London, UK, Tuesday, September 24, 2007
Ukrainian voters are understandably less than thrilled by the choice offered in next Sunday's parliamentary elections.
In the three years since the 2004 Orange revolution, they have seen their leaders quarrel, swap corruption charges and generally fail to establish a stable government.
If the opinion polls are right, the election will not make a decisive change: President Viktor Yushchenko, prime minister Viktor Yanukovich and opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko will remain in charge of the three biggest political blocs, with none having a majority. The only answer will be more bickering and more bargaining.
Moreover, the country's business oligarchs wield more power than they did under the authoritarian former president Leonid Kuchma.
Rinat Akhmetov, the richest, has an estimated fortune of $15bn-plus. That puts him behind Roman Abramovich, Russia's wealthiest man, who has about $19bn. But Russia's economy is five times larger than Ukraine's.
No businessman in the world has as much domestic economic clout as Mr Akhmetov. Even if he abjured politics, he would inevitably have big political influence. In fact, Mr Akhmetov is an MP and active backer of Mr Yanukovich's Regions party.
With so much power in one man's hands, it will be hard for Ukraine to develop a healthy democracy. Little wonder, voters are disillusioned.
Yet, Ukraine's political life is in far better shape than seemed possible before the Orange revolution. The elections will doubtless be hit by localised claims of ballot-rigging, but the days of nationwide fraud are gone; the media are largely free; and there is real political competition among the parties.
The economy is distorted by gross inequality but it is growing at its fastest-ever pace. Ordinary Ukrainians may still not have much, but they have more than at any time since independence.
Russia is backing pro-Russia politicians in the polls, but its efforts are, fortunately, a far cry from its central role in Mr Yanukovich's scandal-hit 2004 campaign.
Meanwhile, the west has dropped its wholesale enthusiasm for Mr Yushchenko for more measured support for politicians backing European Union-oriented policies. Ukrainians will vote on Sunday mostly free of direct foreign influence.
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