Ukraine's Communist revival is tested in presidential election

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The Independent Online
"I SHALL emigrate to America if the Reds come back," said Viktor, a small businessman anxious about the outcome of the presidential elections in Ukraine, where the incumbent, Leonid Kuchma, yesterday faced a challenge from Petro Symonenko, the leader of the Communist Party.

The mood resembled that in Russia in 1996, when those on the receiving end of painful market reforms faced the choice between going back to the certainties of Communism or giving Boris Yeltsin a second chance to make capitalism work. Russia will soon make new choices between the heirs of Yeltsin and others wanting to correct reform. But Ukraine still stands at the earlier crossroads, deciding whether to press on to the market or retreat to the safety of Soviet-style command economics.

Analysts said the election would hinge on the apathy or interest of the voters. Mr Kuchma, 61, was expected to win another five-year mandate unless turn-out was low, in which case Mr Symonenko, 47, could benefit from the traditional discipline of Communist supporters.

Ukranian television showed deaf and dumb children using sign language to urge adults to make their voices heard, an advert which, if it succeeded in bringing out the voters, would help Mr Kuchma, who has enjoyed the benefit of a powerful election machine. The television showed both candidates voting bright and early at polling stations bedecked with blue and yellow Ukranian flags.

Ukraine used to be the bread basket of the old Soviet Union. When it won independence from Moscow in 1991, it seemed that it would have a golden future. Its people were renowned for their thrift and it was thought likely that the big Ukranian diaspora in the United States would help ease the transition to capitalism.

The reality has turned out to be very different. Ukraine has been thrust into poverty and plagued by corruption since the collapse of Communism. Ukranian guest workers travel in their thousands to take menial jobs in Russia, which they see as being relatively prosperous, although some Russians complain that their country is now "the third world with an Arctic climate".

Many impoverished Ukranians were likely to register a protest against Mr Kuchma by supporting Mr Symonenko. The Communist vote was expected to be especially strong among the elderly and in the country's east, which as seen massive job losses in coal mining and other heavy industries that no longer receive state subsidies.

Mr Kuchma, a former Communist, comparable in some ways to Boris Yeltsin except that he is younger and in better health, could expect most of his support to come from young people, although there were pensioners prepared to persevere with reform for the sake of the next generation. The incumbent president could also count on the vote of nationalists in western Ukraine, who once thought he was too close to Moscow, but who now see him as the lesser of two evils.

Mr Kuchma, respected in the West, has defended Ukranian independence while developing a friendly relationship with the master of the Kremlin in Moscow. Mr Symonenko, on the other hand, would water down Ukranian independence by bringing his country into a "Slav union" not only with Russia but also with the Belarus of Alexander Lukashenko, a leader with worrying dictatorial tendencies.

The election campaign was dirty, even violent. One candidate was injured in a bomb attack before the first round on 30 October. In the second round, Mr Kuchma sought to frighten potential Symonenko supporters by warning that the Communists would bring back the gulags in which millions of Ukranians died in Stalin's time. Mr Symonenko, who says he and his party have learnt from the mistakes of the past, responded with accusations that Mr Kuchma had presided over the rise of a corrupt mafia.

After the first round, in which 11 other candidates were knocked out, both Mr Kuchma, who won 36 per cent then and Mr Symonenko, who won 22 per cent, tried to woo the disappointed presidential hopefuls. Mr Symonenko was supported yesterday by other left-wingers even more radical than himself.

For his part, Mr Kuchma strengthened his position by bringing on board the former opponent who had criticised him for corruption. In a move reminiscent of the way Mr Yeltsin co-opted General Alexander Lebed after he did well in the first round of the 1996 Russian elections, Mr Kuchma appointed Yevhen Marchuk, a former KGB officer, to be his new national security chief.