KIEV, Ukraine -- This beautiful but worn city in the vast plains of Ukraine could be glorious if it had a little money and a lot of care. It has once-elegant, old buildings, winding streets and flowering trees.
What one does not expect in this rather shabby upper bourgeois setting is the strange, sinister undercurrent that not only has characterized Ukraine since its independence from the Soviet Union after its breakup in 1991 -- but that particularly has characterized the important election campaign being waged here.
Just over a month ago, for instance, the pro-European candidate, Viktor Yuschenko, who promises to draw Ukraine closer to the European Union, suddenly became deathly ill, as if a severe virus or a stroke had hit him.
But when he was rushed to a special clinic in Vienna because his campaign did not feel Ukrainian medical care could be totally dependable politically, doctors there feared he had been "poisoned," not by a chemical agent, but perhaps by a biological or bacteriological agent.
"The doctors in Vienna said this was an unprecedented case," Medvedev Oleg Oleksandrovich, a leading adviser to Yuschenko, told me. "They couldn't find anything like this in their files. If he had not been flown in, he would have died -- if he had gotten to Vienna 24 hours later, he would have died."
And non-party people of impeccable credentials back up the poisoning story. "It was not just a trick," Konstantin Vondarenko, a leading social scientist and director of the Institute of National Strategy, said over lunch here. "He was very sick and the case is being investigated by Ukrainian and Austrian intelligence services. There was no chemical poisoning, but it could have been other types."
Oddly enough, Yuschenko, a generally healthy man who is challenging the old Soviet holdover political regime, had met just the day before with the "special services," or intelligence of the government. The theme of the meeting was how those services should be divorced from politics.
But it is not only the Yuschenko case -- he was so smitten that he was able to return to campaigning only last week -- that makes Ukraine sometimes feel like a cross between Shakespeare and Stalin.
There is constant talk of a "third force" outside of candidates Yuschenko and Viktor Yanukovych, the "pro-Eurasian" or pro-Russian politician chosen to carry on the 10-year hard-line rule of President Leonid Kuchma. This ethereal force seems to be an always shifting melange of oligarchic and criminal elements and conspiracies designed to keep the country on edge (which it certainly has accomplished).
One intention may be to perpetuate the general assumption that President Kuchma could make a last-ditch attempt before the Oct. 31 elections to grab another term, something he made provision for by constitutional means last spring.
In fact, the campaign is full of so many tricks -- there are only these two truly potential winners, but there are an additional 25 candidates, at least half of them put up only to discredit Yuschenko -- that one can hardly keep up with them.
Even at this late date, with Yuschenko barely having recovered and both sides hedging their bets between each one's fealty to East or West in order to fool observers, many analysts expect some last-minute tricks by one or both sides.
Everyone remembers all too well the case of the journalist who suddenly disappeared five years ago. Never solved, the case has only a headless body still in the morgue -- and a mountain of questions as to the why, what, how, when and where of Georgi Gonzaga.
Why Ukraine? Even in Moscow itself, still the metropole of the confused post-Soviet world, there are not such obvious and grossly sinister doings. This country of 49 million, geopolitically crucial in its setting and in its potential, seems a pocket of Soviet memories and habits, somehow left behind and ruled by criminal elements with little adherence to any laws.
Why so sinister? "Because," explained an American diplomat, "things are in play. On the one hand, you have people in power with the old ideas. On the other, people with new ideas."
"Sinister" can sometimes be translated as movement toward better things. It can be seen as the grappling of new forces with old. Supposing, of course, that everybody survives.
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