Eddie George takes over Ukraine

A surprising election result in the former Soviet state worries Mark Almond

"Everyone cheats, but it balances out," was Julia Lishchenko's verdict on the day after the Ukrainian parliamentary elections on 31 March. She is one of the leading journalists and cartoonists in Lviv, the major city in western Ukraine. From her vantage point high up in a typical Soviet tower block overlooking this magnificently decaying city, Lishchenko looks east 500 miles to the eastern part of Ukraine, where the culture is so different. There, Russian is the predominant language and nostalgia for a Soviet past shared with the Russians is strong.

Although she shares the strong Ukrainian nationalism common in the Lviv region, Lishchenko has no hang-ups about speaking Russian, and is realistic about the machinations of all the political forces operating in the country. But she expresses the view, constantly repeated across Ukraine, that voters fall into two clear-cut regional blocs: anti-communist and nationalist in the west, and backward-looking/pro-communist in the industrial and mining centres further east.

Even Lishchenko seemed to think that her own long list of abuses of the election process (including the murder of a candidate three days earlier) did not affect the balance of the outcome: the Ukrainians' political views are deeply held.

A decade of economic reform has produced unemployment and poverty. Even in collapsed societies such as Georgia or Moldova, I had never seen people not only rummaging in dustbins, but putting valuable scraps of food from them directly into their mouths. I saw two women do that in central Lviv. As for the beggars, they were too numerous to count.

Everybody has relatives working abroad, usually illegally. Pathetic columns of locals pour across the nearby borders into Poland, Slovakia or Hungary to do menial work and peddle their wares, often their bodies, in countries that seem poor to western Europeans but are beacons of prosperity to Ukrainians. Children are left in the care of elderly relatives, and run riot in villages where the working-age population has been plunged into unemployment by the collapse of the sole, Soviet-era employer.

Yet in this region, the absolute majority of voters are supposed to have trooped to the polls to endorse the coalition "Our Ukraine", which is led by a 40-year-old, US-trained former central banker, Viktor Yushchenko, who embodies "shock therapy" Ukrainian-style. His chief ally, Yulia Tymoshenko, is the formidable former boss of a privatised energy concern. It is as though the voters of Scotland's central belt had spurned the Labour Party to back a new party led by Eddie George and the chairman of Scottish Power. Yet Ilia Semenov, programme director at Radio Lux, a local station, says that Yushchenko is like a "messiah" to western Ukrainians, despite being an easterner by birth.

Nationalist sentiment dominated the rhetoric of the election campaign, but bread-and-butter concerns will dominate the agenda of the newly elected MPs, a finely balanced mix of likely Yushchenko supporters and communists.

A key factor in Yushchenko's popularity was that he is not President Leonid Kuchma. Kuchma was elected in 1994 to replace another failed ex-communist apparatchik, Leonid Kravchuk, who led Ukraine to independence and economic collapse. Kuchma fell from grace after the election of 1999, as this ex-Central Committee man backtracked on opening up Ukraine's energy, telecoms and property markets to western investors. Tape recordings implicating Kuchma in the disappearance and death of a previously little-known internet journalist mysteriously surfaced, and damaged him. The supporters of Kuchma ran a poor third in last month's general election behind Yushchenko's Our Ukraine and the Communist Party.

Yushchenko was not always against the president, whose impeachment for abuse of office he now demands. Kuchma was Yushchenko's patron and appointed him premier in December 1999, only to recognise him as a rival and remove him less than two years later.

Ukraine's western creditors and the International Monetary Fund were unusually enamoured of Yushchenko, and indulgently allowed him to relax fiscal discipline enough to pay off some back wages and pensions that had gone unpaid for years. That populist step was the basis of any economic appeal, but his future programme aims to make Ukraine meet western standards - which means more cuts. Many of the European Union's demands on any Ukrainian government would spell further social crisis, especially in the west of the country.

The west has shown little sympathy for nationalism elsewhere in the post- communist world. And the opinions of some of Yushchenko's vocal supporters, such as the paramilitary Unso (Ukrainian National Self-Defence) group, would normally lead to ostracism: they call for veterans of the Waffen SS to receive pensions comparable to those for Soviet partisans.

If Yushchenko and his allies come out on top in the forthcoming battle to replace Kuchma and take control of the next round of privatisation, Yushchenko's more florid nationalist rhetoric will be forgotten - at least by him.

Once the power struggle over the presidency is resolved, Our Ukraine's electorate is likely to find that the hardships of the past decade of transition were just the beginning. Time will tell whether they were turkeys voting for Christmas, but on Easter Sunday, the city that gave birth to Leopold von Sacher-Masoch voted for more pain with little hope of economic gain.

Mark Almond is lecturer in modern history at Oriel College, Oxford