People power? Or George power?

Observations on Ukraine

George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist, promised to "spend whatever it takes" to defeat George W Bush. So when the president was returned to office, he said he felt like retiring to a monastery. Yet outside America, the missionaries of Soros's lavishly funded Open Society foundations march in parallel columns with the Bush administration. Domestic enmities don't stop the two Georges presenting a united front abroad when it comes to promoting friends and punishing foes.

A year ago, they jointly helped topple Georgia's president Eduard Shevardnadze by putting financial muscle and organisational metal behind his opponents. Now Ukraine has felt the full force of their displeasure.

Bush's representatives have alleged fraud in the presidential elections held on 21 November, which ended in victory for the current prime minister, Viktor Yanukovich, who is regarded as pro-Russian. Meanwhile, Soros's activists have marched in support of the west's favoured candidate for president, Viktor Yushchenko, and have provided the visiting media and election observers with allegations of fraud and intimidation.

The principal charge is that the official results are at odds with exit polls run by what western embassies call "independent" polling agencies (ie, agencies partly paid by western funds channelled through the embassies). Sound familiar? The exit polls in America's presidential elections were also wildly out. As Michael Meacher reports (page 22), the official result in Florida, for instance, was 7 per cent worse for John Kerry than the exit poll. The Republican senator Richard Lugar was in Ukraine, but he didn't caution locals against taking exit polls at face value.

I talked with two exit pollsters in western Ukraine. They stopped every 20th voter and asked how he or she voted. There was no weighting by age or class. Forty per cent refused to answer. Of the rest, 80 per cent said they voted for Yushchenko. But things are not so simple. The two pollsters were also local figures, known as pro-Yushchenko journalists. Mightn't a Yanukovich voter be shy of stating a preference to them?

Despite allegations about media bias towards the prime minister, you would hardly have known, from what I saw of local TV channels in western Ukraine, that he even existed. Even on polling day, Yushchenko and other public figures were shown voting, but not the prime minister. And on election eve, the Eurovision Song Contest winner Ruslana and other pop stars big in Ukraine appeared sporting orange (pro-Yushchenko) symbols.

One observer, the Tory MEP Charles Tannock, compared Ukraine to despotic Turkmenistan because Yanukovich was almost unanimously endorsed by his home region in eastern Ukraine. But then Yushchenko got votes of 90 per cent or more in western regions. Maybe both candidates have enforcers in their own regions who can stuff ballots. What is certain is that western observers never cry foul when a Soros-backed candidate gets a Saddam-style result. They, like the western media, prefer the modern fairy tale of "people power": plucky, freedom-loving, youthful opposition versus slab-faced, ex-communist apparatchiks and oligarchs.

Western election observers in Ukraine were led by the Labour MP Bruce George, who was their chief in Georgia last year. His criticisms helped get the steam up for "people power" there. Yet a few weeks after Shevardnadze was ousted, he saw nothing odd when the west's favoured candidate won 96 per cent of the vote to replace him. Generous George Soros stepped in to pay the salaries of the new president's ministers and policemen in Georgia. Soros's business partner Kakha Bendukidze became economy minister.

Does Soros have similar partners-in-waiting for Ukraine? We shall see. But though they are enemies at home, Bush and Soros always seem to be on the same, winning side abroad.