A grim mood of déjà vu is hanging over Ukraine's snowbound capital, amid news that both candidates facing off in the country's first presidential election since the Orange Revolution are already mobilizing their supporters to head for Kiev's central Maidan square in anticipation of fraud in Sunday's voting.
But don't expect any replay of the peaceful, pro-democracy upheaval that saw tens of thousands of protesters occupy the Maidan for three freezing weeks in the late autumn of 2004 in order to overturn an allegedly fraudulent presidential election. This time only the plunging thermometer looks familiar, experts say.
It's illegal to publish opinion polls before the voting, but political insiders cite internal surveys that suggest the wheel has probably turned in favor of Viktor Yanukovich, the dour son of Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine who was accused of rigging the 2004 presidential polls at the Kremlin's behest.
But the result could be close, they say, and even if Mr. Yanukovich beats the charismatic and outspokenly patriotic Yulia Tymoshenko at the ballot box, he will likely face a tough battle next week in the courts and in the streets.
Yulia Tymoshenko, the fiery heroine of three weeks of rolling 2004 protests on the Maidan that forced Ukraine's Supreme Court to call fresh elections that were won by her then-ally President Viktor Yushchenko, warned Thursday that massive fraud was being prepared by Mr. Yanukovich and "if we can't ensure a free and fair vote, we will call people to the streets."
For his part, Yanukovich applied on Friday for a permit to hold a rally of 50,000 supporters on the Maidan on Monday.
Sunday's voting will be the culmination of a contest that saw 16 other candidates, including the incumbent Mr. Yushchenko, knocked out in the first round last month. Yushchenko, a champion of rapid integration with NATO and the European Union who was brought to power by the Orange Revolution, received just 5.4 per cent of the votes. That was a personal humiliation and sharp rebuff for his political agenda and, though he remains formally in charge of the country, there is growing doubt as to whether he has the will or the authority to act firmly should events get out of hand.
"Regrettably, the least likely script is that everything will go in a calm and peaceful way," says Dmytro Vydrin, deputy secretary of President Yushchenko's National Security and Defense Council, a key advisory body that includes military and police representatives.
"Sociologists tells us there's a greater probability that Yanukovich will win, and in that case there is little doubt that Tymoshenko will try to take her case into the streets," he says.
In the event of massive street protests, he adds, "I'm not sure anyone has sufficient power to impose control. Power is divided, and I doubt Yushchenko would be in a position to do much."
Local experts and international observers all agree that the election's first round on Jan 17 was acceptably clean. But fears over fraud in Sunday's voting have gathered apace, amid some very odd shenanigans.
A large group of crowbar-wielding men, accompanied by lawmakers loyal to Yanukovich, smashed their way into the Ukraina state printing house (see video) two weeks ago, claiming that millions of excess presidential ballots were being produced there to enable fraud by Tymoshenko's camp. Pro-Yanukovich parliamentarians have also tried in recent weeks to fire the national police chief, Yury Lutsenko, who is loyal to Prime Minister Tymoshenko, and to take over the Kiev Appeals Court, which is exactly where any forthcoming election challenges are likely to be heard.
And this week a coalition of lawmakers including Yanukovich's Party of Regions and Yushchenko's Our Ukraine passed a new law to radically amend the rules for 33,000 local election commissions, which are responsible for local vote tallies. Yanukovich claimed the new rules, which might enable the representatives of a single party to certify voting results, were needed to head off an expected attempt by Tymoshenko to paralyze the vote count in his stronghold of eastern Ukraine. Tymoshenko told journalists that the law, which was signed by Yushchenko on Thursday, "paves the way for massive election fraud" by Yanukovich.
"The very fact that this law was passed just a few days before the election is a terrible scandal. How can you change the rules just before the voting?" says Olexandr Sushko, research director for the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation, an independent Kiev think tank. "This new law is clearly biased [against Tymoshenko] and we can only assume that Yushchenko signed it because he just can't bear the idea that his worst rival, Tymoshenko, might win."
Though they were allies in the Orange Revolution, Yushchenko and Tymoshenko quickly fell out. By last year, as economic crisis hammered Ukraine, the bureaucratic war between President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Tymoshenko had virtually paralyzed the work of government.
Ukrainians less inclined to demonstrate now
Politicians may summon the population back to the Maidan, experts say, but there's little indication that people are inclined to come this time around.
"Most voters have become less politicized and to some extent disillusioned by the failure of politicians to deliver any improvements after the Orange Revolution," says Alexander Chekmyshev, chair of the Committee for Equal Access, Ukraine's oldest grassroots monitoring group.
"In 2004 it looked to both sides like a choice between black and white," he says. "Today, for most people, it just looks like different shades of gray."
At Kiev's Shevchenko University, which was a hotbed of activism in support of the Orange Revolution, many students just shrug off the coming confrontation between the two familiar antagonists from those days.
"We know what's going on, but I don't know anybody who's excited about it," says Yulia Stepanenko, a linguistics student. "It doesn't seem real; it's just more political theatrics."
No overt Russian interference
Another element that seems absent this time is evidence of overt Russian interference in Ukraine's electoral process. In 2004, Russian President Vladimir Putin twice visited Kiev to lend his support to the Kremlin's favorite, Yanukovich.
This time around, Moscow has abstained from overt support for either candidate, though it made no secret of its abhorrence for Yushchenko.
"To guarantee ourselves from future Yushchenkos, Russia has been working to develop its 'soft power' capabilities," says Vladimir Kornilov, director of the Kiev branch of the official Russian Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States, which was set up here immediately following the Orange Revolution.
"The lesson of 2004 was well understood by Russia, and it's clear that Moscow must not take public positions," on internal Ukrainian politics, he says. "Anyway, it's thought that Russia can work with either Tymoshenko or Yanukovich."
A conversation with Mr. Kornilov, who almost certainly reflects Kremlin thinking, leaves the distinct impression that Yanukovich remains Russia's favored candidate.
Another factor, which may work decisively against any extended protests next week, will be the verdict offered by nearly 3,000 international election observers who are on hand to monitor the voting.
"We have hundreds of observers from Western countries, whose verdict will be trusted in the western Ukraine, as well as a big contingent from Russia, who will be listened to in eastern Ukraine," says Mikhail Pogribinsky, director of the independent Center of Political and Conflict Studies in Kiev.
"If the observers endorse the election results, whatever they may be, then passions will be calmed and no attempt to disrupt the process will work," he says. END