Ukraine's presidential campaign, Part II: a cleaner run?

A flood of foreign observers is expected for the Dec. 26 rerun of the presidential vote.

Both sides are declaring victory and insisting they're looking forward to a fresh - but this time honest - electoral match between Viktor Yanukovich and his liberal challenger, Viktor Yushchenko, in presidential polls to be held in just over two weeks.

Many here are still digesting the sweeping set of compromises, rushed through the Rada, or parliament, Wednesday, which brought an end to the 17-day street revolt over the fraud-tainted Nov. 21 election. Though few appear completely satisfied with the complex deal, which will rearrange Ukraine's political institutions, most say they're delighted to get a clear chance to elect a new leader.

"The main thing is the voting should be clean and honest," says Anna Kondratiuk, a biology student at Kiev's Shevchenko University, who was living in the tent city of protesters that sprung up in central Kiev. "I will be satisfied with any result obtained fairly, though I can't see how Yushchenko can lose."

Experts say the election rerun can probably be carried out without the tampering that led the Supreme Court to declare the last round invalid. One factor is a raft of tough antifraud measures adopted by the Rada, another is the vastly beefed-up contingent of foreign observers that will be monitoring the process.

"We expect the next elections to be better organized than the last round but there are still some issues of concern," says Yevgeny Poberezhny, deputy chair of the Committee of Ukrainian Voters, a nongovernmental organization that serves as a government watchdog. Not all loopholes were closed by the new legislation, he says, and time is short to rebuild and train new local election commissions. "One cannot exclude that [past violations] might be repeated. My principal feeling is uncertainty," he says.

In an open letter this week, Mr. Yanukovich complained of a "creeping coup," facilitated by crowds of Yushchenko supporters in the streets of Kiev, which he said caused the Supreme Court to deprive him of his official victory in the Nov. 21 polls "illegally." But he added that he's ready to win all over again. "I will carry on struggling because millions of Ukrainians are behind me," he said. "It is my direct duty to defend the country and people."

Some Yanukovich backers sound upbeat, almost jubilant. "Our spirits are high because people's political consciousness has been awakened," says Gennady Samofalov, a Rada deputy from eastern Ukraine and close Yanukovich ally. "I hope that now all falsifications shall end and the people can express their will. Yanukovich is sure he'll win."

Mr. Samofalov says the constitutional reforms mean that even if Yushchenko wins, he'll have to come to terms with the other side. Under the deal, the staunchly pro-Yanukovich eastern Ukraine won greater autonomy. Measures to strengthen parliament at the expense of the president probably mean that, in the future, a President Yushchenko could be blocked from carrying out many of his election pledges, such as initiating tough market reforms or steering Ukraine into NATO, the Western military alliance.

Yushchenko's press secretary, Irina Gerashchenko, says the struggle in Kiev's streets proved conclusively that "the people are the source of power." She says that this time the campaign hopes to get more positive media coverage - largely denied them by state-run TV in the last election - and will move eastward to fight for votes in Yanukovich strongholds such as Donetsk, Lugansk, and Crimea.

"Yushchenko's victory this time will prove that he was the real winner in both rounds of the previous election," Ms. Gerashchenko says. "After he wins, he'll start making social and economic changes that every Ukrainian will feel."

Some of the protesters who sustained the "orange revolution" are already preparing to head east to work for the Yushchenko campaign. "I'm going to speak to them as one Ukrainian to another; I'll explain to them what we did here in Kiev," says Viktor Beketov, a repairman from Lutzk, in western Ukraine. "Those people in the east have been deeply misinformed. They get all their information from the Russian press."

Western countries have agreed to send a flood of observers to cover the Dec. 26 polls, a development greeted by many Ukrainians as a hopeful sign that, under the watchful eyes of foreigners, the rules of democracy will be respected. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov this week denounced it as "interference" by the West into Ukraine's internal affairs.

Even some Russian experts who are critical of President Vladimir Putin's own scarcely concealed support for Yanukovich in the last round argue that their government has a point. "Why are most of the observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe going to the eastern Ukraine?" says Sergei Mikheyev, an expert with the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. Russian observers found massive irregularities in west Ukraine during the last round, but there were no Western monitors around to record them, he says.

Russian experts argue that many of the observers from Western countries are ill-trained and some, particularly Canadians and Americans of Ukrainian descent, bring fiercely partisan views to the process. "There are no objective or universally accepted standards for monitoring elections," says Mr. Mikheyev. "The observers often just become an instrument for applying geopolitical pressure."

At the heart of Russian unease is the worry that Yushchenko, if elected, might seek to wrench Ukraine out of its traditional Moscow-centered orbit.

One of Yushchenko's most radical allies, Yuliya Tymoshenko, sought to calm those fears in an interview with the Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta this week. "Regardless of who is elected Ukrainian president, relations between Russia and Ukraine will be warm and friendly," she said. "Very soon, Putin will realize that it is better to cooperate with democratic Ukraine, which will be a more reliable and predictable partner."

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