Street life: Voters see no future in going back to the past

THE GRANITE ministries of the Stalin era make a jarring backdrop to the jolly street market that has grown up on the Khreshchatyk, the main thoroughfare in Kiev.

The street seems to symbolise Ukraine's development eight years after independence, as it finds its progress to the free market hampered by the weight of its Communist past.

When I last came to Kiev,Ukraine was one of the Soviet republics. Now Ukraine is abroad, yet Kiev still looks less like a European city and more like Moscow, with all the inspiring and disturbing changes brought about by rough and raw capitalism.

On my last visit, my husband and I padded the cold streets in search of a cafe without a queue, and I remember he bought a pair of beige long johns in a dismal state shop on the Khreshchatyk. That same store now sells fur coats, glass and jewellery to well-heeled Ukrainians, who park their four-wheel-drives and black Mercedes limousines outside.

Next door, there is a casino and nightclub, where the rich come to party in tuxedos or slinky dresses worn under gold anoraks.

The Khreshchatyk is much more fun than it used to be. At weekends nowadays, it is closed to traffic and becomes a giant pedestrian precinct, where citizens can wander among the fountains and buy beer and hot pies from small stalls. On Saturday, shoppers were entertained by a Ukrainian comedian, a group of Peruvian flute players and an African student who drew the crowds by demonstrating his ability to write a person's name on a single grain of rice.

Yet one could not miss the elderly beggars and pathetic child violinists who added to this scene a heart-rending Dickensian quality.

In Soviet times, students bought jeans on the street in furtive black- market exchanges. Now they can go to a smart fashion shop, selling not only jeans but the latest fleeces from the West. Outside that shop on Saturday an old man was burrowing through a litter bin, looking for scraps of food. That was a sight you never saw under Communism.

Thus, despite the obvious freedoms - the Ukrainian language has been revived and the Orthodox Church is flourishing - there were many who intended to punish President Leonid Kuchma, and give their vote to his Communist opponent, Petro Symonenko, in Sunday's election, which saw the incumbent handed a new term of office.

One of them was Tamara, a widow reduced to begging. She cried when I gave her five Hriven - the equivalent of $1 - even though she could buy little more than a hot pie with the money and certainly not the jeans which, at 288 Hriven, costs about the same as the average monthly salary. "I used to live well," she said. "I was an assistant in a food shop. But my pension of 70 Hriven buys nothing. Kuchma has brought me to this."

There were others on the Khreshchatyk who had every reason to be disgruntled. Lyudmila, a former state kindergarten nurse, was selling books out of a cardboard box because she could not find any other work, and Vladimir, a professional photographer, was trying to make a living by offering passers- by the chance to be pictured with a monkey, although few citizens had money for such frivolity.

Yet they took the same attitude as Yevdokia, a pensioner trying to persuade the weight conscious to try out her scales, which was that reform, once started, could only be continued because a return to Communism would be even more chaotic. She was voting for Kuchma, "not for my own sake but for grandchildren, in the hope that they will live to see better times".

She was a former arms factory worker. She was wearing a red scarf. I had marked her down as a Communist sympathiser. But appearances can be deceptive, which is why, to the end, it was difficult to predict the outcome of the elections.

In the event, Ukrainians grudgingly gave a second chance to Mr Kuchma who was, they decided, the preferable "devil you know".

Within hours of his "victory" a new joke was circulating about him. It went like this: Kuchma's assistant goes in to see him and says: "Which do you want first, sir, the good news or the bad?" "Give me the good news," says Kuchma. "The good news is that you have been re-elected." "And the bad?" "The bad news is that nobody voted for you."

The point being, of course, that a vote for Kuchma was really a vote against the Communists, seen as the worse of the two evils.