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Ukraine: Villagers Are Cynical About Presidential Election

More than 60 percent of Ukraine's population lives in the depressed countryside, so the rural vote could be decisive in the presidential election this Sunday. RFE/RL correspondent Lily Hyde finds a high level of cynicism among villagers in rural Ukraine.

Ukraine, 29 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Ducks waddle along a road in the Ukrainian countryside, where the villages seem lost in another time. Horses pull carts of straw, and villagers pedal by on ancient bicycles, bundled up in quilted coats and felt boots.

But the current electioneering frenzy has reached even remote areas. Ukrainian flags fly outside the village halls, which will act as polling stations for the presidential election on Sunday. Notice boards are covered with posters for some of the 15 various candidates. Villagers are not as well informed as their peers in the towns, but most are just as jaded, convinced that the information they do get is biased.

In Skybyn, north of Kyiv, a sign on the railway bridge proclaims that the region supports the incumbent, President Leonid Kuchma. Shopkeeper Luba Kuzmik flicks through a batch of newspapers left by neighbors and campaigners. Kuzmik says the media are offering no objective information, only diatribes for or against the different candidates.

"I think now there's no truth anywhere. One or another, this against someone, that against Kuchma, the other against Moroz, who knows. Of course we don't get sufficient information and true information, because whatever newspaper you open, or when you turn on the TV, whatever program you turn on, it just shows one against the other."

In Kyiv, talk is widespread that independent media have been repressed by Kuchma's government during the campaign. Still, city-dwellers have a large choice of newspapers. But in rural areas, newspapers are harder to come by. Villagers are aware that there is an information gap.

Grigory Petrovich, a worker from the local factory in Semypolky, says television is giving only a partial, and partisan, picture.

"The information isn't equal. There's more about the current president, and very little about the others. Some other channels rush by, but we don't spend all our time in front of the TV, especially in the countryside, there's lots of work. Probably each candidate has his own newspaper, I think, but we don't know because in the village very little information reaches us. It's really expensive to subscribe to a newspaper, (we) only (get) newspapers with TV listings."

Although a bucolic vision of Ukraine, full of waving corn and smiling sunflowers, is common campaign material, the reality is very different. State-owned shops display rows of empty shelves; school and village halls are visibly crumbling. In unheated libraries, the librarians sit wrapped up in scarves and coats.

Few rural-dwellers are inclined to believe what they see on television, says Petrovich.

"There are very few trusting people left because we are fooled at every step. It is just promises, promises. This president made promises and has done nothing."

As Ukraine's economic crisis has hit rural areas hardest, there is likely to be much support in the villages for the extreme leftist candidates, Petro Symonenko and Natalia Vitrenko. Older voters, in particular, are upset at their poor living standards.

Out feeding her cow, 73-year-old Zina said she pays no attention to the media because it only shows the corruption of Ukrainian politicians.

"I don't want to watch this lying. One stole money and went to America, another gave the money to his layabout grandsons who are abroad, and we're suffering. I don't read because I can't see to read newspapers. There's nothing interesting in them. When we had a life you could watch TV and go to the cinema and there were lots of things to do under the Soviet Union, but now its just shameful to sit with the children and watch TV -- naked and poor and all that."

Perhaps to counter his perceived lack of rural support, Kuchma seems to be the only candidate actively campaigning in villages. The near-empty state-owned shop in Bohdanivka displays Kuchma posters assuring locals "all will be well." The saleswoman, who does not want to give her name, says she was told by the local authorities to put up the poster.

"They brought them from the village authority, the council, and told us we should put them up here. But who we will vote for, we don't know."

Such input from local authorities is common. A young soldier in Semypolky told RFE/RL he was instructed by his superior officer on how to vote. But most villagers say that the meager information they receive from their bosses or from the media will have little effect on the way they will vote.

Those who said they supported Kuchma said they chose him because he had already had time to steal from the country, and so would be unlikely to steal more. Those who said they would vote for leftists based their decision on their current poverty and a nostalgia for the past.