Ukraine: rocky road to democracy after years of recriminations between main parties
The scene is western Ukraine. A crowd is waiting. A tall figure bounds on to a stage. His elderly supporters cheer and start waving their blue flags. They chant: "Yan-u-kov-ich, Yan-u-kov-ich."
The scene is western Ukraine. It is mid-morning, and in an attractive town square bathed in autumnal sun and lined with fir trees a crowd is waiting.
A tall figure bounds on to a stage. His elderly supporters cheer and start waving their blue flags. They chant: "Yan-u-kov-ich, Yan-u-kov-ich."
The man addressing them is Viktor Yanukovich - Ukraine`s prime minister. Three years after his victory in Ukraine`s rigged 2004 presidential election sparked the country`s pro-democracy movement - the Orange revolution - Mr Yanukovich is back.
Ukraine is now in the grip of another movement. This time, however, it is a counter-revolution led not by glamorous students wearing tight-fitting orange T-shirts, but by toothless old ladies in headscarves waving icons.
The battlefield isn`t Kiev, with its blossom-filled boulevards, but a series of dusty ex-Soviet provincial towns.
Next Sunday Ukrainians go to the polls following months of political turmoil between Mr Yanukovich, the country`s prime minister since August 2006, and Viktor Yushchenko, Ukraine`s pro-western president.
In 2004 Mr Yanukovich was the villain of the Orange revolution after trying to steal the presidential election using intimidation and fraud. Mr Yushchenko won the re-run vote.
Since then, though, Ukraine`s orange actors have fallen out and - largely unnoticed by the west - Mr Yanukovich has made an unexpected comeback.
Polls put his Party of the Regions at 32.9% in the runup to Sunday`s early election - which Mr Yushchenko called in May after accusing his rival of luring away his MPs and attempting an extra-constitutional parliamentary coup. Mr Yushchenko appointed Mr Yanukovich prime minister in 2006 after his own allies failed to form a government.
With its steep-walled medieval castle and gold-domed monastery, Ostroh is part of Ukraine`s orange-supporting heartland. If Mr Yanukovich represents one strand of Ukraine - its Orthodox Russian-leaning east - Mr Yushchenko is said to represent the other - its Catholic, pro-European west. Now, though, Mr Yanukovich is picking up votes here too.
Up on stage two Ukrainian maidens present Mr Yanukovich with bread and salt. He then launches into his speech, telling the crowd that his 13-month-old government has brought stability to Ukraine and restored economic growth.
He attacks his rivals, dismissing the charismatic orange leader Yulia Tymoshenko as a "cow on an ice rink".
After his speech, the prime minister tells the Guardian he hopes Sunday`s election will end the political conflict paralysing his country.
"We hope that after the elections the political situation will have stabilised and that we won`t have the problems we have right now between different branches of government. The next step is constitutional reform," he said.
Aides insist the new Mr Yanukovich is nothing like the old one, and has absorbed the lessons of his 2004/5 defeat. He is studying English, and plays tennis with the US ambassador.
Far from being a Russian stooge he is, in fact, a Ukrainian nationalist, they add. "He`s very changed. He`s become a democrat," Sergiy Lovochkin, the head of his private office, says.
Mr Yanukovich himself insists he is not "pro-Russian" or "anti-western" but believes in a pragmatic foreign policy that serves an independent Ukraine`s national interests. "Our aim is to become a reliable bridge between Europe and Russia," he says.
He believes his good relations with Vladimir Putin`s Russia have paid off. In 2005 - when he was in opposition - the Kremlin turned off Ukraine`s gas supplies. "We will never repeat the same mistake as 2005 when the situation with gas was very difficult," he told the Guardian.
Ukraine now had more than 26 billion cubic metres of gas reserves, he said, adding: "Our relationship with Russia is clear, steady and predictable." But he also wants "good strategic relations with the EU" - which Ukraine aspires to join by 2017.
Moreover, Mr Yanukovich is now deploying the same modern techniques as his Orange adversaries. In 2004 Mr Putin promptly congratulated him after his fraudulent victory - in what turned out to be a PR disaster.
Mr Yanukovich has now hired his own firm of US consultants. Ironically, he is the biggest beneficiary of the democratic changes he once tried to thwart.
Meanwhile, Mr Yushchenko`s Our Ukraine-led faction is languishing in the polls on 16.4%. Support for his ally, Yulia Tymoshenko - whom Mr Yushchenko sacked as prime minister in 2005 - is 15.4%. Together the two orange alliances could score a narrow election victory next Sunday, in which case Ms Tymoshenko would get her old job back as prime minister.
Most analysts believe it is more probable that Mr Yanukovich`s ruling coalition will again control Ukraine`s Rada or lower house. There are also rumours that Mr Yanukovich could form a new parliamentary alliance with Mr Yushchenko, despite profound personal and ideological differences.
Opponents say Mr Yanukovich has not been a good leader. "He`s been a disastrous prime minister," says Hryhoriy Nemyria, Ms Tymoshenko`s foreign affairs adviser and deputy chairman of her BYuT party.
The prime minister`s party was old, corrupt and undemocratic, he said. It was also unhealthily reliant on Rinat Akhemetov, a billionaire oligarch and member of Mr Yanukovich`s party, he alleged.
Many Ukrainian voters appear disillusioned with all three main political leaders. "If politicians did one-tenth of the things they`d promised it would be better.
But things haven`t improved here at all," Valery - a mechanic - said, speaking in the small town of Sarny, one of five places in western Ukraine visited by Mr Yanukovich in his helicopter last Thursday.
Few political experts believe that the constitutional crisis that has paralysed Ukraine will end next week. Legal challenges to the result are likely. Nonetheless Ukraine is gradually evolving into something unthinkable a decade ago: a competitive democracy.
"From the outside Ukrainian politics looks like a mess. But I think this is normal for a country that only three years ago had a semi-authoritarian regime and is now struggling to become a democracy," Natalya Shapovalova, a political expert at Kiev`s International Centre for Policy Studies, said. She added: "I`m rather optimistic."
This news was monitored by the Action Ukraine Monitoring Service for the Action Ukraine Report (AUR), Morgan Williams, SigmaBleyzer, Editor.
By Luke Harding, Ostroh, Ukraine, The Guardian
London, United Kingdom, Monday