Millions of Ukrainian citizens living abroad have the right to vote in the October 31 presidential election. While provisions for expatriates have been made previously, this election marks the first time the opposition and election monitoring groups have focused on such ballots. On October 12 the Foreign Ministry announced that it would increase the number of polling stations abroad.
Originally, only 113 overseas polling stations were to be opened. Germany was to have the most (five), followed by four each for Poland, Russia, and the Unites States, two each for Italy and Spain, and one in Portugal. Now additional stations are to be opened in Russia, Vietnam, and Moldova. Italy has agreed to polling stations provided they are located in diplomatic and consular missions. None of the overseas stations will have Ukrainian observers, international observers, or exit polls.
In the 1999 presidential election, Ukraine’s ambassadors were ordered to ensure that the votes made by diplomats under their control and Ukrainian citizens living in their country would be in the “correct” manner for Kuchma. The failure to bring in the “correct” vote led to the dismissal of Anton Buteiko, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States. Other Ukrainian ambassadors may face the same fate this year.
According to one recent poll, 86% of Ukrainians living abroad wish to take part in the election, a figure that reflects the high degree of interest in this year’s race. Of those who plan to vote, 78.84% will vote for opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko (Ukrayinska pravda, September 29). The projected turnout abroad will far surpass the 1999 and 2002 levels. In Toronto, which has a large “fourth wave” Ukrainian diaspora, only 3,351 people were registered to vote. Of those, only 555 (17%) voted in 1999. Similarly, in the 2002 elections only one-third of the small number of registered Ukrainian citizens in Toronto actually cast a ballot (Ukrayinska pravda, August 12).
Already, overseas voting is raising concerns. In Russia, Ukrainians are the second largest national minority after Tatars. Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych’s election team collected more than 560,000 signatures from Ukrainians living in Russia and planned to submit these, together with signatures collected in Ukraine, to the Central Election Commission by the mid-September deadline. The initiative group that collected the signatures claimed, “Yanukovych has the highest support within the Ukrainian diaspora in Russia, among Ukrainian citizens who live on Russian territory” (Ukrayinska pravda, September 13).
The opposition began to question the signatures from Russia, and it is not clear if Yanukovych ever submitted them. In addition, doubts surfaced about the 562,000 Ukrainians who allegedly signed, as only 200,000 Ukrainians living in Russia are registered to vote (Vysokyi zamok, September 16). According to the Central Election Commission there are only 215,000 voters registered to vote abroad, although it is not clear if this includes the 200,000 Ukrainian registered voters in Russia.
Ukrainian election regulations do not permit the collection of signatures outside Ukraine, as such signatures can only be collected at the request of proxies. But, there are no proxies registered abroad. If the Ukrainian embassy or consulates in Russia collected the signatures, it was illegal. If it was undertaken by Russian state agencies, as many in the Ukrainian opposition suspect, “This raises even more questions” (Vysokyi zamok, September 16).
A new Russian-language newspaper, Chas Ukrainy, began publication in September, and is directed towards the large numbers of Ukrainians living in Russia. Not surprisingly, it has not attempted to be objective and came out in support of Yanukovych. Yushchenko, on the other hand, was described as “anti-Russian,” “pro-Western,” “a threat to existing agreements,” and “likely to lead to a split in Ukraine” (Ukrayinska pravda, September 2). Chas Ukrainy is not registered as a newspaper in Russia, so there is no information about its financing.
On October 8, a congress of Ukrainians in Russia was held in Moscow with the obvious patronage of the Russian authorities. Participants included Dmitry Medvedev, head of the Russian presidential administration, Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, and Russia’s ambassador to Ukraine, Viktor Chernomyrdin. The congress, again not surprisingly, came out in support of Yanukovych. Yosyp Kobzon, one of the congress organizers, called upon Ukrainians to not vote for Yushchenko, as this would lead to “at a minimum destabilization and at a maximum to civil war” (temnik.com.ua, October 11).
The congress itself appears a rather murky event. The ruling council of the Federation of National-Cultural Autonomy “Ukrainians in Russia” as well as the Union of Ukrainians in Russia, which consists of 80 organizations from the Ukrainian diaspora in Russia, denounced the congress and condemned the attempt to mobilize all Ukrainians living in Russia on behalf of Yanukovych. The statement by both umbrella groups was later supported by the Republican National-Cultural Center of Ukrainians in the Bashkir autonomous republic, the Union of Ukrainians in Moscow, and the Moscow-based Ukrainian Cultural Center “Slavutych.”
The actual number of Ukrainians living abroad, or even in Russia, is impossible to determine. Official and unofficial figures range from as low as two million to as high as seven million. Most Ukrainians are abroad “temporarily,” although this absence could last many years.
Often family members remain behind and vote for them using their domestic passports, also left behind. Former President and Social Democratic United Party faction leader Leonid Kravchuk, himself from western Ukraine, claimed he witnessed voters showing five or six passports in the 2002 elections. “They voted for themselves and those who had left those parts in search of jobs. You can guess whom they voted for [Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine]. Such tricks worked in 2002, but they won’t work in 2004,” Kravchuk predicted (Zerkalo nedeli, September 11-17).
To block proxy votes the authorities are planning to send 4,000 eastern Ukrainian “observers” to western Ukraine to halt a repeat of what they claim was fraudulent voting in the 2002 elections. Their presence could spark violence and confrontation on election day (Lvivska hazeta, October 7).