Friday, December 31, 2004

But Is It Good for the Jews?

The Jewish News of Greater Phoenix asked for a piece on going to Ukraine to monitor the elections, which I wrote about 10 days before my most recent visit. I can't find it on their website (or if it was on the website, it appeared only while I was actually in Ukraine). I most certainly didn't write the headline, because I've been told in no uncertain terms that it isn't "The Ukraine," but simply Ukraine. The "the" reminds people of the Soviet days and is a retrograde political statement. You have been warned.

In breaking news, Prime Minister Yanukovych submitted his resignation, but plans to pursue his election protests, which have been rejected by the Central Election Commission but he can appeal to the Supreme Court. There's no word if he is sharing the same lawyers as now-losing GOP Washington state governor candidate Dino Rossi in seeking a "best 2-out-of-3". Finally, here's a good collection of links about the reaction of the Ukrainian Jewish community to the elections.

Jewish News of Greater Phoenix, Dec. 24, 2004

This Christmas, instead of Chinese food and a movie, I’m going to Ukraine, along with other former U.S. representatives and European parliamentarians, to serve as international election observers. It’s not the usual Jews-subbing-for-gentiles-on-Christmas activity, but trying to help democracy in one of Eastern Europe’s largest and most important countries seems worth doing.

In a stunning decision earlier this month, the Ukrainian Supreme Court declared the country’s Nov. 21 presidential runoff election invalid due to widespread fraud and faulty administration. The Court ordered a new election between Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko on Dec. 26. That date doesn’t affect Ukrainians, who celebrate Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 7. But it may bother some international election observers who need to travel over the holiday – making Jewish international observers particularly useful, this time.

I previously visited Ukraine with another delegation of former representatives and parliamentarians 10 days before the initial Oct. 31 election. During that visit, we saw evidence of a grimly unfair election campaign. The ruling party had used its and its allies’ media control lavishly to advance Yanukovych and attack Yushchenko, 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.

I personally experienced some ruling-party heavy-handedness, better suited to the Soviet era. We learned of a government raid on Znayu, an independent voter-education organization, which I had visited earlier in the week. At Znayu’s office, two young men with burr haircuts and black leather coats stood outside and refused to identify themselves. Only when local police arrived did the guards identify themselves as SBU, the Ukraine State Security Forces. The guards refused to recognize our official election observer credentials, but I managed to slip inside.

I was treated politely during my “detention” but could see that the official justification for the raid – that the SBU had “found” evidence of bomb-making equipment at the offices of Pora, a separate student group, and that documents there somehow mentioned Znayu – didn’t jibe with the agents’ actions. Instead, they leisurely downloaded everything from Znayu computers while trying to look vaguely ominous. The SBU agents didn’t take any precautions for explosives, making it obvious that they really wanted to harass independent voices before the election.

The Oct. 31 first-round election, according to independent observers, did not meet international standards, but there was hope for a better second round. But the Nov. 21 runoff was markedly worse, and – to the surprise of the government and outside observers – hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians rejected the results and forced the government to accede to the Supreme Court’s order for a new runoff election.

Since the Court decision, the government and the opposition reached a compromise on new voting procedures that should eliminate most of the government’s opportunities for fraud, and which will reduce presidential power and create a more parliamentary-style system. But Ukrainian people (and the security services, which probably provided Yushchenko with some of the more sophisticated proof of electoral fraud, like telephone intercepts) have demonstrated that they want real democracy.

When I return to Ukraine next week, I expect it will be much colder than in October – but I also hope to observe a much more vibrant and healthy democracy.

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