March 26, 2006

Russia-backed opposition set for comeback in Ukraine

By Richard Balmforth

KIEV (Reuters) - Ukraine began voting on Sunday in a
crucial election that seems certain to see a resurgence of
Russia-backed forces and mark a step back from the pro-West
ideals that piloted the "Orange Revolution" liberals to power.

President Viktor Yushchenko went into the election for a
new parliament, well aware that widespread disillusionment over
his government's record has left his old Moscow-backed rival,
Viktor Yanukovich, poised to bounce back onto the political

Though his own job is not in the balance, Yushchenko knows
that, after Sunday's vote, he will have to reach an
understanding with the man he humiliated in a presidential poll
re-run in December 2004.

The new parliament for whom 37 million electors were voting
will, for the first time, have powers to appoint the prime
minister, steward of Ukraine's rocky economy.

Pre-poll surveys say Yanukovich's Regions Party is sure to
grab the biggest share of the vote. Yushchenko's Our Ukraine
party lies second with the bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko, his
one-time ally, in third place.

At stake is the fate of a country of 47 million, whose
'Orange' leaders have been unable to deliver on promises after
prizing Ukraine loose from centuries of Russian domination and
setting it on a course for joining the European mainstream.

Much of the wild optimism, generated by a revolution that
turfed out Yanukovich and the Moscow-backed old guard, has
evaporated amid slowing economic growth and infighting in the
ranks of the leadership over corruption.

Though now enjoying total freedom of expression, ordinary
Ukrainians face unpredictable price hikes in basic foodstuffs.

A maddening bureaucracy, a hangover from Soviet times,
frustrates vital parts of daily life such as drawing pensions,
securing social care and organizing children's schooling.

Growth slumped to 2.6 percent last year compared with 12.1
percent in 2004. Western investors are anxious not to get their
fingers burned in a country whose stability is uncertain.

Forty-five parties are running, but polls show that only
from five to seven will clear the 3 percent barrier to win
seats in the 450-seat parliament.

Voters stood in long lines in early morning sunshine at
some polling stations in Kiev, ready to make their choice on an
outsized ballot, nearly one meter in length.

"I came here to vote and I will stand here for as long as
it takes to cast my vote," said Anna Petrovna, a 62-year-old
pensioner. Gennady, 48, came, saw the massive queue and went
away again. "I'll come back later when the crowd has gone
down," he said. Polls were due to close at 1900 GMT.


The only certainty after the vote is that a coalition will
be needed. Weeks, and perhaps months, of back-room bargaining
lie ahead before the country gets a stable, workable

Prime Minister Yuri Yekhanurov said last week that a new
government was likely to be formed only in July.

Not only is Yushchenko threatened by the political comeback
of his old nemesis. He is also weakened by constitutional
reform that has trimmed his powers and given parliament broader
authority including that of appointing the prime minister.

Infighting in the Orange camp over corruption charges that
prompted Yushchenko to sack his comrade, Tymoshenko, last
September further tarnished the image of the liberal

Now Yushchenko faces the uncomfortable knowledge that he
may either have to team up with his old adversary, Yanukovich,
or patch up his quarrel with Tymoshenko.

Either marriage of convenience would carry dangers for

A 'grand coalition' with Yanukovich's party could require
concessions from Yushchenko such as sacrificing more strident
pro-Western advocates, like Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk.

Tymoshenko told Yushchenko last week that teaming up with
Yanukovich would be "tantamount to al Qaeda joining with the
U.S. Republican Party." She warned him such a step could erode
his grass-roots power base.

But patching up with the charismatic Tymoshenko also comes
at a high price for Yushchenko. She would like her old job of
premier back, a difficult step given her interventionist views
that clash with Yushchenko's free market values.

(Additional reporting by Yuri Kulikov)