Billboards, TV campaign ads, political image consultants, and cross-country stumping are the stuff of American election campaigns. They are now also standard fare in Ukraine, an ex-Soviet stronghold where just three years ago leaders came ready-picked before-or in spite of-what the voters decided.
When Ukrainians voted Sept. 30 for a new parliament, international observers declared the election free and fair. Disgust with electoral fraud in 2004, which triggered the country's Orange Revolution, is no more. Three short years later, Ukrainians are eyeball-deep in the horse-trading and messy politics that Western-style democracy often brings.
Where once tens of thousands of Ukrainians wore opposition orange in freezing streets and their ashen-faced candidate Viktor Yushchenko (poisoned and disfigured by his opponents) turned their mood euphoric when he won, today the orange burst has faded. Yushchenko, a Western-leaning banker, has not been quick enough to rid the government of corruption. Infighting within his Orange camp led to costly rifts and three elections, including the snap poll Sept. 30 that produced no clear winner.
Yushchenko heads one of the three main blocs vying for power in Ukraine's parliament. His Kremlin-backed nemesis, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, leads another, the Party of Regions. Yanukovych is more careful with his words these days. He is Ukraine's comeback kid: After his Orange defeat, he hired American consultants, including a former Bob Dole advisor, to give him a political makeover. Once grim and Sovietesque, he now sports tailored Western suits, speaks sometimes halting Ukrainian during speeches, and runs on Ukraine's good economic growth under his tenure. He hails from Ukraine's eastern region, where Russian is the first language of many.
The third bloc, headed by 46-year-old Yulia Tymoshenko, has perhaps been the most successful. Of the three, Tymoshenko's bloc gained the most votes over last year's parliamentary election. Named prime minister after the revolution, she fell out with Yushchenko and was sacked in 2005. Now, she is even more popular than he is.
Tymoshenko, an economist, has a reputation for honesty and sticking to reformist ideals. During the campaign, the youthful Tymoshenko dressed in white and sported her trademark coiled braid, an old peasant hairstyle now chic among her admirers.
Regarded as a charismatic populist who has an advisor who reportedly preaches at a Baptist church in Kiev, she sometimes makes outlandish promises. According to Jan Maksymiuk, a Prague-based analyst with Radio Free Europe, she promised to return $25 billion that Ukrainians lost after the Soviet Union's 1991 collapse within two years. But Ukraine's budget even in 2007 stands at only $40 billion. In all, "she is seen as a much tougher politician than Yushchenko," Maksymiuk said.
With her gains, Tymoshenko and Yushchenko, despite their estrangement, are ready to assemble a ruling coalition majority in parliament. Whatever the outcome, even if it leads to more political squabbling, Ukraine's revolution has matured. Voter fraud and interference from Russia-seemingly insurmountable issues in 2004-have taken a back seat.
The Orange Revolution was "life or death" for some Ukrainians, said Ivan Bespalov, a political observer and pastor of Kiev's Presbyterian Church of the Holy Trinity. "Now people are more calm. They are still resolved to express their will, but it's more quiet and less emotional."