December 2, 2004
By Harvey Feldman
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
There are many ways to steal an election. On Nov. 21, the government of Ukraine tried them all.
Distinguished Fellow in China Policy
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