The Ukraine Diary. All 5,000 Words of It.
I've written up my experiences observing the rerun of the Ukraine presidential election runoff in late December. It's embarrassingly long, but you really don't have to read it all:
Here’s hoping, that when it comes to elections in Ukraine, the third time’s the charm.
Background to the New Election
On Dec. 26, Ukrainians voted for the third time in 8 weeks for a new president. Following widespread reports of improprieties in the Oct. 31 first-round election and major fraud and vote padding in the Nov. 21 runoff, the Ukraine Supreme Court had invalidated the election and ordered it the runoff election repeated within a three-week period. That period ended on, yes, Dec. 26, which the Ukrainian Parliament chose as the date for the repeat election.
It looks like this election result will hold. On Dec. 31, the losing candidate, Yiktor Yanukovych, resigned as prime minister and admitted that his challenges to the vote had little chance of overturning the provisional results; the winner, opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, has claimed victory and started planning his inauguration in Kyiv’s Independence Square (the Maidan Nezalezhnosti) and considering who will play what role in his government. International observers have noted some problems, but have called the revote fair and generally in conformance with international standards.
That was my opinion, as well; I spent the week of the election in Ukraine as an international election monitor. I volunteered for a program sponsored jointly by the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation and the Association of Former Members of Congress, which in turn affiliated with the association for former members of the European Parliament. Our hardy band of three dozen U.S. and European “former honorables” headed out across Ukraine, becoming part of a veritable army of international observers estimated at greater than 12,000.
The Ukrainian election law specifically encourages and registers international observers, giving them the right to be present and to watch all aspects of the election process; that openness is one of the “international standards” which we in the United States demand of other countries but may not provide ourselves, depending on what each state’s laws happen to provide.
Observing in Odessa
I spent the election itself in Odessa, in southern Ukraine along the Black Sea. I requested Odessa both because my paternal grandfather traced his descent from the region and I wanted to see at least part of my heritage, and because due to its more southerly location and the sea’s effects, Odessa is warmer than Kyiv, and hey, I’m an Arizona guy. If I enjoyed winter, I’d be living somewhere else.
I flew more or less directly from Phoenix to Odessa, which meant changing planes (and losing my luggage for 4 days) in Minneapolis, Amsterdam, and Kyiv. I only had enough time to use an ATM machine at Kyiv’s Boryspol Airport, which caused the credit card company to call my wife about unusual account activity; she had to explain that for us, a cash withdrawal in Kyiv is normal.
In Odessa, we saw the statute of the French nobleman with the English cannonball from the Crimean War embedded in its base, atop the famous Potemkin Steps; you may recall the baby carriage falling down those steps either in the original Eisenstein movie, The Battleship Potemkin, or perhaps from the homage in Brian de Palma in The Untouchables, or the parody of the homage in a Naked Gun movie. Unfortunately, the reality doesn’t live up to the cinematic treatment; the steps do not end at a chapel or even a view of the sea, but rather at a busy four-lane commercial street and the noisy clamor of the harbor and warehouses. The adjacent funicular railway closed for repairs in 1999 and has yet to reopen. And the steps themselves seem dirty, smaller, and less than majestic. Once again, reality can be disappointing compared to the ideal, but unlike the movie version, it actually exists. Just like democracy itself.
So what did we see? From everything I saw and heard from other members of our team, the election generally went well. You would have found much that seemed familiar in the process. Despite an emotional and pitched national campaign full of invective, misleading claims, and emotional appeals, I saw a high level of respect and cooperation at the local level, where election workers from the two different campaigns knew each other and worked well together in common cause of counting votes accurately and completely. I saw the residue of a difficult campaign, where just as in America supporters of one candidate readily admitted their guy’s flaws but believed the absolutely worst rumors about the other guy, but that campaign didn’t affect how local folks got along and conducted the people’s business.
And I also saw significant regional divisions, where results in the great majority of provinces went overwhelmingly -- by margins of 2-to-1 or more -- for one candidate. Out of 27 voting regions, in only one (Kherson) was the winning candidate’s margin less than 20 percent. In 12, the winning candidate won by more than 4-to-1; Donetsk gave Yanukovych 93.54 percent, while 93.74 of Lviv voted for Yushchenko. (Yanukovych carried the entire Odessa region 67-30, with about 3 percent for neither candidate; in the urban election district containing the polling station where I monitored the vote count, Yanukovych won by 59-34, with 5 percent voting for neither candidate.) On TV maps, all provinces to the west were colored orange, the campaign color of Yushchenko, and those to the east were blue, the color of Yanukovych’s campaign. That’s a potentially big problem for the future unless the new government can find a way to defuse linguistic, regional, religious, and cultural tensions and build unity. (Results by region in English are posted by the Central Election Commission here.)
Ukrainian Election Procedures (Nuts-and-Bolts for Political Junkies)
Ukraine’s election differs from our procedures in several ways. First, the election is very low-tech: paper ballots, lots of manual processing, and multiple signatures for every ballot. To vote, a citizen needed to be listed on the rolls, which were available at polling stations in advance of the vote. If you weren’t on the roll, you had to file an application with the local court to obtain an order putting you on the list of registered voters.
Second, when a voter arrived at the polls, they presented specified identity documents, then signed the voter roll and the top portion of their ballot, what we would call the ballot stub. Unlike in America, however, a local election committee member then signed both the voter roll page and the ballot stub, which then was stamped with the official seal of the polling district. Under the revised procedures adopted by the Parliament for this additional election, the poll workers were evenly balanced, with half appointed from each campaign, and at the polls they worked in pairs. If the Yanukovych poll worker signed the ballots, the Yushchenko worker controlled the voter list pages and handed the actual ballot to the voter -- but to do so, the second committee member used a ruler to tear off the top of the ballot stub, with the voter’s name, number, and signature, because the ballots weren’t perforated. The ballot, after removal of the stub, was slightly larger than a business (not personal) check.
Voters then went to a polling booth, all of which appeared rather small by our standards, and marked their choice, for either of the two candidates or for “neither candidate.” The voter then put the completed ballot in one of several boxes; each polling station, no matter how small, had multiple ballot boxes, not just one. And the boxes, each approximately 4 feet high, were made of clear plastic, and most voters (about 80 percent) did not fold their ballots. Often, you could tell how a voter voted by viewing the ballot through the clear walls. We asked several voters if they had concerns about this potential lack of secrecy, but everybody we asked said that they preferred the clear boxes, because that would help prevent classic ballot box stuffing or removal of valid ballots by stealth. I suspect most Americans would be upset at the potential loss of secrecy and never consider the possibility that opaque ballot boxes could be compromised more readily.
The vote count was recorded on a form called a protocol, in a labor-intensive process. There wasn’t one official protocol form; instead, after finishing the count, each election committee had to produce by hand a duplicate original protocol (with multiple signatures from each committee member and from all officially-recognized observers, including me) for everyone entitled to one. Thus, at the polling station where I observed the count, it took almost as long to write out the final results in 20 or so original protocols (multiple copies for each campaign, plus for the observers, plus the officially-required copies) as it did to count all the votes. Even though most polling stations were located in government buildings, none apparently had access to a photocopier, so all forms requiring copies were copied -- and signed repeatedly -- by hand.
Prisons and Other "Controlled Votes"
Another striking difference with U.S. elections is that in Ukraine, prisoners don’t lose their voting rights -- and inside the prison, everybody votes. I observed voting inside a medium-security prison in Odessa, where I was most surprised by the limited internal security. The guards did limit the number admitted to the polling station, located in the small prison library, to about 20 at a time. However, there were no guards in the library itself (the election law prohibited police and guards inside polling stations), and nobody thought that a crowd of prisoners voting presented any threat at all to the poll workers and various observers -- which would not have been the case in virtually any similar U.S. prison. It looked like all prisoners were voting, and they voted fairly overwhelmingly for Yanukovych, the ruling party candidate. Yushchenko supporters attributed the support to Yanukovych’s past convictions under Soviet rule, which have since been expunged, but I don’t think if U.S. convicts could vote, they would support the incumbent administration which, after all, put them in jail. In any case, prisoners didn’t vote absentee; they all lined up and all voted that morning. The 100 percent turnout is a bit suspicious, but it’s not as if the prisoners had other places to go that day.
Finally, Ukraine had very limited absentee, and no early, voting. (Voters could apply to vote at other polling stations if business or school took them away from home, but had to apply in advance and then appear at a “live” polling station to vote.) An elderly or handicapped voter had to apply for “mobile voting” privileges, where the election officials took a ballot and a small mobile box (about the size of, yes, a toaster) to the voter’s home. Parliament changed the procedures after percentages of votes cast by allegedly disabled voters in Yanukovych areas were so large as to defy credibility. But the Yanukovych campaign challenged that change, and the Constitutional Court struck down some of the more restrictive provisions as incompatible with the legal rights of disabled voters. The court’s decision, however, came the day before the election, and wasn’t made official until publication at around 6 pm that evening, and required that all applications under the court-revised rules be submitted by 8 pm. So there were two different sets of rules for applying for mobile voting, depending on if the voter submitted the request (which required original physician certifications of disability to be attached) before the court decision, or in the window created by the court decision the day before the election. No local election officials had time stamps, so most treated applications submitted on Dec. 25 as falling within the window, even if they may have arrived before the court decision was announced or became official on publication.
The confusing and quite difficult procedures for qualifying to vote at home, plus the last-minute court-ordered revision, made mobile voting a key flashpoint between the two campaigns. In Odessa, a Yanukovych region, Yushchenko campaign workers spent much of election day challenging mobile votes as not proper due to such formalistic problems as not having original physician certificates attached, or because the request wasn’t written entirely by hand by the applicant; they interpreted the law’s requirement that the applicant submit the letter as meaning that nobody else could help write it. It’s not clear if they were challenging typed letters on the grounds that the applicant might not have done the typing, but it was the kind of strict compliance with election law requirements in enemy territory (and perhaps not in their own favorable regions) that is the stock in trade of any American election lawyer. William Rehnquist, call your office.
But we saw in the Odessa region that many elderly or handicapped voters, lacking transportation to the polls and with polling stations located in buildings without elevators or access, were disenfranchised in order to prevent the kind of widespread fraud that probably accounted for 5 percent of Yanukovych’s totals in the tainted Nov. 21 election. The Parliament needs to fix the mobile voting rules, and Ukraine needs to revisit the whole mobile voting process, which makes basic ballot-box-stuffing and ghost-voter cheating far too easy.
After observing at the prison, I spent the afternoon of election day visiting various polling stations with former Sen. Larry Pressler (R-SD), who had given me the coat off his back when he learned my luggage was still missing. The day’s highlight was stopping, at his insistence, at a horse-cart for photographs in between two polling stations in rural Odessa region. I guess being on the Senate Agriculture Committee is a lifetime calling. After making our inspections of polling places and Ukrainian agriculture, we then headed back to town to observe the counting at a polling station close to the city center chosen because of the high numbers of students living in hostels nearby might present opportunities for vote fraud.
Counting Votes in Odessa
At that polling station, I saw that people in Odessa managed to deal with some aspects of the law in a more practical manner. The commission at Polling Station 78 in Territorial Election Region 137 had a Yanukovych appointee count the ballots for Yushchenko, while a Yushchenko designee counted the Yanukovych ballots. Everybody ruled together on disputed, invalid, and “neither candidate” ballots.
The commission also found “creative” ways to deal with certain aspects of required procedures. The station was located in a municipal building, and we were warned that the doors would be locked at 8 pm and we wouldn’t even have access to a bathroom until the count finished. But the commission members consisted of 10 women and 2 men, and three of the younger women were quite striking. The room adjacent to the polling station was some sort of police substation or security office, and some of the younger policemen found reason to visit their substation, and to talk with those particular three female commission members during breaks in the counting. All that flirting meant that despite the padlock ostentatiously placed on front gate, we could duck out through the police substation and use the downstairs facilities as needed. I declined to report this possible violation, both at the time and now. I’m with the security guys on this one.
The results took two days for a “provisional” announcement by the country’s Central Election Commission, but while the provisional results gave Yushchenko a 8-point victory, the Yanukovych campaign filed a huge number of complaints -- several thousands in all, none of which appear sufficient to change the result, but which will require time to hear and resolve. Observers with the International Republican Institute estimated that the reported 8-point margin is about half of the real margin, due to some electoral trickery in key eastern Yanukovych districts. Of course, in drawing that conclusion, these U.S. Republicans are demonstrating their belief that exit polls are absolutely valid when conducted in a foreign language and different alphabet in a country only independent for a dozen years where people have a long-standing reticence to discuss politics with strangers. Lacking those handicaps, U.S. exit polls aren’t as well-regarded.
Spending election day (which didn’t end until early the next morning, after filling out all those original protocols) and the next day in Odessa meant that I missed the excitement on the streets of Kyiv. People in Odessa voted strongly for Yanukovych, and while there were many Yushchenko supporters, particularly in the central part of the city, Odessa did not have any sort of celebration or party, unlike Kyiv. But when I got to Kyiv on Monday night, I’d missed that party the night before. Most Ukrainians now seem relieved that the election is finally over, that the political temperature can drop back to “normal,” whatever that is. The most common sentiment we heard as a group was that we should come back to Ukraine, but not for another election -- at least not for a while. The Speaker of the Ukrainian Parliament, Volodynyr Lytvyn, told us Tuesday that “Ukrainian society has been exhausted by these elections.” However, despite that exhaustion, 70 to 75 percent of eligible voters voted in three elections held over the past 9 weeks, turnout we Americans can only dream about.
What Caused the "Orange Revolution"?
There were three reasons why Ukraine did not have to accept the flawed Nov. 21 elections, which would have meant five more years of the current system of government power assisting private wealth, and vice versa. First, the demonstrations in Kyiv surprised everybody in their size and organization. It turned out that the government was right to fear Pora, a student group raided several days before the initial election in October (I was detained by the Ukrainian security service in a parallel raid on Znayu, a nongovernmental organization affiliated with the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation). The government wasn’t able to plant explosives and make those trumped-up charges stick, but Pora did lead an amazingly disciplined, months-long street demonstration and encampment of hundreds of thousands of people.
Second, key aspects of the state saw the demonstrations and essentially came over to the opposition. The security services (the same folks who raided Pora and who detained me at Znayu in October) were the only realistic source for much of the key evidence of fraud submitted by the Yushchenko campaign to the Supreme Court, such as telephone intercepts. Similarly, the mayor of Kyiv allowed the students to maintain their “Tent City” on several blocks of Khreshchatyk, the principal central city boulevard, which made traffic miserable as drivers were forced take narrow side streets. Americans would be upset if somebody interfered with our right to vote, but we’d be outraged if mere electoral fraud made traffic that bad. Ukrainians were willing, probably due to the novelty of it all, to take the longer view.
Finally, current President Leonid Kuchma, no true democrat, deserves some credit for acting like Gorbachev at the fall of the Soviet Union. Kuchma declined to use force to remove the protests and enforce the stolen election. I don’t want to praise anybody too highly for merely not committing murder, but Kuchma didn’t use bullets to save his regime. Many of us didn’t know if he could resist that temptation, but he did.
What Next for Ukraine?
Now that the elections are essentially over, the almost-as-important but certainly-less-exciting part begins. Yushchenko has to form his cabinet and develop a government that can lead all Ukraine, including the substantial numbers of people who voted for Yanukovych. He needs to lower the political temperature and begin speaking not just to his supporters, but to all. On one particularly heated but not particularly fruitful issue, language, we saw some of the emotions that could interfere with democratic and legal reform and economic progress.
Ukrainian and Russian are, I’m told, about as similar as Spanish and Portuguese; similar but certainly not identical. Much of Ukraine speaks Russian, which during the Soviet era was the official and “status” language, with Ukrainian being the “peasant” language. Part of Ukraine, like Crimea and Odessa, are both linguistically and ethnically Russian, and few people speak Ukrainian. Many of the Russian-speakers don’t know Ukrainian and don’t want to learn; in Odessa, if I spoke my halting Ukrainian (which consisted of “yes,” “no,” “thank you,” and several brands of beer) they asked that I speak Russian (in which I’m a bit less fluent). But in Kyiv, saying “thank you” in Russian to the wrong person was a major faux pas, because many Ukrainian speakers see their language as a political statement. It will take considerable political skill to avoid a “Quebec problem” in Ukraine, what with language issues having such political resonance and with Russian-speaking (and geographically separate) Crimea already having substantial autonomy within the national system.
What Should the U.S. Do?
There’s much hard, boring, and necessary work for the U.S. and Europe as well. First, during the campaign, Yushchenko promised to bring home the Ukrainian troops serving as part of the coalition in Iraq. People around Yushchenko say that the withdrawal will not be sudden and will take into account the elections in Iraq at the end of January, but at a time when U.S. troops are having tours extended to increase troop levels leading up to the election, removing the 1,400 Ukrainian troops could present problems for the U.S. military in Iraq. If the Bush administration pressures Ukraine to delay the withdrawal to serve U.S. military needs, it could cause Yushchenko domestic political problems for backing away from one of his major campaign promises.
Next, having taken to the streets and transformed their system, the Ukrainians now expect to have the U.S. and Europe take significant, if symbolic, steps to acknowledge the transformation. We heard many times that Ukraine is part of Europe and that Ukrainians are Europeans, which means that to the great majority, they do not see their country’s future through any relationship with Russia that excludes their full participation in western institutions. At the same time, Ukrainians recognize that geography and their economic, linguistic, cultural, and historic ties with Russia mean that they will continue to have close ties with Russia. The current government also can point to improvements in Russia-Ukraine relations, particularly regarding Russian law on visas, registration of foreign nationals, and in electing not to tax energy exports, both of which greatly impact Ukraine, that any new Ukrainian government would not want to jeopardize. But as Konstyantyn Hryshchenko, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister, told our group, Ukraine doesn’t want to be a bridge between Europe and Russia; it wants to be a part of Europe, in the heart of Europe. The Ukrainians will be strongly disappointed is Europe is more interested in Russian energy security and the U.S. is more interested in Russian assistance in fighting terrorism than in democracy in Ukraine. To the Ukrainians, these goals should not be contradictory, but they need to see evidence that Ukrainian democracy is just as important as oil and anti-terror cooperation.
And if the West doesn’t recognize and reward Ukraine’s transformation, then that will send a discouraging message to small-d democrats in the “GUUAM” states (Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Moldova), and even in the six CIS states (more properly, the former Soviet republics remaining in the Collective Security Treaty, namely Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Belarus, and Russia, which are generally doing far worse than their GUUAM neighbors in terms of freedom and democracy). Both sets of countries need to know that the West can act as well as just talk.
The easier issues involved in making Ukraine an integral part of Europe are economic; it’s clear they would like a relationship with the European Union and to work toward possible EU membership once Ukraine’s economy recovers and grows to the point where membership is feasible. The more difficult issue is the Ukrainian’s desire for a closer relationship with NATO, which would antagonize the Russians more than it would reward the Ukrainians. We may need to find a way to dance around that one for a while.
But there are specific things the U.S. could do immediately to recognize and reward the new Ukraine. First, we have to figure out a way, immediately, to resolve any Homeland Security issues so that pretty much any Ukrainian student who wants to study in the U.S. can come here, and to make it easier for Ukrainian businesspeople to visit the U.S. as well. The increase in paperwork and processing times and the decrease in issuances of student visas following Sept. 11 is taking away one of the best tools of American diplomacy, and we need to make fixing the system a key priority.
Second, back in the Soviet days, Congress adopted the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which raised sanctions against countries (primarily the Soviet Union) that refused to allow emigration of minorities and free exercise of religion. As part of the USSR at the time, Ukraine is subject to Jackson-Vanik. Since independence, the U.S. administration has given Ukraine a waiver from Jackson-Vanik because the country now allows free emigration and religious exercise. But Ukrainians want the law changed; they see the annual waiver process as possibly subject to delay or denial, and want the symbolic satisfaction of permanent “graduation” from Jackson-Vanik. Scoop Jackson is deceased, but in our delegation former Rep. Tom Sawyer (D-OH) reported that Charlie Vanik is still living in retirement in Florida, and even he thinks Jackson-Vanik should be repealed as well. The law has served its Cold War purpose, and repeal now would reward a democratic Ukraine.
It will be surprisingly difficult to repeal a law that few people realize is still on the books. It’s a classic political problem, where there are small but extremely agitated minorities that are opposed to repeal, while graduation benefits the vast majority of Americans and Ukrainians, but only slightly in practical terms. When the well-organized minority faces off against the disinterested majority, you get U.S. policy toward Cuba -- and continuation of the awkward annual waiver for Ukraine of Jackson-Vanik. It’s time for repeal, or graduation, or whatever you want to call it, for Ukraine.
Our delegation included both former Representatives Elizabeth Holzman and Father Robert Drinan, who each recalled voting for Jackson-Vanik back in 1974, proudly -- but who didn’t realize it was still on the books today. Father Drinan seemed absolutely surprised that given the changes since then that we were still using this tool of Cold War diplomacy, which no longer fits and which is actually seen as an insult by people whom we wish to encourage and reward. As Foreign Minister Hryshchenko said, repeal (or “graduation”) is overdue by at least a day.
Third, Yushchenko promised during the campaign to bring home Ukrainian troops from Iraq. While people around Yushchenko have promised that the withdrawal will not be precipitous or sudden, it still means that 1,600 Ukrainian troops will be leaving, probably shortly after the Jan. 30 elections, at a time when the U.S. is scrounging for as many boots as possible on the ground. The Bush administration cannot let short-term troop requirements overpower our long-term strategic interests in a democratic and free Ukraine.
Stop Reading, and Go to Kyiv Already
It’s truly thrilling to be in Ukraine now. In Kyiv, twenty-somethings from around the world are working with their Ukrainian counterparts to transform a country. It really is democracy on the march, and it can happen without a war and it seems to be happening with more power because many countries are helping, not just the U.S. But Americans also need to act, in small and symbolic ways that don’t make good television and which won’t compete with pictures of natural disasters, war, and mass demonstrations, to acknowledge what Ukraine has accomplished this fall and winter; to encourage them to accomplish more; and to provide a successful example so that in neighboring Belarus and Russia, maybe not next year or the year after, but we can hope -- and work hard -- so that eventually democracy will be on the march there as well. Let’s fix the visa system, graduate Ukraine from Jackson-Vanik, and assist with their integration into Europe.