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Ukraine: Presidential Election Reached Decisive Round

This Sunday, Ukrainians went to the polls to elect a president in a contest widely seen as determining whether the country stays on a pro-western, market reform course or makes a sharp turn back to communism and Soviet-style government. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky, in this report from Kyiv, took a look at what was at stake.

Kyiv, Nov. 15 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The two contenders for Ukraine's presidency are the incumbent, Leonid Kuchma, and the Communist Party leader, Petro Symonenko.

Kuchma is standing as a democrat and says he wants to continue Ukraine's faltering steps toward a market economy. He says he wants Ukraine to join the European Union, maintain close contacts with NATO and has promised to accelerate political and economic reforms if he is returned to power.

Symonenko says he wants to win the presidency to abolish the post and return to the sort of Soviet-style rule known before Ukraine broke away from the Soviet Union, where the executive, legislature and judiciary were all controlled by the Communist Party. He says he wants to re-establish a new Soviet Union and makes no secret of his admiration for Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, or his close cooperation with Russian Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov.

Symonenko made headway in his campaign by concentrating on Ukraine's economic plight, which has left millions below the official poverty line, and by promising to fight rampant official corruption, for which Kuchma is widely blamed.

The first round of voting showed that the majority of Symonenko's support came from the elderly, who have suffered particularly and have to survive on meager pensions, if they are paid at all. He also drew much of his support from the country's East. Kuchma received most of his vote from younger people. Many of them expressed the view that despite the things they did not like about Kuchma, he represented a kind of stability and was the best alternative.

In the first round of the elections, at the end of last month, 13 candidates took part. Under Ukrainian electoral law the two with the most votes went through to fight it out in this Sunday's run-off.

Kuchma, with 36 percent of the vote in the first round, compared to Symonenko's 22 percent, seemed to have a comfortable lead. But the two other candidates getting the next biggest shares of votes were also Leftists who now urge their supporters to vote Communist.

Despite much back-room bargaining which saw Kuchma award a top job to a democratic opponent from the first round, many analysts believe the race will be close and that Kuchma's victory is far from certain.

Nadia Diuk is a senior member of the National Endowment for Democracy, an arm of the Democratic Party in the United States. She has worked on many projects throughout the former Soviet Union and satellite states to liberalize government and to encourage a free press and has been monitoring the elections in Ukraine. Diuk believes the country will finally have to choose whether to orient itself to the West or return to a rigid Communist-era form of government which she calls the Eurasian model.

"I think the choice is very clear: the European choice is towards a free market and political democracy, freedom of speech, transparency in institutions and access to the rule of law for all its citizens. [The] Eurasian choice ... is the consolidation of a vertical structure or as they call it the "vertikal", a vertical system of administration, a lack of transparency in all court proceedings and all issues to do with the rule of law... [and] in all administrative practices. [This Eurasian choice also includes] a system of privatization of larger enterprises and medium enterprises that really favor people who have not competed in a fair and free market for these enterprises. And that is what I think Ukraine faces on Sunday."

Observers such as the head of the Kyiv-based Institute of Freedom and Democracy, Ivan Lozowy, say whatever the outcome on Sunday, the Communists have re-established themselves. He says that even if Symonenko loses, his party will be a force in the future.

"I have no doubt that the emergence of the Communists of Petro Symonenko into the second round of the elections has given them an enormous boost. This means that in the minds of ordinary people the Communist Party represents the main opposition towards the corrupt government. Taking into account the deterioration of the economy that will undoubtedly continue; this constitutes a fundamental danger for even the national identity of Ukraine. That is because, with time, the popularity of the Communists, which had previously not been at high levels at all, could increase and bring them eventually to power."

Another result of the election process has been the poor showing of parties that were regarded by many Ukrainians and outside analysts as genuinely democratic ones. They include the Rukh Party which earlier this year splintered into two factions. They jointly scored just over three percent of the vote in the first round.

Diuk says that Rukh's virtual disappearance and the eclipse of other democratic parties is a "troubling aspect" of the elections.

"The problem again is that there's been a personalization of politics rather than looking at party political platforms and I think that this is not a positive trend for Ukraine's political landscape for the future."

Lozowy says that Kuchma has labeled himself a democrat but is not a genuine convert to democracy and will continue to behave as autocratically as in his last term if re-elected. Lozowy blames Kuchma for trying to destroy democratic parties like Rukh and is gloomy about the prospects of democrats becoming a strong political force in the near future.

"In the near future I don't see any serious steps toward the unification of democratic parties. Now, after the elections, various democratic groupings will be drawing conclusions and planning what to do. Before parliamentary elections in two years time the situation may change and the two main democratic blocs that exist, the Rukh party of Yuriy Kostenko, and the reform and Order Party of Viktor Penzenyk, could find common ground to produce a joint list of candidates." The polling started on Sunday at eight in the morning and ended at eight in the evening. Ukrainians should find out the results today. Whoever wins, few Ukrainians seem to expect that the country's problems -- both economic and political -- will be solved anytime soon.