thursday.

In an hourlong interview broadcast on Ukraine's three main TV channels Tuesday, Mr. Putin extolled his plan for a post-Soviet Unified Economic Space - a customs union that would join Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan - and praised Yanukovich as a man the Kremlin can do business with.

"The government of Viktor Yanukovich has done more" than just deliver strong economic growth, Putin said. "It has achieved growth of high quality."

Yanukovich's backers deny all charges of official bias and counter that the opposition is adopting aggressive street tactics to compensate for its dwindling popular support.

An electric atmosphere

A huge pro-Yushchenko rally in Kiev last weekend ended in minor violence when some protesters tried to push their way into the headquarters of Ukraine's Central Elections Commission.

Yushchenko has pledged to bring a half-million supporters into the streets of Kiev after the first round of voting this Sunday, supposedly to guard against electoral fraud. Yanukovich's people charge that it is actually a threat to stage a coup if the polls don't go his way.

"The opposition have made it clear that if the results don't suit them, they won't consider the elections legitimate," says Ms. Bogatyrova. "I fear we can expect some actions from them."

Thousands of international observers will be on hand for Sunday's voting, and their judgment may be crucial to the survival of democracy in Ukraine, some experts say.

"There is a lot of electricity in the air here," says Oleksandr Shushko, director of the independent Center for Peace, Conversion, and Foreign Policy in Kiev.

"I do not believe these elections will be free and fair, and that means there are critical days ahead," he adds. "If there is a widespread perception that the election has been stolen, everything will depend on how the public responds. The reaction of the authorities is already clear: They are preparing for war."

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