Monday, November 01, 2004

Ukraine's Election Doesn't Fail to Disappoint

Here's the Ukraine column I promised. Most newspapers, including the Tribune, have a "blackout period" immediately preceding the election so that columnists (like me) can't raise a charge right before an election where the target won't get the usual opportunity to reply before Election Day. I figured that there wasn't any way this column could be translated into Ukrainian before the polls closed (at 10 am Phoenix time), so it ran during the election anyway.

For those of you following this story, the latest results indicate that Yanukovych got about 40% and Yushchenko about 39%, meaning that there will be a runoff between those two on Nov. 21. The good news is that the vote for Yanukovych wasn't close enough to 50% that the ruling party stole the election in the first round. However, that will be scant comfort if the government treats the runoff campaign as poorly as it did the initial election campaign.

The OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) issued their statement earlier today in Kyiv (2 pm local time) that the election did not meet OSCE and Council of Europe standards, which is significant. Here's the BBC report on the election and the OSCE statement. You can read the full OSCE statement on their website. Most of the OSCE complaints have to do with the conduct of the campaign, not the election; we'll just have to see if the ruling party plays things more fairly with media treatment of the two campaigns and with governmental hindrances of opposition campaigning. The more international scrutiny, the better. As an election itself, however, you'd figure that Yanukovych is more akin to the incumbent, and that in the run off, far more of the votes for other candidates would go to Yushchenko--which gives the ruling party even more incentive to cheat during the runoff.

I'm told that you can view the Channel 5 newscast of the security police search of ZNAYO! (and my detention) here, but I couldn't get the link to work. And if I did, it would be in Ukrainian. I've got links to some other media coverage, in English and French, of my little adventure, along with some commentary on the Ukrainian election, below.

The newspaper version is available here.

East Valley Tribune, Oct. 31, 2004

Right now, votes are being counted in a vitally-important presidential election -- in Ukraine. Most outside observers (including yours truly, after spending last week in Kyiv with the US-Ukraine Foundation) gravely doubt that the election will be fair, transparent, and democratic. If not, the consequences for Ukraine, and the world, could be dramatic and dismal.

The election (initial balloting today, with a runoff on Nov. 21 if, as expected, no candidate receives 50 percent) still could meet international standards. But there’s plenty of basis for suspicion that the ruling Regions of Ukraine party could steal the election.

The election campaign hasn’t met international standards. The ruling party, through control of state media and alliances with media-owning business oligarchs, has dominated television, treating opposition parties like Democrats on Fox and Sinclair. The government spiked domestic spending, jeopardizing fiscal solvency to provide pensioners with several benefit increases, like the GOP’s Medicare “drug benefit.”

The government uses foreign policy to make their candidate, the bland Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, seem more dynamic and important, just as the Bush campaign claims ownership of the war on terror. The ruling party has run a divisive, negative campaign, ignoring its own sorry record to pound the supposed shortcomings of the leading challenger, Viktor Yushchenko of the Our Ukraine party, while stirring up nationalistic and cultural fears, just like -- well, you get the idea.

While the ruling party ran a savvy campaign that even Karl Rove could admire and the opposition made several tactical errors, the playing field hasn’t been level. Regions of Ukraine might have eroded Yushchenko’s leads in all independent polls without cheating, but didn’t. The government selectively enforced tax laws against the opposition, and unleashed both alarming and petty intimidation, including suddenly-mandatory Saturday university classes or perfectly-timed street or railway closures to hinder opposition rallies.

This spring, the ruling party clearly stole a municipal election in western Ukraine, and prior to today’s election, took several steps (easier overseas voting in Russia than elsewhere; “controlled votes” in state facilities, like prisons and schools; using government buildings for campaign offices; having managers at government-run enterprises pressure employees to vote for Yanukovych; and welcoming “international observers” from Russia and other former Soviet states favoring the ruling party) that could help it steal the election.

I personally experienced such tactics, getting detained in the offices of an independent voter education organization while state security officers languidly searched for supposed evidence of an erstwhile connection to another reported group with an alleged connection to explosives. Or something; the special police never really explained. The raid was part of a series of raids against voter groups, and it reeked of government intimidation of independent voices.

The ruling party, whether shrewdly or by chance, has done these bad things, but never so outrageously to prove in advance that the election will be stolen. People we met expressed surprising confidence in their local election officials and procedures, but worried that the election could be stolen elsewhere. Unfortunately, it could be.

The most interesting aspect of the election, at least for Americans, is the interplay between Ukrainian and American domestic and foreign policies. Yanukovych has wrapped himself around Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is the most popular politician in Ukraine -- which troubles U.S. diplomats, who prefer Ukraine to choose a path more open to the West. The ruling party also tries to associate Yushchenko with President Bush, who is quite unpopular in Ukraine -- but who also got Putin’s quasi-endorsement for reelection, just like Yanukovych.

Many U.S. politicians (mainly Republicans) strongly support Yushchenko as the more pro-Western candidate, and appear ready to judge the fairness of the election solely on whether Yushchenko wins -- but it’s the ruling party that sent Ukrainian forces to Iraq, while Yushchenko announced that if elected, he immediately would order Ukrainian troops withdrawn. It’s all pretty confusing, even without jet lag.

The Ukrainian people have suffered mightily, and achieved greatly. They deserve a stable, honest democracy, not a corrupt government concerned only about retaining power. Today, 48 million Ukrainians decide their future -- if the election is fair.  American call elections crucial or historic all the time, but in Ukraine today, it’s the truth.

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