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15 Jan, 2010 23:31

Amid tensions, Ukraine braces for Sunday's presidential poll

The leading candidates in Ukraine's presidential election are making the most of their last opportunities to campaign before polls open on January 17.

Political life in the country has been turbulent over the last five years, and this ballot seems set to be no exception.

The Ukraine presidential election is a two-step process – candidates need 50% plus one of the vote in order to gain the nomination for president. That is unlikely to happen considering there are 18 candidates on the field, including one that has changed his name to the Ukrainian equivalent of “None of the Above.”

Of the eighteen candidates, three are major players – the incumbent president Viktor Yushchenko, his former rival Viktor Yanukovich and the current prime minister Yulia Timoshenko.

Yushchenko, the country’s incumbent leader, is slipping in the polls while Yanukovich is starting to pull ahead, with actual leader Timoshenko in second place.

This is the first presidential election since the “Orange Revolution” of 2004 when the nation was divided between supporters of Yushchenko and Yanukovich. Eventually the former was swept into power on a wave of street protests.

This year’s campaign has seen its share of agitation. In October 2009 a member of Yulia Timoshenko’s block was accused of being a pedophile, however, the allegations never made it to court.

A recently scandal involved Ukraine voters going to a web site to say that they don’t care who the president is, they just want to sell their vote.

Last Thursday the Ukrainian security service announced that an undisclosed bank had given millions in cash to one of the contenders in the race. The agency reminded banks that this kind of activity is illegal, especially so close to the campaign.

In another development, Ukraine’s Central Election Committee refused to register about 2,000 official international observers from Georgia, RIA Novosti news agency reported. Some experts say that it may have happened out of fear that the observers might be used by one of the presidential candidates to announce that the election results are rigged.

Moreover, on Friday Mikhail Brodsky, one of the contenders for the post of the Ukrainian president, announced that in the guise of international observers, a group of Georgian militants were to arrive in Ukraine to disrupt elections in the country.

Ukrainian Orange Revolution: vicious cycle

The front man of one of Ukraine’s top rock bands, Mad Heads XL that performed to a crowd on Independence Square in Kiev during what was later dubbed the Orange Revolution, describes the experience as unforgettable.

“It was one of the most memorable concerts for me because of the crowd,” says Vadim Krasnookiy, lead singer of Mad Heads XL. “The crowd was very inspired, everyone believed in the possibility of positive changes. I felt a very special energy from the audience.”

Swept up in the fever of mass protest, tens of thousands of Ukrainians braved sub-zero temperatures to rally on the square in December 2004, angered by a flawed election won by Viktor Yanukovych. The public voice craved radical change, and when the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko won an election re-run, everyone thought that this was just what the country needed.

But five years on, many Ukrainians feel let down by a leadership that has failed to deliver on its bold promises – even those who stood in the orange camp during the bloodless revolution.

World heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko supported Viktor Yushenko back in 2004.

But Klitschko, now a politician in Kiev’s administration, is far from happy at what he sees in today’s Ukraine.

“There's great disappointment because unfortunately most of the promises made in 2004 have not been kept,” says the former WBC World Boxing Champion. “And the majority of people feel cheated. Corruption, for example, has become even more widespread. There are some positive changes like freedom of speech or eased visa regulations with many European countries but overall nothing has changed in Ukraine.”

But at first, it did seem like the beginning of a better life. During the first few years, the country saw steady double-digit economic growth, it was finally admitted to the World Trade Organization and at one point it even seemed that EU membership – something almost two-thirds of the population wanted – was only months away.

But then things took a turn for the worse. Disputes between the two heroes of the orange revolution – Viktor Yushenko and Yulia Timoshenko – led to repeated political upheavals and dissolutions of parliament. Street protests became a matter of routine.

The country’s former president Leonid Kuchma says it is a sad sight. “These have been years of missed chances. Instead of working together, the President and the Prime Minister have been using their power to grab as many assets as they could. Can anything good happen in such a situation?” asks Kuchma, who led the country from 1994-2005. “And when other countries see that Ukraine is so unstable of course they do not invest anything.”

As the country prepares for Sunday’s presidential vote, many say they don’t trust their politicians and will probably stay at home on Election Day. But despite the general frustration over the orange era, some are unwilling to abandon their ideals.

“We do not believe in one good politician or president that can change the country for us. We realize that we can only do it all together,” says Vadim Krasnooky.

As the closely fought campaign comes to an end, with Timoshenko and Yanukovych leading the polls, one feeling prevails in Ukraine, that in a certain sense, history may be caught in a vicious cycle.

Five years ago, it was the people’s desire to change things that inspired the Orange Revolution. This time around, despite much weaker faith in their politicians, Ukrainians are again hungry for something new. The big questions now are whether any of the candidates can deliver the goods, and whether Independence Square in Kiev will again witness the passions of Ukrainian politics.