Those concerned by news reports that Ukraine`s democratic, pro-Western trajectory is in trouble may want to study a wealth of contrary evidence - including the opposition leader`s decision to replace his Russian election advisers with a team assembled by U.S. Republican Party campaign virtuoso Paul Manafort.
With Mr. Manafort`s help, Former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions have executed a remarkable comeback after their apparent presidential victory was nullified a little more than a year ago amid election fraud -- and suspicion of complicity in his opponent`s poisoning. Mr. Yanukovych has traveled the country in a Western-style campaign to win votes in Sunday`s parliamentary elections rather than rig them.
The man who brought Mr. Manafort to the Ukrainian field was the country`s richest person, Rinat Akhmetov, who hired the American early last year to advise him on preparing his company, SCM Holdings, for a Western stock listing. Mr. Akhmetov, a Russian-speaking Tatar from eastern Ukraine, is fighting against his own image of ill-gotten wealth as he runs for a Parliament seat on his party`s Republican-like platform of pro-business growth policies and patriotism aimed at creating "the best country in Europe."
None of this makes Ukraine a stable, liberal democracy. But it is part of a mosaic of evidence that contradicts a widely held perception that 2004`s Orange Revolution has failed and dark, anti-democratic, pro-Russian forces are again rising. What is true is that Ukraine`s revolutionary leaders have been unimpressive in power, fighting among themselves while the economy has declined.
Yet, Ukraine`s nascent democratic system has strengthened. Saints don`t become sinners overnight, yet Mr. Yanukovych`s shift shows even retrograde politicians need to play by a new set of rules. Mr. Yanukovych has complained to allies that former President Leonid Kuchma and his Russian allies dictated his prior campaign and that this time he wanted to "hire the best the West had to offer" in remaking his party and his own image.
Mr. Manafort, who has done campaign work from President Ford to the current President Bush, among others, qualifies as top talent; so does Rick Ahearn, a former lead Reagan advance man who has been a central figure on the Yanukovych team.
At the same time, Ukraine`s democratic revolution has spawned other positive change, from a blossoming of independent interest groups to a lively if sometimes irresponsible media. Major political actors are generally playing by democratic rules.
Even Russian-speaking eastern Ukrainian businessmen, who once thought it might be better to divide the country, now tend to see their economic interests are best protected by national unity, eventual European Union membership and independence from Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin`s decision to cut off natural-gas supplies to Ukraine earlier this year only accelerated this evolution in thinking.
"Ukraine has turned the corner in terms of statehood and national identity," says Alexander Motyl, a Ukraine expert at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "The question of whether it will continue to exist as a state has been put to rest."
Polls ahead of Sunday`s elections indicate none of the three main parties will be able to form a government without coalition negotiations. Mr. Yanukovych, at some 30%, scores consistently better than his two primary rivals. Our Ukraine Party, led by Orange Revolution leader and current President Viktor Yushchenko, has fallen to 15%-20%.
His former ally, Yulia Tymoshenko, whom he fired as prime minister in September, has similar backing. The question is whether Mr. Yushchenko puts aside his animosity toward Ms. Tymoshenko and revives the Orange coalition or joins Mr. Yanukovych and argues that Ukraine is better served by bringing together parties representing its eastern and western regions.
In the end, however, the electoral outcome will be of less importance than whether Ukrainians and international observers view it as a fair fight. The vote has the chance to be Ukraine`s first clean parliamentary election with open competition after 70 years of Soviet rule and another 14 years of corrupt, autocratic rule.
"You have a system of democratic rules and practices beginning to consolidate," Mr. Motyl says. "There is a pro-business, pro-market, pro-Western-integration majority now in all the major political parties. There is no unchecked power left in Ukraine. It almost doesn`t matter who wins."
The three personalities fighting for votes naturally feel otherwise, and their personalities have made the election fight as operatic as it is historic.
The tragic hero is Mr. Yushchenko, a central banker whose face was disfigured by a would-be killer`s poison. He bravely led the Orange Revolution to victory thereafter but has seen his popularity decline amid charges of indecision, mismanagement and failure to prosecute past political crimes. He will continue as president until 2009 and will keep the right to name his defense and foreign ministers, but constitutional changes dictate that he share power with whichever prime minister is chosen by the parliament elected Sunday.
His foil is Ms. Tymoshenko, the erstwhile ally he fired in September. Called the "Gas Queen" for the riches she earned as a player in Ukraine`s energy trade, she has made herself the darling of nationalists with her outspoken populism and striking appearance, with blonde peasant-style braids.
Mr. Yanukovych is a hard-scrabble, two-time convict who was orphaned as a teenager and who has been ridiculed by some in the media for misspelling words -- including "professor" -- in a document said to confirm a bogus university degree. Yet he is betting his approach is smartest, creating a party with a sustainable platform and ideology that will allow him to outlast even a reunified Orange coalition beset by personal and ideological differences.
Don`t be surprised if any outcome Sunday isn`t long-lasting. Ukraine may suffer a period of shifting and unstable coalition governments for some time, which might not be good for effective governance but doesn`t need to be bad for democracy.
"What looks like chaos is democracy in action," Mr. Motyl says. "Ukraine has changed more deeply than most people understand."
The news was monitored by The Action Ukraine Report (AUR) Monitoring Service, Morgan Williams, Editor.