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Ukrainian despair at politicians in Russia gas row

  Ukraine’s gas dispute with Russia is unlikely to have won any popular support for Kiev’s deadlocked political elite ahead of the first presidential election since the 2004 Orange Revolution.

The row with Russia has left Ukraine with no gas supplies for nine days, accelerating the economy’s fall into what is expected to be the worst recession in a decade.

President Viktor Yushchenko’s advisers have painted Moscow’s actions as “blackmail” to extract an unfair price for gas from Ukraine, which Yushchenko wants to steer towards Europe. But Ukrainians, exasperated by Yushchenko’s bickering with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, have started to feel the chill in the form of heating reductions in the dead of winter. Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, allies in the 2004 ‘Orange Revolution’ that incensed Moscow, have been at each other’s throats for a year, paralyzing the political system before a presidential election in 12 months’ time.

“The politicians have placed the people so deep in manure that they have lost all confidence in politicians,” said Sergei, owner of a small catering business. “I don’t know where Ukraine is heading. It’s like a ship with a drunk captain.” Many analysts saw the constant squabbling between Yushchenko, a dry former central banker, and Tymoshenko, the emotional former gas magnate turned social crusader, as political maneuvering before the presidential poll.

But Ukrainians have already voted in two parliamentary elections since 2004 and seen four governments making little progress with major economic reforms or modernization. They now face unemployment or pay cuts -- in a currency that has lost about 40% of its value against the dollar. The economy is expected to shrink by 3-5% this year and industries have already cut output by 30%. “It’s hard to say what they are doing,” shrugs Oksana, an administrator in the services industry. “For example with the dollar rate -- they were lowering it, then raising it. In any case it is somehow linked to our leaders.”

NEW LEADERS WANTED

The opposition Regions Party, led by Viktor Yanukovich, has demanded Yushchenko and Tymoshenko resign over the gas row. But such calls are likely to be ignored. Tymoshenko herself called for Yushchenko’s resignation less than a month ago. Yanukovich was the Moscow-backed presidential candidate who lost to Yushchenko when mass protests -- the ‘Orange Revolution’ -- led to a rerun of a fraudulent election in 2004. He too is expected to stand in the presidential election.

“There will be a propaganda battle over the interpretation of the dispute and who resolved it and an information war about who was responsible for the social and economic consequences of the dispute,” said independent analyst Oleksander Dergachev. Observers have noted that Russia’s attacks have centred on Yushchenko, leaving Tymoshenko unscathed. Some have interpreted that as Moscow’s endorsement of her. Dergachev said Yanukovich, about level with Tymoshenko in opinion polls, may also try to score points.

“His advisers are thinking about how to use the situation. The Regions party has a difficult balancing act: to criticize the authorities but to preserve the impression of patriots.” But many will ignore any propaganda war altogether. “Changing our leaders will change nothing. Our country is so corrupt that you can’t really change anything,” said Ludmila, walking with her toddler.

Even before the gas dispute with Russia there were increasing signs of social discontent -- thousands of trade unionists marched against job cuts in December and threatened strikes as thousands more workers were put on unpaid leave. But there is little appetite for now for the mass rallies of the Orange Revolution.

“We’ve already had our ‘Maidan’,” said Ludmila, referring to the Independence Square where hundreds of thousands camped out for weeks in freezing temperatures in 2004. “Another Maidan won’t give us anything new. Nothing at all. We need new leaders whom we could really follow. As for the old ones -- the nation has known them too long.” (Reuters)