Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Update on Ukraine Presidential Elections

The upcoming (Oct. 31) Presidential Elections in Ukraine are of very high significance. The entire world will be watching closely. The two frontrunners are very close in the polls, yet reflect very different visions of human rights, rule of law, and economic reform in Ukraine. Perhaps most importantly, they represent two different views and directions regarding Ukraine's international/European identity. Yanukovych, the "establishment" candidate, acting Prime Minister and supported by current President Kuchma and (impliedly) President Putin of Russia, wants to maintain and strengthen Ukraine's ties to Russia and preserve a relatively Eastern-Europe orientation. Yuschenko, the "opposition" candidate, is very much the pro-Western candidate. He is advocating sweeping reforms in areas including voting, human rights, and economic policy. Of the party "Our Ukraine," he emphasizes solidifying Ukraine's independence from Russia and orientation with Western Europe and its institutions. The campaign has been a tumultuous one, riddled with violence, government-controlled media bias, and attacks on the candidates (including an apparently life-threatening poisoning that took Yuschenko out for weeks).

Here is a recent update from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on the dramatic campaign and imminent elections:

RADIO FREE EUROPE/RADIO LIBERTY UKRAINE THE GAME WITH NO RULE BOOK. An estimated 100,000 people participated in a rally near Ukrainian Central Election Commission (TsVK) headquarters in Kyiv on 23 October to back the presidential bid of opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko and to demand fair and democratic presidential voting on 31 October. The rally -- organizedby the pro-Yushchenko electoral coalition People's Power -- was held under the general slogan "The People's Power Against Lies And Falsification.""We demand honest elections," Yushchenko told the crowd. "The people will force [the government] to recognize their choice.... The candidate of the authorities has no chance whatsoever for an honest victory."After Yushchenko ended his speech at the rally, the crowd began to disperse. Then a group of young people with shaved heads andwho wore black jackets with orange-colored symbols of the Yushchenko campaign, bombarded the TsVK offices with bottles and smoke bombs,breaking several windows in the building. Within an hour, footage of the attack was being shown on Ukraine's major television channelswith commentaries attributing the incident to extremists in the pro-Yushchenko camp. Participants in the pro-Yushchenko rally managed to catch six attackers and hand them over to police. But when opposition lawmakers visited a police station three hours later to inquire about the detained attackers, they were told that the attackers had been released. The opposition accused the authorities of staging a provocation with the attack on the TsVK offices. Ukraine's pro-government television channels have remained silent over what happened with the "pro-Yushchenko extremists."Later in the evening on 23 October, however, events took amore terrifying turn. Some 100 Yushchenko supporters remained infront of the TsVK building, where the TsVK was mulling the issue ofopening 400 additional polling stations in Russia for Ukrainians who live there and want to take part in the 31 October presidential vote.The TsVK session was attended by Yushchenko, a group of lawmakers from his Our Ukraine parliamentary bloc, and several lawmakers from thepro-government parliamentary coalition. It is little wonder that the debate was heated: Yushchenko and his supporters argued that opening so many polling stations in Russia -- with no election observers onhand for the voting there -- could lead to massive falsifications infavor of Yushchenko's main rival, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.At 11:00 p.m., the pro-Yushchenko picketers outside the TsVK headquarters were attacked by an unidentified group of around 100thugs who were reportedly armed with flails, hammers, knives, and blunt objects. The picketers, along with opposition deputies from theTsVK building who hastened to help them, managed to detain threeattackers: two turned out to have police officers' identity cardsand pistols with them. Eight participants in the fight were seriously injured and taken to hospitals by ambulance. As one Ukrainian commentator noted, it was the first blood spilled in the 2004 presidential campaign.What happened later is not quite clear. After Yushchenko andhis parliamentary colleagues found themselves outside the TsVK building, a detachment of riot police arrived at the scene and,according to Our Ukraine legislators, blocked their way back to the building. The authorities, as well as pro-government media, subsequently accused Our Ukraine lawmakers of attacking and beating the riot-police detachment. Moreover, the police said that the twopolice officers whom Yushchenko's supporters detained near the TsVK headquarters had nothing to do with the attack on the picketersand were kidnapped by an unidentified group in an entirely different part of the city. Prosecutors opened a criminal investigation against Yushchenko and his backers, accusing them of an attack on on-duty police officers.Meanwhile, Yushchenko's people admitted only that theonly victim of their "attack" was lawmaker Nestor Shufrych from the pro-government Social Democratic Party-united, from whom they tore a sport shirt in a scuffle that ensued when he tried to stop them on their way back into the building. Shufrych reportedly wandered withhis bare torso along the TsVK corridors for an hour after theincident.In seemingly biased reports, pro-Yanukovych televisionchannels and newspapers presented the 23 October clash near the TsVK headquarters as the most direct evidence that Yushchenko and his followers are preparing a violent scenario for taking power inUkraine after the 31 October presidential ballot, irrespective of its result. "Recently the trust of voters in [Yushchenko] has noticeablydecreased and his chances for a victory are becoming more and more illusory," Yanukovych's election staff said in a statement on 26October, purporting to explain why Yushchenko favors "extremistactions."Progressive Socialist Party Chairwoman Natalya Vitrenko then added insult to injury, painting Yushchenko as a repulsive extremist."I assess the events of 23-24 October at the TsVK offices as actions by anti-Russian, anti-Slavic, and pro-American forces oriented toward capturing power by strong-arm methods for the benefit of the UnitedStates, under the cover of a struggle for honest elections," "ForUm"quoted her as saying. "I think the capture of power by Yushchenko would [cap] an American scenario for Ukraine's colonization."But there have been other, more disturbing signals fromUkraine. The "Ukrayinska pravda" website on 26 October posted areport from Donbas, Ukraine's coal-mining basin and Yanukovych's electoral stronghold, saying that coal-mine managersin the region are forming groups of miners who are to go to Kyiv andsome cities in western Ukraine on 30 October for three days, purportedly as electoral observers. The website hints that such groups might be used not only for observing the election but also for falsifying the vote in favor of Yanukovych by repeatedly voting at different polling stations and for staging provocations against Yushchenko adherents. "Fear is once again creeping into people's souls," a group of Ukrainian intellectuals and writers say in an open letter about the ongoing election campaign published on 25 October. "Today they are often afraid to speak freely [out of fear that] they would lose the very last things in their possession -- work and a piece of bread. Instead of a cozy European home with its attendant prosperous life and respect for the law, once again we are being offered Eurasian spaces with their eternal evils, barbarity, and despotism."The letter warns that a Yanukovych election victory will be a"catastrophe" and calls on Ukrainians to vote for Yushchenko.

. . . As election day -- 31 October -- drew closer, a number of Ukrainian opposition politicians told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that they were concerned that the government was preparing provocations that could lead to antigovernment rioting in the streets that might allow for a reinforcement of troop levels in the capital under the pretext of a military parade. Independent Ukrainian website "Ukrayinska pravda"( pointed to a rash of incidents that tookplace in the capital as evidence that the government was stirring up discontent. The most conspicuous of those acts was a raid on theoffices of a student organization in Kyiv during which a homemade explosive device was purportedly found. The student group, PORA, claimed that there had been two searches of their offices by Interior Ministry forces: The first was videotaped by members of PORA and showed that nothing was found; but during a second search, during which no one was allowed to be in the offices except police, the device was allegedly found hidden in a wastebasket. As concern mounted in Kyiv after news clips on pro-government television showed militia officials describing the incident, Kyiv Mayor Oleksandr Omelchenko announced on 20 October that if the situation dictated it, he would declare martial law in Kyiv on the night of the elections. The next day he rescinded this threat. But on 24 October, a day after 100,000 supporters of opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko gathered in Kyiv, Omelchenko stated that he would ban all opposition demonstrations in the city. Earlier, on 20 October, an airplane carrying Yushchenko was not allowed to land in the city of Melitopol, where he was scheduledto make a campaign stop. The next day, this was repeated in the city of Kryvyy Rih. Adding oil to the fire, the Prosecutor-General's Officein Kyiv issued a statement on 22 October that was apparently calculated to further infuriate the opposition. Yushchenko, the statement read, had not been a victim of poisoning -- as the clinicin Vienna at which he had undergone treatment suggested in its diagnosis-- but rather had fallen ill to an acute attack of herpes. Putin's visit to Kyiv on the eve of the election was seenby the opposition not merely as an excuse to bring more troops into the city, but also as an attempt to provide Putin with a platform from which to endorse Viktor Yanukovych, the current prime minister and the candidate supported by the current Ukrainian administration. In interviews broadcast by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, members of Yushchenko's campaign team cautiously speculated that if Putin came out openly in favor of Yanukovych, this would have either a negative effect on the voters or no effect whatsoever. Yanukovych, however, disagreed and was quoted by RFE/RL'sUkrainian Service on 20 October as saying that he would welcome Putin's endorsement. Putin, having set a precedent by issuing a statement recently supporting George W. Bush's candidacy in the U.S. presidential race, has seemingly insured himself against criticism by the United States that he is interfering in Ukrainian domestic affairs. Somepro-Yanukovych members of the Ukrainian parliament commented that if Putin can voice his preference in the upcoming American election, he should be allowed to do the same in Ukraine. As preparations for Putin's visit were under way, Russian Liberal-Democratic Party head Vladimir Zhirinovskii arrived in Ukraine to campaign for Yanukovych, who has stressed his pro-Russian orientation throughout the campaign. Accusing Yushchenko of"nationalism" and of trying to divide the Ukrainian and Russian nations, Zhirinovskii went on a tour of Ukraine endorsing the pro-regime and pro-Russian candidate. Putin is expected by many observers to stress that Ukraine was liberated in 1945 as part of a joint effort by all "Soviet peoples." The theme of invincible Slav unity is designed to appeal to those Ukrainian voters who only days earlier heard Zhirinovskii berating Yushchenko for his alleged anti-Russian nationalism. Ukraine's liberation by the multinational Red Army during World War II evokes highly emotional images among only a small and dwindling portion of the Ukrainian electorate. Its impact on the Yanukovych campaign is therefore doubtful. On the other hand, Putin's popularity in Ukraine is high, according to a recent public-opinion poll taken by the Russian Fund for Public Opinion and reported in "Vedomosti" on 22 October. The poll claims that some 71 percent of Ukrainians have a favorable view of the Russian president. Whether Putin's alleged popularity might rub off on Yanukovych is questionable, but the people runninghis campaign are apparently betting that it will not hurt. (RomanKupchinsky)

QUOTES OF THE WEEK."We do not think that we have come for one year; we think that we have come for a long time. Skeptics won't succeed in erecting abarrier on our path. I believe that strong and healthy people are far more numerous than those goats who hinder our lives." -- Ukrainian Premier and presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych in Luhansk, eastern Ukraine, on 21 October; quoted by Interfax. Ukrainian commentators recalled in connection with this pronouncement that"goat" (kazyol) in the prison slang is a highly insulting term denoting a prisoner who collaborates with the prison's administration. In Soviet-era prison slang, "goat" also referred to a passive homosexual. Yanukovych served two prison terms, convicted in 1967 to three years under an article pertaining to theft and robbery and in 1970 to two years under an article pertaining to "infliction of bodily injuries of medium seriousness."

"Esteemed friends, I am convinced that the future of my country and of 47 million [Ukrainians] will not be determined by convicts [in prison slang: zeki] or a penal-colony [rule] [in prison slang: zona]." -- Presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko to an estimated 100,000 people at a rally in Kyiv on 23 October; quoted by the "Ukrayinska pravda" website.
(Compiled by Jan Maksymiuk)

- What are your thoughts regarding Ukraine's direction? Is a Western orientation best for Ukraine and the international community? Or do Ukraine's long history as Russia's partner (subordinate?) and geopolitical concerns warrant a second look? Based on what I have studied and my stays and visits to Ukraine, I tend to hope that a reformer like Yuschenko prevails, not necessarily for world-orientation reasons, but because Ukraine desperately needs legal, economic, and democratic reforms to keep moving forward and raise the standard of living for its citizens. The eight years under Kuchma have yielded varied results. Unfortunately, many have been negative. Freedom of the Press (a constitutionally-protected right) is an increasingly fleeting dream of early independence years. Political decisions/actions based on personal, family, and elite-class gains are rampant. Corruption in law, politics, business, and economics is the norm. The list goes on. It doesn't have to be this way. The people of Ukraine, according to my experience, are generally a very resilient, resourceful, and community-minded group. But, many feel powerless and disenfranchised. A leader who might restore optimism and motivate grass-roots activity and work is what this nation needs. I don't think Kuchma's protege, who is part of the old-club mentality, can or would do this. But, I've been wrong before.


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11/01/2005 5:45 AM  

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