Two years after 80 per cent of the population voted to leave the Soviet Union, Ukraine must choose a parliament at a time when the twin and incompatible temptations of fascism and pro-Russian secession are making inroads at different ends of the country.
Neither extreme will dominate the new legislature, one of whose main tasks will be to concoct a new constitution but they will help polarise an already fragile political order and add to a general paralysis that risks turning post-Soviet economic collapse into a man- made disaster on the scale of the terrible Ukrainian famine of the 1930s.
Only 11 per cent of the candidates belong to specific parties. A pyschiatrist has declared at least one-fifth of them mentally unstable. Most have no coherent programme. The last election was in 1990 when Ukraine was a Soviet republic. Today Soviet-style electoral rules survive, such as the stipulation that voters cross out candidates they do not want instead of indicating which candidates they do.
'If there is a conspiracy, it is to perpetuate a very dangerous muddle,' says Roman Zwzycz, of Elections 94, an independent monitoring group. The plethora of candidates and convoluted rules, requiring the winner to get at least 25 per cent of the registered vote, will force many run-offs. Adding to the confusion are three referendums on language and local autonomy in strongly Russian-speaking regions: Crimea, Donetsk and Lugansk.
The stronghold of Ukrainian nationalism is the west around Lvov, a jewel of the old Habsburg Empire where bands of guerrillas took to the woods after the Second World War and continued sporadic resistance to Soviet authority until as late as 1956. The more mainstream nationalists of Rukh are being pressed hard by fascist firebrands from the Ukrainian National Assembly (UNA) and its para-military organisation, the Ukrainian People's Self-Defence (UNSO). They offer a mix of economic populism and strident anti- Russian rhetoric. Their slogan is: 'Force, Order, Prosperity.'
'As soon as we can reach the people, the majority will stand on our side,' predicts Viktor Melnik, an UNA candidate who, like many of its supporters, wears military fatigues and has a patch on his arm with a swastika-like insignia. 'We are not fascists. There are a lot of Russians, Jews and negroes in our organisation.' He was unable to provide names or membership figures.
At the other end of the country are the pro-Russian politicians of the Ukrainian Communist and Socialist parties. They are by far the biggest and best organised of some 35 registered parties in Ukraine. They are strongest in the eastern and southern regions, where there are large Russian- speaking populations.
The most influential block in the new parliament is likely to be the so-called Inter-Regional group co-chaired by the former prime minister, Leonid Kuchma. He too has strong support in Russian-speaking areas, favours closer ties with Russia but also some moves towards the market: 'Our aim is rapid market reform and strategic partnership with Russia.'
One sentiment cutting across geographical and ethnic division is rage at the incumbents blamed for Ukraine's economic catastrophe. Inflation has dropped to around 20 per cent a month from more than 80 per cent last year, but this is because much of the economy has stopped. Production fell by more than a third in January and February compared with the same period last year. 'The backlash vote will be very strong. Everyone will be targeted. Everyone will be hurt,' predicts Mr Zwzycz.
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