As Ukrainians gear up for parliamentary elections on Sunday, the controversy over last weekend's election in their northern neighbour Belarus has given rise to feelings of nostalgia.
Scenes of opposition demonstrators in Minsk have evoked memories of the "Orange Revolution" of late 2004 when thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets in protest against alleged vote-tampering by their own authoritarian president and succeeded in overturning what many judged to be a rigged contest.

While this Sunday's election may not be as dramatic, the outcome is arguably just as decisive in terms of the future direction of the biggest country in eastern Europe after Russia. The contest could decide whether Ukraine accelerates its efforts to integrate further with the rest of Europe or moves back to a closer relationship with Russia.

Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-west president brought to power in the Orange Revolution, faces the uncomfortable prospect of seeing his rival Viktor Yanukovich, the pro-Russian leader who lost out in the re-run of the 2004 presidential race, emerging victorious in Sunday's vote. Mr Yanukovich's Regions party leads in the opinion polls with about 30 per cent support, ahead of the president's Our Ukraine party.

The president has made clear he will respect Sunday's result. With the choice of the future prime minister to be decided by the new parliament, speculation is now focused on the possible coalition. The two most talked-about options are a new coalition between Mr Yushchenko and his populist former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, or a so-called "grand coalition" between Mr Yushchenko and Mr Yanukovich.

The campaigning is lively, with more than a dozen parties spending heavily on national advertising campaigns and many more focusing on local contests. The opposition is campaigning hard on the theme of economic hardship, an issue underscored earlier this year by Russia's decision to cut gas supplies to Ukraine, while the government is trying to keep alive the spirit of the Orange Revolution.

And yet there is none of the intensity of 2004. As Ukrainians watch the much smaller but still similar uprising in Belarus, many worry the spirit of the Orange Revolution, which saw thousands of people occupy central Kiev in protest at the first, contested vote won by Mr Yanukovich, has faded.

Olena Kornichenko, a student who spent yesterday manning a Yushchenko campaign tent in central Kiev, said: "When we stood on the square [in central Kiev] it was such a spiritual moment. I just hope when people watch the news in Belarus they remember and, despite all the disappointment with Yushchenko, they don't betray the square."

Every evening Ukrainian television channels start with coverage of the local campaign, replete with coloured balloons and other attention-grabbing gimmicks. Then the tone turns somber as the correspondent from Minsk comes on, reporting by telephone because live video is not permitted.

Despite Belarus's hardline tactics, Mr Yanukovich's Regions party and other pro-Russian groups are strongly promoting closer ties to the country through the Russia-led Common Economic Area, which also includes Kazakhstan.

The economic union was announced in 2004 but has not been implemented, partly because Mr Yushchenko will not commit to the level of integration sought by other members.

Mr Yanukovich's support for the union has a strong economic logic: Belarus and Russia are Ukraine's fastest-growing export markets, mainly because of Russia's rising income from oil and gas and the preferential oil and gas prices Belarus enjoys. By comparison, Ukraine's economy is groaning under the weight of increased prices for Russian gas and from repeated increases in pensions, social benefits and public salaries. Gross domestic product growth in January-February was just 1.5 per cent, one of the lowest rates in eastern Europe.

Some western diplomats argue a Yushchenko-Yanukovich coalition would be the best result for the economy, since it might allow Mr Yushchenko to improve ties with Russia and avoid further gas price increases. But Mr Yushchenko would be hard pressed to explain the move to his supporters.

Ms Kornichenko said she and her friends would take to the streets against any Yushchenko-Yanukovich government. "If Yushchenko did that it would ruin him politically," she said.
By Tom Warner, the Financial Times

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