Another Ukrainian election campaign, another farce.
The Central Election Commission - perhaps Ukraine's least-respected institution after being caught aiding Viktor Yanukovich's attempted theft of the 2004 presidential elections - started the 2007 parliamentary campaign in ignominious style last week by refusing register candidates from Bloc Yulia Tymoshenko.
Their reasoning was as scurrilous as anything offered up three years ago: Tymoshenko's slate of candidates, the CEC said, was illegitimate because while they had submitted the names of their home towns to the registrars, they hadn't given their actual street addresses. It somehow escaped the noble commission's attention that BYuT had registered its candidates the exact same way during last year's parliamentary elections and nobody saw a problem then.
While the CEC yesterday backed down from its decision and registered BYuT - which polls suggest is the No. 1 contender to Yanukovich's front-running Party of Regions - the early chicanery doesn't exactly inspire hopes that this will be a free and fair election. Instead, it's looking more and more likely that the 2007 parliamentary elections will be a carbon copy of the 2004 presidential vote - a tooth-and-nails, anything-goes struggle for power between the Kremlin-backed Yanukovich and the Western-friendly team of Tymoshenko and President Viktor Yushchenko, whose Our Ukraine movement is currently running third.
(A recent poll by the Socioizmerenie research centre suggested that the Party of Regions had 26.3 per cent of the vote, compared to 21.4 for BYut and 14.1 for Our Ukraine. The Communist Party, which usually lines up with the pro-Kremlin Yanukovich, trailed at 4.7 per cent.)
As Nina Khrushcheva wrote in a column that appeared in Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper, we could be heading for an Orange Revolution re-run:
By seeking to cling to power by hook or by crook, Yanukovich is likely to bring on the deluge. In Ukraine that means not only violent unrest, but economic decline and renewed repression. At the end of the day it could lead to the sort of huge street protests that marked the Orange Revolution, and their attempted violent suppression. Recent history is replete with alarming examples of dictators and would-be dictators who refuse to recognise when their time has run out.
The truth is that both sides - the pro-Kremlin bloc and the off-again, on-again Yushchenko-Tymoshenko alliance - have the support of about 30 per cent of the public, which is the reason neither group has been able to vanquish the other during a decade of political quarrelling. The hundreds of millions of dollars spent by the Kremlin and the White House in recent years to promote their favoured candidates has done little to solve the perpetual gridlock.
The elections, I'll be so bold as to predict now, won't be decided at the ballot box on Sept. 30, but in the streets of Kyiv in the days that follow.
The people I truly feel sad for are the 40 per cent of Ukrainians who are caught in the middle, badly disillusioned with both sides and fed up with the disputed elections and street theatre that have kept the country captive almost since the day it won independence 16 years ago.
But with Moscow and Washington now openly antagonistic towards each other, Ukraine looks doomed once more to serve as their battleground.