Some grumbled, but most Ukrainians went willingly to the polls Sunday to take part in a civic exercise that's become increasingly rare in most parts of the former Soviet Union – free, open, and truly competitive elections.
Many voters leaving Kiev polling stations expressed frustration with the political stalemate between the Moscow-friendly "Blue" party of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich and the pro-Western "Orange" parties led by President Viktor Yushchenko and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, which persists despite four elections in the past three years.
But some insisted they'd rather keep casting ballots than see order imposed upon them from above. "It's our politicians we're disillusioned with, not democracy," said Lyudmilla Smirnova, a pensioner.
Despite many nagging problems, Ukraine's fledgling democracy remains a splash of brightness in a region where the lights are slowly fading out. With the exception of the three ex-Soviet Baltic states, which became full members of the European Union in 2004, most republics of the former USSR have drifted backward in recent years, abandoning experimental democracies for varying hues of authoritarianism.
"Ukraine is more democratic than most other parts of the former Soviet Union," says Vitaly Kulik, director of the independent Civil Society Studies Center in Kiev. "It's far more open, and our civil society develops in an unfettered way. Ukraine's sorrow is that democracy has turned into a source of permanent political crisis."
Increasing authoritarianism in other ex-Soviet states
Russia, the giant neighbor that still exercises great influence over Ukraine, has turned to a system of "managed democracy" under the intensely popular President Vladimir Putin, which has produced prosperity and order but severely circumscribed civil liberties and democratic choices.
"Russia is basically an authoritarian state now, with highly centralized power and most decisionmaking concentrated in the hands of one man," says Masha Lipman, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "If we define democracy as public participation, political competition, and government accountability, then Russia no longer qualifies as a democracy."
Next door, Belarus is run as a virtual fiefdom of President Alexander Lukashenko, who was overwhelmingly elected to a third term last year in what international observers judged to be rigged polls.
In Central Asia, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are closed dictatorships. Once regarded as a budding democracy, Kazakhstan adopted constitutional changes earlier this year that will effectively make its Soviet-era leader Nursultan Nazarbayev president for life.
The picture looks increasingly clouded for Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, two countries which – like Ukraine – recently experienced pro-democracy "color revolutions." Last week thousands took to the streets of Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, to protest the arrest of former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, a key opponent of President Mikhail Saakashvili.
"In Georgia, politics increasingly revolve around Saakashvili," says Alexander Dergachov, an expert with the independent Institute of Political and Ethno-Social Studies in Kiev. "Things are even worse in Kyrgyzstan and Moldova," another once-hopeful democracy on Ukraine's flank.
Open competition and debate in Ukraine
By contrast, experts say, Ukraine's election campaign saw open competition between sharply differing political parties, with a wide spectrum of media coverage and little direct state interference in the process. "Our elections are free and transparent," says Alexander Chernenko, a spokesman for the Committee of Ukrainian Voters, a nongovernmental monitoring group.
The problems facing Ukraine's election, he says, are mainly due to poor organization and ill-defined laws, which leave the process open to abuses, such as ballot-stuffing by overzealous local officials.
"We have an election commission that can't seem to function effectively, and we've had many troubles because of badly prepared voters' lists, and other procedural problems like that," says Mr. Chernenko.
And there's the danger that Ukrainians could become exhausted with free elections that only seem to reproduce the same political standoff between Orange and Blue parties.
"It's like we've got permanent elections here, and people are getting tired of that," says Anatoly Reshetnikov, who wouldn't say who he voted for Sunday. "Maybe we need someone similar to [Russian president] Putin here. Our leaders just don't seem to be able to accomplish their duties."