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Ukraine's new, bumpy path

Its embrace of democracy contrasts with Belarus, this week's elections show.

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Two very different elections, held within a week of each other in the neighboring republics of Belarus and Ukraine, illustrate a deepening schism between former Soviet states. Some are moving decisively toward democracy, while others are sliding into the political orbit of an increasingly authoritarian, energy-rich Russia.

In contrast to the tight government control that largely squelched opposition forces in Belarus ahead of last weekend's elections, Kiev's main square is a veritable bazaar of competing voices. Nearly 50 rival political parties are heading into the final leg of parliamentary polls slated for Sunday. The roughly 2,000 foreign observers here have noted no serious irregularities, and Ukrainian experts say these are the freest and most open elections in the country's history.

"There is absolute transparency, and an equal playing field for all parties," says Alexander Chernenko, an analyst with the Committee of Ukrainian Voters, a grass-roots monitoring group. "There is no fear, no coercion. People feel this is irreversible."

The same could not be said of Belarus. President Alexander Lukashenko, Moscow's sole European ally, was elected to a third term last Sunday with an 83 percent majority that few experts believe to be genuine.

During the campaign, police arrested hundreds of opposition workers, closed most independent media outlets, and cracked down on nongovernmental groups. Protesters occupied the capital, Minsk's, central square in an effort to force fresh elections, as happened in Ukraine's 2004 "Orange Revolution," but by Thursday only a few hundred remained.

Nearly 100 have been arrested since Sunday, human rights groups say, but the key reason for their fading hopes may be a sullen lack of public response.

"Lukashenko succeeds because a big part of society acquiesces," says Yaroslav Romanchuk, vice chair of the opposition United Civil Party in Minsk. "This longing for a firm hand that will provide stability and order is very deep among Belarussians. Once you've got him, you have to let that strong man do whatever he wants."

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