KIEV, Ukraine — Election ballots that magically change votes. Polling stations that burst into flames. Voters hypnotized by a psychic.

Ukraine's young democracy is anything but boring.

This former Soviet republic is still experimenting with democracy, ushered in by the Orange Revolution three years ago. The results are impressive: a stream of competitive elections, vibrant media and a robust opposition.

Plus comedy.

Having lived under centuries of Russian Czarist rule, 70 years of Soviet communism and a bleak decade of post-Soviet stagnation, today's Ukraine is in many ways Russia's antithesis.

In Russia, critics complain of increasingly heavy-handed rule. Opposition rallies are violently dispersed, election results are all but known in advance and everything is taken very seriously.

Here, the more hotly contested an election is, the better.

The tone was set in 2004 with the Orange Revolution, when the presidential election was rigged in favor of the Kremlin-backed candidate. Protesters jammed Kiev's streets for weeks, overturned the fraudulent vote and brought the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko to power.

Since then there have been three or four national elections, depending on how you count, with the latest less than two months ago. But unlike in Russia, where an uncertain outcome is perceived by many as a threat to stability and security, Ukrainians seem to thrive on cliffhangers.

In the Sept. 30 parliamentary election, none of the three main parties won enough votes to form a government, and complex coalition talks are taking place. Yet life goes on.

The media, once toothless, are now free to grill Ukraine's leaders on anything from their tax returns to Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych's criminal record. He served time in jail as a young man for robbery and assault, but both convictions were later overturned.

Nothing, it seems, is off-limits. Yulia Tymoshenko, the glamorous Orange Revolution heroine, is asked at a news conference whether her rich blond hair, braided peasant-style, is real. It is, she insists.

Yushchenko is asked on live television about failures to deliver on Orange Revolution promises. Tymoshenko is grilled on allegations of corruption in her party. Yanukovych is given to barnyard epithets that add a certain earthiness to the campaign trail.

Multicolored protest tents pop up regularly in central Kiev, sometimes right in front of the presidential administration building — something that would be unthinkable in Moscow, where such protests tend to be broken up before anybody notices them. Ukrainians rally against anything from foreign policy to city construction plans. And nobody seems to mind.

But it's not all serious. Natalia Vitrenko, known for going barefoot and staging fiery protests, appears on a TV talk show to claim that votes for her aggressively pro-Russian, anti-American party were stolen with a high-tech mechanism funded by U.S. billionaire George Soros.

As her host struggles to keep a straight face, Vitrenko produces a ballot cast for Tymoshenko's bloc and says it was actually checked for her party until the mechanism moved the tick to the wrong box.

In Ukraine, lurid claims are a bipartisan thing. As the Sept. 30 election neared, a Tymoshenko supporter said her opponents could resort to dirty tricks such as spraying voting slips with a mysterious liquid that would set them on fire in the ballot box. Yanukovych's team hit back by accusing Tymoshenko of hiring a psychic to brainwash voters.

Someone did try to set a polling station on fire in western Ukraine, where Tymoshenko's party did extremely well. Her supporters were quick to blame Yanukovych's party. His party denied it.

Then came the vote count, and election officials were determined it would be beyond reproach. They took 2 1/2 days to count 99.5 percent of the votes, and another 2 1/2 days to count the remaining 0.5 percent.

The result has finally been validated by a court, but peace and quiet are nowhere in sight. While Tymoshenko is poised to return as prime minister, her opponents have threatened lawsuits, street protests or a boycott of parliament to challenge her victory.

So what, they say — that's democracy.