A hard-fought election will decide whether the orange revolution needs to change its colors

By Yuri Zarakhovich/ Kiev
Time Europe

Under bleached winter skies, Kiev is saturated with color — blues, ice whites, reds and, of course, orange. Political parties have plastered every wall in their liveries; their supporters declare allegiance with vivid scarves, headbands and banners at rallies patrolled by riot police. It's as if Hollywood had decided to re-enact the orange revolution that less than 15 months ago installed the people's choice, Viktor Yushchenko, as Ukrainian President. In the Hollywood version Yushchenko would be an unimpeachable hero and his ousted rival, the former Russia-backed Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, an unalloyed villain.

But parliamentary elections this Sunday, the real reason for the colorful factional displays, are set to prove that there are no heroes in Ukrainian politics — and no irredeemable villains either. Three parties lead a field of 44 competing for the 450 seats in the parliament, the Verkhovna Rada. Yushchenko's liberal-democratic Our Ukraine ( ou) faces strong competition from the Bloc of Yuliya Tymoshenko (BYuT), led by Yushchenko's erstwhile ally and now his bitter opponent. And opinion polls suggest that neither party can expect as many votes as the Party of the Regions ( pr). Recent polls predict just under 18% for ou and 16% for BYuT. With strong support in predominantly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, pr is looking at a hefty lead. "We expect to carry well over 35% of the vote," Nikolai Azarov, chair of pr's political council, told Time.

That would not be enough for an outright majority in the Rada but would mark an extraordinary rehabilitation for Yanukovych, the pr leader originally declared the winner of the 2004 presidential contest against Yushchenko but replaced by his rival after vote rigging provoked an outburst of popular rage. The office of President is not in contention but constitutional reforms have transferred the selection of Prime Minister and most of the Cabinet from the President to the Rada. If Yanukovych gets enough votes to form a coalition with smaller parties, he will have more influence on selecting a government than Yushchenko. That would likely undermine the President's drive to integrate Ukraine more closely with the West, toward an eventual aim of membership in the European Union. Instead, Ukraine would once more align itself with Moscow. "This is a very special election," says Volodymyr Lytvyn, the Rada speaker and leader of the centrist People's Bloc. "At stake is whether Ukraine has passed the point of no return to its so recent authoritarian past."

The orange government came to power promising fundamental change that would make such a return impossible. And to an extent it has delivered: for business, less red tape and tax; for the wider community, better wages and pensions, free speech and fair elections. "Profound democratic changes have occurred both in the structures of the state and in people's minds," says Vasily Doroshchuk, head of Caravan Records, one of the country's leading record labels. But these achievements have been undermined by food and fuel shortages, and soaring inflation. "Some 40% [of voters] are still undecided how they will vote," says the incumbent ou Prime Minister Yuri Yekhanurov. "Most of them are our supporters, but they're now at a loss, because they expected too much too fast, which simply couldn't happen." He predicts that "the Rada will end up split the same way as society."

Those fault lines deepened last autumn, when Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, one-time comrades-in-arms who spearheaded the orange revolution, traded accusations of betraying the cause. Their rift will now play out at the ballot box. "It's like choosing between mother and father when the family breaks up," says record-label boss Doroshchuk.

As often happens in divorce cases, a third party may benefit. A pr activist says, baldly: "We're preparing to grab the rewards of our political comeback." The party's official program is much more benign: improvements to the economy and a better deal for Ukraine in the price of natural gas, nearly doubled by Russia after it briefly suspended supplies late last December. "Russia is an influence, of course," says Yekhanurov. "It's like having a furnace the other side of an inadequate partition wall: they turn it up, you feel the heat; they turn it down, you feel the cold."

As the election approaches, the political temperature is being stoked by the prospect of the largest parties being forced to govern in coalition. Rada Speaker Lytvyn dismisses talk of an ou-pr pairing. "I don't see these two entering a coalition," he says. "But should I prove wrong, I can only say that there are no principles left in politics any more." His reaction was echoed by Tymoshenko in a TV interview last week. "If they go for it, what was the revolution all about, then?" she asked.

Failure to establish a workable government won't just call into question the meaning of the orange revolution. A standoff between Yushchenko and the Rada could unleash the violence and disintegration the revolution avoided. "The country will not endure the ensuing confrontation," says Lytvyn. "Its stamina is exhausted." Fair elections are a legacy of the orange revolution. But denied an upbeat, Hollywood ending, Ukraine's political narrative could still turn into something as bleak and ambiguous as a cold war thriller.


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