Election fever heightens Ukraine political chaos

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) - The lawmaker strode through parliament, smiling politely and clutching a chair - his contribution to a barricade designed to paralyze proceedings.

Fresh from summer vacation, lawmakers last week were back to the shenanigans that have made Ukraine's parliament a source of entertainment and fodder for YouTube.

But as the former Soviet republic struggles with a devastated economy and fears for the stability of Russian gas supplies this winter, many Ukrainians say it's time the 450-member legislature got serious.

But all signs point to more chaos as the Jan. 17 presidential election approaches.

The power structure that emerged from the 2004 Orange Revolution, the high point of Ukraine's struggle to banish Soviet-era politics, is in disarray.

The heroes of the mass protests, President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko, have become bitter enemies who don't talk to each other. The feud between these two Western-oriented leaders has hurt their popularity, and the man they vanquished, Russian-favored Viktor Yanukovych, now tops the opinion polls.

Yushchenko's poll rating, on the other hand, has tumbled below 5 percent.

Experts say it is early to pick a winner, and there's no guarantee any presidential outcome will end the paralysis in parliament and usher in long-awaited reforms, such as rewriting the constitution yet again.

Still, Ukraine's vibrant, unpredictable democracy is in contrast to Russia and some of the other former Soviet republics, where elections are choreographed and government opponents sidelined.

Some say it's a sign of progress in shedding the legacy of single-party Soviet-era rule.

"This is political competition really, not a crisis," said political analyst Ivan Lozowy. "The more, the merrier."

Few Ukrainians find much to be merry about, however.

They have lost nearly half their savings and the International Monetary Fund expects the economy to shrink by 14 percent this year. To qualify for a $16.4 billion IMF bailout loan, the government will have to make painful spending cuts.

With the collapse of the hryvna, the national currency, the price of most foodstuffs, from a pint of milk to a helping of salo (pork fat), has nearly doubled.

Then there's the long-running dispute with Russia over fuel. Russia exports gas to Ukraine and western Europe through pipelines that cross Ukrainian territory. It has raised the price of the gas it sells to Ukraine, and Ukraine wants it to pay higher fees for using the pipeline. The fear is that the dispute could lead to a repeat of last January's gas war, when Moscow briefly cut off supplies to Ukraine and millions of European consumers.

In the past year, parliament has repeatedly been stymied by chairs and beefy lawmakers blocking access to the rostrum to prevent the speaker from starting a session. Proceedings are halted when fist fights break out or lawmakers vandalize the chamber's electronic voting machinery.

Yushchenko called early parliamentary elections last October but the vote was never held, because Tymoshenko opposed it. Her party's lawmakers paralyzed parliament, preventing passage of the necessary election legislation.

Frustrated parliament speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn sought to bring lawmakers in line Monday, ordering their pay withheld until they stopped disrupting proceedings.

Everyone would suffer the penalty, he said angrily. "I am not going to be compiling lists and checking who is standing near the rostrum ... and who is lying down near the rostrum."

Now, all the candidates are the people's friend.

Tymoshenko, glamorous and sharp-tongued, has plastered the capital with posters proclaiming: "They destroy. She works." Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the reformist former parliament speaker who has emerged a strong contender, has set up dark-green military-style tents in Kiev, vowing war on corruption and mismanagement.

And Yanukovych has opened a hot line, promising that his staff will listen to every caller's complaint. His office says calls are pouring in.


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