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December 2, 2004

Stealing Elections in Ukraine

By

There are many ways to steal an election. On Nov. 21, the government of Ukraine tried them all. Busloads of hoodlums -- armed with permission slips allowing them to vote away from home -- cast ballots in successive polling places. Known supporters of the opposition candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, who had been able to vote in round one on Oct. 31, found their names mysteriously expunged from the second-round list.

Precinct commissioners in pro-Yushchenko areas were somehow unable to appear on voting day, or had to leave before the official vote count, thus invalidating all votes cast at their locations. In a country where the overall participation was about 73 percent, one district reported 99.9 percent of the eligible had voted and, mirabile dictu, almost every one them for the government candidate, Viktor Yanukovych.

Even more remarkable, another district, staffed it seems by the mathematically challenged, reported 103 percent of the eligible had managed to vote. And for which candidate? Yanukovych.

As part of an international observer group organized by the National Democratic Institute, working with the International Republican Institute and the European Network of Election Monitoring Organizations, I began the morning of Nov. 21 at a minimum-security women's prison in Odessa. The women, young and old, were marched in, seated, and then row by row sent to the voting booths. No official stood near the ballot boxes and none made an intimidating gesture.

But as the prisoners in each row were ordered to stand and walk forward, we heard the guard say in a low voice, "Remember where to make your mark." The boxes, in which the ballots are dropped, are transparent. Unless the ballot is folded -- most were not -- the voter's choice is visible. Later, at other polling places, I saw uniforms of one kind or another, crowd the doorways, or stand conveniently near those transparent ballot boxes.

The reports of the international observer mission vary from the simply depressing -- outright intimidation by thugs, all of whom regardless of location seem to favor exactly the same style of black jacket -- to the frankly ludicrous.

One observer discovered that some 90 ballots he had seen marked, were later found to be blank. Trying one of the pens used in the voting booth, he saw that the ink marks vanished after about 20 minutes.

The stakes are quite high in the contest between Yanukovych, now the prime minister as well as the outgoing President Leonid Kuchma's chosen heir, and on the other side a former prime minister known for economic reforms, Yushchenko.

Yanukovych comes from eastern Ukraine, the former coal-steel-aerospace region of the Soviet Union, an area where the old Leninist ways remain current. Russian is spoken there; Ukrainian is little heard. The people running the eastern provinces are mostly apparatchiki of the old regime, and regret its passing. Many are members of what is now the Ukrainian Communist Party.

Yanukovych has strong links to regional oligarchs, particularly Rinat Akhmetov who heads of the Industrial Union of Donbass. Despite the name, it is an industrial combine and not a union.

Kuchma, too, was linked to oligarchic bosses, involved in selling advanced radar to Saddam Hussein in violation of U.N. resolutions, and accused of ordering the death of a journalist, later found beheaded, who had reported on official corruption. Once seen as a progressive force, over the years Kuchma became increasingly authoritarian, wielding power in a way such that his critics began calling him "the Ukrainian Milosevic."

The Yanukovych-Kuchma group stands for tight governmental control, especially over the media, and is far more amenable to Moscow's influence, perhaps even Moscow's diktat, than the Western-leaning Yushchenko. The fear in Kiev and the western Ukraine -- Yushchenko's heartland -- is that Yanukovych intends to follow the path blazed by Lukashenko in Belarus. That is, a Ukraine that embraces and is embraced by Putin's Russia.

The other Viktor, Yushchenko, was a favorite of Kuchma once upon a time. Yushchenko was made head of the central bank in 1993, and then prime minister in 1999. He quickly made a name for himself pushing economic reforms, stifling inflation, and opening the country to foreign investment.

But within a year and a half Kuchma bowed to pressure from Akhmetov and the other oligarchs on whose toes he'd trod, and fired him. At that point, Yushchenko formed an opposition coalition, "Our Ukraine," which did reasonably well in the 2002 parliamentary elections.

International observers vigorously denounced the initial round of voting back on Oct. 21 for black propaganda, vote rigging, false counts, incredibly biased government media and intimidation. But that was split among the 20 or so candidates then contending. This time the government's job was far easier. All efforts could be, and were, concentrated on Yushchenko.

There was a certain openness to this, a kind of in-your-face, who-cares-what-you-think blatancy that might have amused connoisseurs of stolen elections. But Ukraine is no one's rotten borough. From Kiev west, a dozen years of contact with Poland, the Baltic States, and Western Europe has given Ukrainians, especially the younger generation, an appetite for freedom. And the examples of Georgia and Serbia, where citizen outrage reversed obviously stolen elections, is much on their minds as they fill the capital's Independence Square with hundreds of thousands of people.

There was a good deal of dithering within the administration as the first reports of a stolen election arrived. Russia, with its Security Council veto, as well as its influence in the Middle East and Central Asia, is obviously important, and a constructive relationship with Putin is a clear administration interest. But the blatant theft of a presidential election in so important a piece of real estate is hard to ignore, and in the debate the winners were those who insisted that upholding democratic values in Ukraine was as important as trying to transplant it to Iraq.

So while the president tried to avoid stepping on Putin's toes, Secretary of State Colin Powell was forthright in saying that the United States cannot and will not accept the announced Yanukovych victory as legitimate. The president's personal representative, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar, was even more forceful, denouncing "a concerted and forceful program of election day fraud and abuse enacted with the cooperation of the authorities."

Kuchma and Yanukovych expected that after a few days out in the cold the crowds that initially packed Independence Square would give up, go home, and things would return to normal. But that has not happened.

Instead, the crowds have grown larger and more determined, helped along by visits from the presidents of Poland and Lithuania, advice from Lech Walensa, and assistance from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The Supreme Court is investigating the complaints of a stolen election. The Ukrainian parliament (with unclear jurisdiction) has declared the election null and void. And most recently Kuchma and Yanukovych have said that in the end it might be best to hold a new election.

That probably will be the way out of the crisis. But this time, it had better be without a captive Election Commission, and with dozens of international observers reporting rapidly from every polling station.

Harvey Feldman was a member of the National Democratic Institute election observation team in Ukraine Nov. 17-23. A retired ambassador, and former alternate U.S. representative to the United Nations, he is now distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

Distributed on the UPI wire.

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