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Apathy High, Expectations Low Ahead Of Ukrainian Presidential Vote

WATCH: Ukrainians will go to the polls on January 17 in the first presidential election since the pro-Western Orange Revolution in 2004. The candidates include President Viktor Yushchenko, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.

By Maryana Drach

During Ukraine's Orange Revolution five years ago, Roman Balayan voted for Viktor Yushchenko.

But as Ukrainians prepare to head to the polls to vote in the first presidential ballot since that history-making season, the respected ethnic Armenian filmmaker says this time, he will just stay home:

"I participated in the elections twice -- in 1991, and in 2004, when I voted for Yushchenko. But I'm not going to go now," Balayan says. "They only care about votes; they don't care about actual people. I don't want to participate in this."

According to polls, about a quarter of Ukrainian voters are prepared to follow Balayan's example. Those numbers may be unremarkable by European standards, but they're high for Ukraine, where citizens are active voters.

The front-runner as the poll approaches is the big loser of the Orange Revolution -- Yushchenko's former rival, Viktor Yanukovych of the Party of Regions. Yanukovych is expected to head into a second round, already scheduled for February 7, with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

The race is largely focused on the contest between Yanukovych and Tymoshenko. In all, however, there are 18 candidates running for the presidential office.

Presidential election billboards in downtown Kyiv
These include the beleaguered incumbent, Yushchenko, who is currently polling in the single digits. They also include Vasyl Protyvsikh, whose surname translates as "against all," and whose candidacy reflects the sour mood of many Ukrainian voters.

Only 7 percent of Ukrainians see their country as moving in the right direction, according to a poll released by the Kyiv-based Razumkov public opinion center last month. Declining social-welfare standards and a belief that corruption is spiraling out of control are seen as the main reasons for the mounting dissatisfaction.

Chaotic Preparations

That sense of bitterness appears to be affecting preparations for the election as well. According to the Voters Committee of Ukraine, an NGO that monitors the country's election processes, Ukraine is less prepared for this week's presidential vote than it was five years ago.

The head of the NGO, Oleksandr Chernenko, says preparations for the elections have been chaotic. "Many of those who chaired election commissions, or were deputy chairs and secretaries [in past elections] are now refusing to perform this function," he says. "The general situation in the country is affecting the election process."

Chernenko says that the Voters Committee of Ukraine has already received complaints that candidates are bribing local election-commission members. The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) this week said there have been confirmed cases of graft in local election bureaus in the eastern cities of Luhansk and Donetsk.

Speaking to journalists in Kyiv on January 11, SBU head Valentyn Nalyvaychenko described other attempts to alter the election's outcome.

Presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko speaks to a rally of supporters in Volodymyr-Volynskiy.
"We are aware of the plans by some 'technical' candidates to send out notices about the elections, saying voters will be required to pay their utility bills when they turn up at the polling stations. This is a lie," Nalyvaychenko said.

"Another lie is that young people [who have not performed army service] will be called into service when they show up at the polls. We reject this information as false."

Media reports have also surfaced of disenchanted voters attempting to sell their votes on the Internet for cash. According to the website, the average price of the votes on offer had risen as high as 907 hryvnyas ($113) a piece. One post offers four votes in exchange for a refrigerator; another asks for a new camera. The asking prices are much lower in rural areas, where the population is less Internet-savvy.

Ukrainian observers say that people who feel that they have no real choice at the presidential poll are more likely to participate in such schemes. But according to the Democratic Initiatives Foundation poll, three-quarters of Ukrainians say they wouldn't sell their votes, which is a crime in Ukraine, under any circumstances.

Official Support

The Ukrainian authorities have promised to counter all attempts to falsify the elections, and ensure that the conduct of the vote is free and fair.

However, it may be too late to address some of the issues. Today the Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, met in extraordinary session to address some of the disputed issues, such as procedures for voting at home and making changes to voter lists as late as election day.

Ukrainian electoral experts agree that the current system provides openings for potential falsification. But it is unclear whether parliament deputies will be able to amend the law on presidential elections in a way that will have any meaningful impact on the upcoming vote.

In the meantime, the main concern for those involved in conducting the elections is a lack of resources. As the country began looking ahead to the elections, Ukraine's Central Election Commission issued several alarmist appeals, calling on authorities to better fund preparations for the ballot. Money eventually began to flow, but not in time to spare election officials from a number of procedural headaches.

According to the SBU, some local election commissions are operating without office equipment, telephone and transportation services, secure locks, or even heating.

Presidential Powers

It's not only the election commissions that are underfunded. Ukrainian voters will go to the polling stations worried about their own wallets as well. In 2009, the Ukrainian economy shrank by 15 percent, one of the worst drops witnessed in Europe.

Iryna Bekeshkina, research director of the Democratic Initiatives Foundation in Kyiv, warns that the new president -- whoever he or she may be -- might not be able to quickly put the country's economic house in order.

President Viktor Yushchenko looks unlikely to win reelection.
"People, first of all, expect positive changes in the economy -- that their incomes will go up, that they will be able to get their money back from the banks," Bekeshkina says. "The problem is that these issues do not all fall under the competency of the president."

The Ukrainian political elite is still actively discussing changes to the constitution that would strike a different balance between the responsibilities of the president and the prime minister, the posts expected to be held by Yanukovych and Tymoshenko when the second round has concluded.

The presidential poll is seen as a key aspect of the wrangling over the division of powers, and is likely to be followed by a snap parliamentary poll.

Plummeting Expectations

Political commentators in Ukraine have complained that this presidential campaign has produced little in the way of suspense or heat.

However, it hasn't been without a dose of humor -- as in the case of one Ukrainian television channel, which created its own presidential candidate, Yevhen Lupan, who presented himself as the "most honest" choice for the job.

"I will steal. I am saying this frankly and transparently. But each month I will report how much I stole, and where the money went," Lupan said.

"My face will grow so fat that any true Ukrainian who wants to spit on me -- and surely there will be people like this -- won't miss."

In the meantime, Ukrainian sociologists are noting that voters are lowering their expectations regarding the candidates' ability to deliver on their campaign pledges.

The most that many Ukrainians are hoping for, it seems, is that their next president will at the very least not make things worse.

RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service contributed to this story from Kyiv