Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine; 18 March 1998 (RFE/RL) - The industrial powerhouse of eastern, mostly ethnic-Russian Ukraine has produced most of Ukraine's recent leaders. And, it is in this region that politicians such as Prime Minister Valery Pustovoytenko and former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko have come home to look for support, ahead of the March 29 parliamentary elections.
Pustovoytkenko leads the People's Democratic Party, and Lazarenko leads Hromada, two centrist parties that have embraced capitalism, and which have their strongest bases in Dnipropetrovsk.
But what they've found is that the government is no more popular here than elsewhere.
"It's their fault the country is in such terrible shape," said Dnipropetrovsk pensioner Tamara Sharapova. "And now they want us to vote for them?"
About Lazarenko, one resident says, "the guy is a complete crook. He builds himself a dacha in Switzerland, he lives in a government palace, and he thinks people will vote for him? He's the most corrupt one of them all," says Vladimir, an unemployed steel worker, who would not give his last name.
The unemployed steel worker is only repeating what Pustovoytenko and his allies have been saying about Lazarenko for months.
Pustovoytenko has struck back with allegations of his own.
For all that enmity, each candidate has issued strikingly similar appeals to voters not to rock the boat.
"Trust in experience," enjoins a 20-meter-long billboard festooned with blue-and-yellow flags that add a splash of color to an industrial neighborhood. "Vote for experience! Vote PDP (People's Democratic Party)!"
Larisa Trofimenko, a local Hromada candidate, uses much the same argument in a television address. "Vote for the professionals, vote for Hromada," she asks.
While the People's Democrats and Hromada and plead for trust, a new generation of industrial managers is moving up. And they are willing to let voters compare their record to those of the incumbents.
These elections are decisive," says Viktor Pinchuk, who's running against Trofimenko and 15 other candidates. "The third millennium is beginning, and the country cannot withstand another parliament like the last one. We will not have a second chance."
As director of a massive steel pipe-rolling concern, Pinchuk carries authority in Dnipropetrovsk. His company, Dniprotrub, is a big exporter. It employs thousands of locals and, what's more, pays them regularly, a feat that Pinchuk eagerly contrasts with the government's performance.
"We will have no payment of late salaries or pensions until industry in the country begins working," Pinchuk declares during a debate with other parliamentary hopefuls. "The government has not been able to do that for four years. It is as simple as that."
Dniprotrub's young director fits the stereotype of the 'New Ukrainian' industrial baron: pragmatic, direct, well-dressed, result-oriented and unwilling to be associated with the current government.
His program is as tailor-made to fit him as his suit. Aside from boilerplate commitments to fight corruption and help the poor, it features corporate tax cuts, selective government protectionism and a program to employ more youth.
As far as Pinchuk is concerned, he has all the experience he needs. "Vote for the one who you think will be the best manager," he advised voters at the conclusion of the debate.
Other successful local businessmen in the race, include Yury Kuperman (telecommunications), Aleksei Lysenko (banking) and Viktor Valerianikov, who has made it big as the director of the Pridneprovsky Meat and Dairy Combine.
Valerianikov says, "many other candidates make promises about what they will do in the next two years. I have already done it - built two factories, created over 1,000 jobs."
Voters who think Ukrainian industrialists as a whole have not performed much better than Ukrainian politicians can always opt for nominees of national parties. They may be untried, but that also means they have not disappointed.
The former Popular Front Movement, Rukh; the Communists, and the Greens have managed to recruit a candidate in each of the five local districts.
"My party asked me to run, so here I am," said Valentin Milaev, one of the Greens' candidates. "I have no political ambitions myself."
Dnipropetrovsk's voters face a wealth of choices. Most don't find any of them all that appetizing.
"I have nothing to do with politics," said Elena Savchuk, a 21-year-old translator for a Saab distributor. "These elections have nothing to do with me."
Most analysts believe those mostly likely to vote are either already retired or close to it.
And local Communist candidate Evgenii Postashov is trying to exploit nostalgia. "We must return to a planned economy and stop privatization," he declared.
At a recent candidate debate, Postashov drewed mixed reviews. Said one older woman, "That's what we need, real Communists!"
But then a white-haired man yelled, "If we let you back in, how long before we see the gulag?"