If Ukrainian politics were a pantomime, this year’s production would surely be Beauty and the Beast.
The stage is dominated by the presidential election, the first since the country’s 2004 Orange Revolution. With the contest now barely a month away, the two leading candidates are Yulia Tymoshenko, the glamorous prime minister, and Viktor Yanukovich, the combative opposition leader. His last stab at the presidency, in 2004 when he was prime minister, ended in ignominious defeat amid widespread allegations of electoral fraud.
President Viktor Yushchenko, the hero of 2004, is virtually out of the race, his bid blighted by failure to stabilise Ukraine’s politics and impose his will on Ms Tymoshenko and Mr Yanukovich.
The heady mood of 2004 has been swept away by political in-fighting, a surge in corruption and economic crisis. According to the US-funded Ifes poll, 74 per cent of Ukrainians think their country is on an unstable path, compared with just 13 per cent in early 2005. “There is massive disillusionment,” says Mychailo Vynnytsky, a sociology professor at Kyiv Mohyla Business School.
The electoral drama has little to do with political programmes and much to do with power and money. Ms Tymoshenko, 49, may have the looks of a stage princess but none of the innocence. A tough operator, she made her fortune in the murky natural gas trade of the 1990s and has established her claim to the presidency by out-manoeuvring Mr Yushchenko, her Orange Revolution ally. Alexander Ginzburg, a Tymoshenko adviser, says: “She has shown that she can govern. She would be effective from day one.”
Too effective, say critics, who see in Ms Tymoshenko an authoritarian streak. Despite strong opposition, she wants to change the constitution to end the division of power between the president and parliament agreed in 2004 and return to presidential rule.
In a television debate recently, she parried a question about the dangers of dictatorship with the words: “Who tells you that dictatorship is bad?” She later explained she meant the dictatorship of the law, but the comments have not been forgotten.
In many countries, Mr Yanukovich, 59, would have lost all credibility after his 2004 campaign was widely condemned for abuse of power.
But he has kept himself centre-stage by retaining control of his political base – the Regions party – and maintaining his ties with billionaire backers.
With the aid of western public relations advisers, the former truck driver has tried to modernise his political image. Serhiy Lyovochkin, an aide, says time in opposition has changed Mr Yanukovich. “Now he’s for democracy, for free speech and for the rule of law.”
Business people have doubts about Mr Yanukovich’s ideological shift. But many see him as a more predictable leader than Ms Tymoshenko. They worry about her populist/interventionist approach to the economy. Examples include plans for price caps on imported drugs (vetoed by Mr Yushchenko) and proposals for profit controls in food distribution.
Both leading candidates pledge to stick with Ukraine’s $16.4bn (€11.2bn, £10bn) International Monetary Fund rescue programme. This may be easier for Ms Tymoshenko, as her move from prime minister to president would assure some continuity. It might take longer for Mr Yanukovich to form his administration and he might be pushed into early parliamentary elections if his government could not secure a majority.
On foreign policy, both leading candidates have distanced themselves from the pro-west Mr Yushchenko’s bid to join Nato, which brought few results except for antagonising Moscow.
Mr Tymoshenko boasts of her good relations with Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister, which, she says, has resulted in solid co-operation, including over Russia’s crucial gas supplies to Ukraine.
Mr Yanukovich has long been seen as the most pro-Russian of Ukraine’s leaders and portrays himself as a more reliable partner than Ms Tymoshenko. But he also intends to reopen gas talks with Moscow and negotiate hard over prices.
With the vote taking place in two rounds, on January 17 and (probably) February 7, opinion polls give Mr Yanukovich and Ms Tymoshenko a big advantage over the other 16 candidates. If the two go into the second round, Mr Yanukovich is predicted to win with 40-45 per cent, against Ms Tymoshenko’s 25-35 per cent.
The third-placed runner is Serhiy Tigipko, the former central bank governor, who has won favour with urban elites. He has positioned himself as a potential prime minister for either likely winner. But only the voters will decide whether that will be Beauty or the Beast.