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Ukraine: Economic Issues Dominate Presidential Campaign

Ukrainians go to the polls to vote for a president this weekend in a race many see as a choice between the pro-Western incumbent and his pro-communist challengers. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports from Kyiv that most voters say they plan to vote according to their wallets.

Kyiv, 29 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In a country where most people scrape by on around $50 a month and pensioners go for months without being paid at all, the economy has been the issue dominating the presidential campaign.

All 13 remaining candidates, including the incumbent, President Leonid Kuchma, have pledged to revive Ukraine's shattered economy, raise incomes, and create new jobs. But most opinion polls show the race is between Kuchma and a few leftist candidates.

Kuchma, has presided over a corruption-riddled administration that has seen a disastrous decline in Ukraine's economy and has failed to push through significant market reforms. He promises in his campaign to surge ahead with radical reforms, including privatization of land and industry.

The leftists, including Communist Petro Symonenko and Progressive Socialist Natalya Vitrenko, want a virtual return to Soviet-style government. They advocate the dismantling of Ukraine's limited market reforms, and they promise massive state handouts -- without explaining where the money will come from.

The president warns that only he can furnish conditions for Ukrainian businesses to grow. Kuchma says the West, which has provided billions of dollars in loans and aid to Ukraine, will not be so generous if a leftist is president.

That message has resonated with members of Ukraine's business community, like Oleksandr Koftonenko. The 31-year-old Koftonenko is the head of KAS, one of Ukraine's most successful advertising companies.

"I have to say that, in the last five years, my company has grown quite successfully. Obviously I'd like it to be even more successful. And if I was able to develop it under this president, it seems to me that, possibly, he's the best president."

But Koftonenko's business is thriving. The economy is seen differently by people involved in more modest businesses.

Maria Herasenko runs a fruit stall on a street in the center of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. She says that for her, the most important election issue is the payment of salaries to state employees, who make up most of her clientele. Despite her business leanings, she intends to vote for the virulently anti-capitalist Vitrenko.

"People have to be paid. Nothing else. For my business to work, other people have to be paid. If people have money, that means my business will work."

The battered economy has produced a huge underclass of people -- pensioners, invalids, the unemployed -- who can n-o-t survive on the tiny state handouts that often come months late.

Even in the center of Kyiv, the metro stations and subways under the main shopping area are filled with beggars: amputees, blind people, child buskers, old women. All are pleading for a few coins to help them stave off hunger.

Mykhailo Oshadov is a 72-year-old pensioner who travels from his village of Staveschach, 70 kilometers away, to Kyiv, to beg outside the main department store.

"Kuchma hasn't paid me any pension since May. I live in a village and haven't had any pension since May. I get 37 hryvna ($8) a month and they have increased it by (only) 20 kopecks."

Oshadov says he will vote for the Communists, because he believes they will take money from the businessmen who, he says, have grown rich at the expense of others. Like many of Ukraine's impoverished, Oshadov associates business with crime and corruption -- the other topic that most voters discuss.

Big business in Ukraine has become synonymous with corruption, a view exploited by the leftist candidates. Those struggling to feed themselves and their families see anyone who drives a Western car as a member of some sort of mafia.

Older voters, in particular, talk of order, using the term "poriadok," a word much used in the communist era. Many older people believe only a leftist can establish the kind of order that will restore economic stability and their pensions.

Yaroslav Koshiv, a journalist who is writing a book about the election, believes that older voters in particular will be swayed by anger at rampant corruption.

"Ukraine is one of the safest places in the world as far as crime on the streets. The crime in Ukraine takes place in government offices where officials get into those offices for the purpose of stealing. The biggest crime in Ukraine is the government's decision not to pay pensions. This causes early death and illness and it's a hell of a way for the government to balance its budget."

But Koshiv believes that many people who dislike Kuchma will still vote for him because they cynically believe that the present administration has probably satisfied its ambitions in terms of amassing fortunes, while a new one would embark on a fresh round of corruption.

"The main issues that concern the voters are economic. They want economic stability and above all they don't want a new elite which they're afraid will cause instability and more corruption. And though they hate and dislike the present government, led by President Kuchma, they will vote for him because they fear that with a left-wing government they will not only go back to the past but that they will have no future."

Many voters say that they have little trust in any of the main candidates in Sunday's election. In their view, the choice is between someone who is bad and someone who is worse.