Putin's visit is at the invitation of President Kuchma in connection with the commemoration on 28 October of the 60th anniversary of Ukraine's liberation from German troops during World War II. This date, however, has never before been celebrated in Kyiv.
In Ukraine, as in other countries of the former Soviet Union, 9 May is traditionally recognized as the official holiday marking the capitulation of Nazi Germany. In Ukraine, 6 November -- the day Kyiv was liberated -- is also a national holiday. But in 2004, President Kuchma decided -- for some unexplained reason -- to hold a massive military parade on 28 October and to invite leaders from all the former Soviet republics to Kyiv. The date he actually signed the decree is unclear and has not been posted on the presidential website, where all such decrees are generally noted. The decision immediately created a controversy inside the country.
A recent poll claims that some 71 percent of Ukrainians have a favorable view of the Russian president.
The date falls on a workday, Thursday. When the presidential administration decided to declare 28 October a holiday, it did not declare it a paid holiday; so the majority of Kyiv's inhabitants are expected to be at work that day and not celebrating the country's liberation from Nazism -- or protesting Putin's visit.
Adding to the growing controversy is the question of the exact date on which Ukraine was truly liberated. Ukrainian historians tell RFE/RL that 28 October is highly speculative and not based on historical fact. Most seem to fell that the date was chosen for other then historical reasons.
As election day -- 31 October -- drew closer, a number of Ukrainian opposition politicians told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that they were concerned that the government was preparing provocations that could lead to antigovernment rioting in the streets that might allow for a reinforcement of troop levels in the capital under the pretext of a military parade.
Independent Ukrainian website "Ukrayinska pravda" (http://www.pravda.com.ua) pointed to a rash of incidents that took place in the capital as evidence that the government was stirring up discontent. The most conspicuous of those acts was a raid on the offices of a student organization in Kyiv during which a homemade explosive device was purportedly found. The student group, PORA, claimed that there had been two searches of their offices by Interior Ministry forces: The first was videotaped by members of PORA and showed that nothing was found; but during a second search, during which no one was allowed to be in the offices except police, the device was allegedly found hidden in a wastebasket.
As concern mounted in Kyiv after news clips on pro-government television showed militia officials describing the incident, Kyiv Mayor Oleksandr Omelchenko announced on 20 October that if the situation dictated it, he would declare martial law in Kyiv on the night of the elections. The next day he rescinded this threat. But on 24 October, a day after 100,000 supporters of opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko gathered in Kyiv, Omelchenko stated that he would ban all opposition demonstrations in the city.
Earlier, on 20 October, an airplane carrying Yushchenko was not allowed to land in the city of Melitopol, where he was scheduled to make a campaign stop. The next day, this was repeated in the city of Kryvyy Rih.
Adding oil to the fire, the Prosecutor-General's Office in Kyiv issued a statement on 22 October that was apparently calculated to further infuriate the opposition. Yushchenko, the statement read, had not been a victim of poisoning -- as the clinic in Vienna at which he had undergone treatment suggested in its diagnosis-- but rather had fallen ill to an acute attack of herpes.
Putin's visit to Kyiv on the eve of the election was seen by the opposition not merely as an excuse to bring more troops into the city, but also as an attempt to provide Putin with a platform from which to endorse Viktor Yanukovych, the current prime minister and the candidate supported by the current Ukrainian administration.
In interviews broadcast by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, members of Yushchenko's campaign team cautiously speculated that if Putin came out openly in favor of Yanukovych, this would have either a negative effect on the voters or no effect whatsoever. Yanukovych, however, disagreed and was quoted by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service on 20 October as saying that he would welcome Putin's endorsement.
Putin, having set a precedent by issuing a statement recently supporting George W. Bush's candidacy in the U.S. presidential race, has seemingly insured himself against criticism by the United States that he is interfering in Ukrainian domestic affairs. Some pro-Yanukovych members of the Ukrainian parliament commented that if Putin can voice his preference in the upcoming American election, he should be allowed to do the same in Ukraine.
As preparations for Putin's visit were under way, Russian Liberal-Democratic Party head Vladimir Zhirinovskii arrived in Ukraine to campaign for Yanukovych, who has stressed his pro-Russian orientation throughout the campaign. Accusing Yushchenko of "nationalism" and of trying to divide the Ukrainian and Russian nations, Zhirinovskii went on a tour of Ukraine endorsing the pro-regime and pro-Russian candidate.
Putin is expected by many observers to stress that Ukraine was liberated in 1945 as part of a joint effort by all "Soviet peoples." The theme of invincible Slav unity is designed to appeal to those Ukrainian voters who only days earlier heard Zhirinovskii berating Yushchenko for his alleged anti-Russian nationalism.
Ukraine's liberation by the multinational Red Army during World War II evokes highly emotional images among only a small and dwindling portion of the Ukrainian electorate. Its impact on the Yanukovych campaign is therefore doubtful.
On the other hand, Putin's popularity in Ukraine is high, according to a recent public-opinion poll taken by the Russian Fund for Public Opinion and reported in "Vedomosti" on 22 October. The poll claims that some 71 percent of Ukrainians have a favorable view of the Russian president. Whether Putin's alleged popularity might rub off on Yanukovych is questionable, but the people running his campaign are apparently betting that it will not hurt.