And international issues - especially Ukraine’s relationship with the United States - have taken center-stage.
The initial ballot on Oct. 31 sent two of 24 candidates into a runoff: current prime minister Viktor Yanukovych and former prime minister Viktor Yushchenko. Many Westerners see the election as a cataclysmic struggle between pro-American and pro-Russian forces.
But Konstantin Bondarenko, director of the Institute of National Strategy, is more cynical: “The Yanukovych camp is the people in power who want to stay in power. Yushchenko represents the people who had been in power and want to get back into power.”
Democracy has proved to be messy in this former Soviet republic. The campaign has been marred by questionable practices, most directed against Yushchenko. Yushchenko adviser Oleg Medvedev charges: “The principles of free and fair elections are being violated.”
Sergei Tigipko, Yanukovych’s campaign manager, emphasizes the positive: “The most important thing is that both candidates can freely talk around the country.”
The most common complaint is that Yanukovych gets more, and more favorable, press attention. However, his supporters point out, he is the sitting prime minister. And biased television coverage is hardly unknown in America.
The print media is more balanced, despite local government interference. Rostyslav Khotin, editor of the Ukrainian section of BBC World Service, says that the media are “under pressure but you can get information.”
Another concern, observed one Western diplomat, are “credible reports of tax authorities and police paying special attention to businesses backing Yushchenko.” Some oblast, or state, governors have forced “people to sign petitions and attend rallies.”
But assigning blame isn’t easy.
President Leonid Kuchma, the powerful head of state, is “believed to be behind” many of the problems, explains one U.S. official. Indeed, he adds, the prime minister’s staff says that “a lot of bad stuff is coming out of Kuchma’s office and Yanukovych doesn’t want to cross him, which has credence.”
Observes expatriate businessman Alex Kiselev: “It’s very well-known that the relationship (between Yanukovych and Kuchma) is a rocky one.” In fact, many Yanukovych supporters genuinely seem to be as wary of Kuchma and his associates as are Yushchenko backers.
A top U.S. official notes, Yanukovych “says the right things privately. He kind of says the right things publicly.”
That is, Yanukovych calls for a free and fair election, but doesn’t denounce specific abuses.
However, “We don’t always do so in the U.S. so we can’t hold them to a higher standard here,” the official wryly observed.
Still, he adds, Washington has suggested specific steps that the prime minister could take to promote fairness, but hasn’t.
Unfortunately, the United States has become an election issue. Administration criticisms of Kiev have left the impression that Washington hopes to influence the outcome.
Moreover, Russia’s Vladimir Putin is perceived as boosting Yanukovych.
“The Kremlin is actively involved in the campaign,” charges Medvedev.
However, some of Yanukovych’s allegedly “pro-Russian” initiatives, such as raising the status of the Russian language, are primarily matters of domestic politics.
Moreover, geography and history ensure Russian involvement. One poll found that 80 percent of Ukrainians believe Ukrainian-Russian relations should be a priority.
Yushchenko is seen as pro-Western but his coalition includes nationalists and anti-Semites. A U.S. diplomat observes: “If he comes to power I don’t think you will see an increase in anti-Semitism. But you are more likely to find anti-Semitism in western than eastern Ukraine, and that is his power base.”
Ironically, given the controversy generated by the campaign, both candidates seem likely to govern from the center.
Konstantin Bondarenko says they “pretty much meld into one.”
The Yushchenko camp argues differently. But the candidates’ differences over policy toward the United States and Russia seem small.
Says Tigipko, a likely prime minister under Yanukovych, ties with Russia “do not prevent Ukraine from getting integrated into the WTO and cementing an association with the EU.”
As for policies toward Moscow, Bondarenko asserts: “Even though there are a lot of simplistic assessments that Yushchenko is pro-West and Yanukovych is pro-Russia, everyone understands that they will have to take a balanced position.”
Ukraine’s election has been free if not entirely fair. Legitimate criticism of campaign abuses should not obscure the fact that the Ukrainian people are freely choosing their new president.
Argues Dimitro Ponamarchuk of the Union of Free Journalists, “The situation of democracy in the country is improving step by step.” With continued work, Ukrainians will turn their political system into a true liberal democracy.