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Ukraine: Parliamentary Vote Already Spawning Questionable Campaign Behavior

Past Ukrainian elections have been characterized by dirty tricks and other dubious practices that international monitoring groups like the Council of Europe say fall short of democratic norms. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports from Kyiv that controversy has already begun in the run-up to the country's parliamentary elections, scheduled for March.

Kyiv, 22 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Politicians and political parties in Ukraine have employed a variety of devices to confuse voters and undermine support for rival candidates. The tactics have often been imaginative. In Ukraine's last presidential elections in 2000, fake editions of a rival party's newspaper were distributed with articles slandering that party's leader.

Upcoming parliamentary elections in March promise their fair share of strange strategies and have already inspired a bizarre tactic that could prove damaging to a newly formed coalition of democratic parties.

Ten parties -- ranging from the right to the center-left -- in January formed the "Our Ukraine" (Nasha Ukrajina) bloc around Ukraine's former prime minister, Viktor Yushchenko. Yushchenko -- who was ousted from his post in 2001 following a no-confidence vote organized by Communists and politicians loyal to big-business interests -- consistently leads opinion polls as the country's most popular politician. He has a reputation for honesty and efficient governing.

But in mid-January, the leader of a rival political party, Oleksandr Rzhavskyy of the tiny United Family Union, formed an alliance with another small party to create the "For Yushchenko" bloc.

Rzhavskyy had wanted to join the genuine Yushchenko coalition but was denied entry. One reason given was that one of Rzhavskyy's female party members had changed her name to Osama bin Laden in sympathy with the Afghans after the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition began its military campaign against Afghanistan.

Yushchenko and his supporters are critical of Rzhavskyy's use of Yushchenko's name in the title of his bloc. They say it will confuse voters, especially since Yushchenko's name does not figure in the name of the bloc he is actually leading.

Some Yushchenko supporters suggest Rzhavskyy is deliberately working to split the pro-Yushchenko electorate. Rzhavskyy denies the charges.

The elections slated for 31 March are seen by many as the best chance since Ukraine's independence 10 years ago for democratic, pro-reform politicians to take a dominant position in the new parliament.

Yushchenko has asked Ukraine's Central Election Commission to forbid Rzhavskyy from using his name. The commission is looking into the matter. Rzhavskyy himself has resisted all pleas to abandon the name of his bloc. He said, "We cannot allow people's trust in Yushchenko to be privatized or usurped by a narrow political circle, by the right-wing parties that are now part of the Our Ukraine bloc."

On 21 January, the Youth Party of Ukraine, which is a member of the Our Ukraine bloc, unveiled its counterstroke to force Rzhavskyy to stop using Yushchenko's name. The Youth Party -- of which Yushchenko himself is a member -- said it began proceedings last summer to copyright Yushchenko's name, believing even then that someone might try to exploit it.

Youth Party leader Yuriy Pavlenko said the use of Yushchenko's name represents not only a breach of copyright but is also an offense against human rights because it impairs the ability of voters to know for whom they are voting. Pavlenko also said Yushchenko's rights are being infringed by the exploitation of his name without his consent.

"I would like to appeal to everyone so that they care about their own public image and to do as much work for Ukraine as Viktor Yushchenko has done," Pavlenko said. "Then they can register their own names and do good for Ukraine's citizens. After that, they should be pleased to create parties or blocs with their own names."

The head of Rzhavskyy's United Family Union press service, Zoya Sharekova, said Rzhavskyy shares most of Yushchenko's ideological views and does not want to harm his chances in the election. She said the idea to use Yushchenko's name was done for what she called "positive" reasons. She said it is too early to speak of voters being confused.

"For the moment, there is no such danger because the name of the 'For Yushchenko' bloc is a working title and has not yet been confirmed. Therefore, we can't speak yet of there being some danger," Sharekova said. "If the name is confirmed, then we can return to this question. At the moment, it is a working title and can be changed no later than 24 January, when we hold the conference for our bloc."

Pavlenko said he wants the matter to be resolved on a friendly basis but that his party will take Rzhavskyy to court for abusing the copyright if he does not agree to stop doing so.