Throughout 2004 Western delegations to Ukraine and statements by governments and international organizations have repeatedly asked the Ukrainian authorities to conduct free and fair elections. During the summer both houses of the U.S. Congress voted for resolutions in support of free and fair elections, as did all sides in the Canadian House of Commons on October 27.
The heads of EU members’ diplomatic missions in Kyiv issued the latest appeal, which asked the authorities to end their infringement of democratic and election norms (Ukrayinska pravda, October 27). The statement was released after the OSCE issued its fourth critical report on the impending October 31 presidential election (osce.org/odihr/elections/field_activities/?election=2004ukraine).
On the basis of these four reports, the U.S. Mission to the OSCE issued a statement late on October 28 that raised the temperature surrounding Western attitudes toward the election. As usual, the United States is leading the way in its criticism, with Canada and the EU following behind.
The U.S. Mission to the OSCE warned that if the elections are not deemed to be free and fair, then the United States will ensure that those Ukrainian officials responsible for these violations will be held accountable. As with the mid-October State Department statement, the U.S. Mission to the OSCE also warned that U.S. relations with Ukraine would suffer.
Despite these numerous entreaties and diplomatic meetings, the Ukrainian authorities have ignored the message for four reasons.
First, the call for free and fair elections was accompanied by an offer to speed up Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration. This, of course, assumed that President Leonid Kuchma and his allies remain interested in NATO membership or that the EU was even offering membership (which it never had).
In other words, the Faustian bargain of free and fair elections in return for integration only applied to NATO. But even then, NATO never offered Ukraine a Membership Action Plan. The Ukrainian authorities quickly understood that there was no “carrot” on offer and acted accordingly by replacing pro-NATO Defense Minister Yevhen Marchuk.
In reality, the offer of Euro-Atlantic integration to Ukrainian officials was completely misplaced. In 2003-2004 the only issue that concerned Kuchma and his close allies was their personal security during the presidential succession — not national or state interests.
Second, the United States sent confusing signals, the EU sent tepid ones, and the Canadians sent one signal only late in the day. Although the Ukrainian diaspora in Canada is often touted as very influential, its members are largely absent from Canada’s contribution to the OSCE Election Observation Mission in Ukraine.
The most confusing signal was over Iraq. There is speculation that U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld reached a “deal” with Kuchma that would guarantee Ukraine keeping its troops in Iraq in return for Washington only moderately criticizing election violations (as it did after the 2003 Azerbaijani elections). The Ukrainian authorities have acted as though a “deal” was in fact reached and thereby remain unconcerned about U.S. sanctions while the Bush administration is in power.
Another dimension to these confusing signals was the willingness of U.S. VIPs to travel to Ukraine in visits sponsored by Kuchma’s son-in-law, Viktor Pinchuk. Since May former President George H.W. Bush, former U.S. Ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke, former NATO Commander Wesley Clark, and most recently former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger have all participated.
Pinchuk was rewarded for these invitations to Ukraine by successfully lobbying President George W. Bush to agree to finally meet Kuchma at NATO’s Istanbul summit. The outcome of these badly timed visits to Ukraine and Bush’s first meeting with Kuchma has been to reinforce the Ukrainian belief that a “deal” over Iraq is in place. Ukraine’s support for the U.S. operation in Iraq and against international terrorism has been used, as seen in the recent arrests of youth activists, to crack down on “extremists” who are equated with “terrorists.”
Third, the West misunderstood Kuchma’s strategic game plan. Publicly, the West believed the pronouncements made by Kuchma and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych that they promised to “guarantee” to hold free and fair elections.
In reality, they had never intended to hold free and fair elections and had begun planning accordingly since April, when the parliamentary vote for constitutional changes failed and Yanukovych was first advanced as Kuchma’s successor. In the spring the pro-Kuchma camp removed the right of Ukrainians to be election observers from the election law and began to prepare large numbers of “technical” (i.e. fake) candidates whose election officials would support a vote count in Yanukovych’s favor.
Fourth, Western threats have been weak and confusing. On October 4 U.S. Congressmen Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Howard Berman (D-CA) proposed a Ukraine Elections Bill that would introduce sanctions against certain high-level Ukrainian officials (house.gov/rohrabacher/Ukraine.htm). But, the Ukrainian authorities have dismissed the bill as unlikely to be adopted (Ukrayinska pravda, October 8).
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, now chairman of the National Democratic Institute, which is sending observers for the second round of Ukrainian voting on November 21, threatened Ukrainian officials with denial of visas and access to their offshore bank accounts if they failed to hold free and fair elections (New York Times, March 8). This message shocked many within the Ukrainian authorities, because it came six months prior to the elections. But her message was forgotten until half a year later when the Republican administration began to finally follow Albright’s line. As Democratic nominee John Kerry stated, “Already a few months ago we should have agreed with the European Union on how to support democracy in Ukraine” (Ukrayinska pravda, October 26).
On October 14 the State Department issued a relatively critical statement saying that if the elections failed to “meet democratic standards,” then U.S.-Ukrainian relations would not improve. The statement added, “We would also need to reexamine our relationship with those who engaged in election fraud and manipulation” (Financial Times, October 16/17).
Not coincidentally, five days later Senator John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the International Republican Institute, which is sending observers for the first round of the election, argued for visa bans and limiting the ability of Ukrainian officials to do business if the elections were deemed to be not free and not fair (Washington Post, October 19).
One week after the State Department announcement, the United States undermined its policies on Ukraine by publicizing the denial of a U.S. visa to Ukraine oligarch Hrhoriy Surkis, a corrupt and close ally of Viktor Medvedchuk, the head of the Presidential Administration. A State Department official commented that this step showed that sanctions would be targeted against “individuals” and “not against Ukraine” (Reuters, October 21).
But this step was poorly crafted, as it was not a new policy. Surkis had, in fact, been denied U.S. visas for the last year — and not as a response to on-going election violations (Ukrayinska pravda, October 22). The Ukrainian authorities again refused to take the U.S. threat seriously, as seen in comments made by Serhiy Tyhipko, head of the Yanukovych campaign (Ukrayinska pravda, October 25).
As election day looms on October 31, Western governments and international organizations need to understood three aspects of the Byzantine nature of Ukrainian politics.
First, the Ukrainian authorities never intended to hold a free and fair election, because challenger Viktor Yushchenko would have won in the first round. Hence, Kuchma understands the West’s call for free and fair elections as tantamount to Western support for a Yushchenko victory.
Second, the Ukrainian authorities would prefer that Yanukovych win through relatively moderate violations; ideally the vote in favor of Yanukovych on election day would be “massaged” in the region of 5-7%. One indication of this is that local state administrations have been ordered to ensure Yanukovych’s victory in the first round on October 31 by 6-7% (Ukrayinska pravda, October 27).
Most within the pro-presidential camp prefer this scenario, as they believe that the U.S. reaction will be muted, partly because they remain confident a “deal” over Iraq is in place. Kuchma and most oligarchs do not wish to see Ukraine isolated. On the eve of election day, the Washington-based DBC public relations firm (dbcpr.com) began a public relations campaign to portray Yanukovych as a budding liberal.
Third, if moderate “massaging” fails to secure a Yanukovych victory, then some within the pro-presidential camp, such as Medvedchuk who cares little if Ukraine is internationally isolated, would repeat the April Mukachevo mayoral election scenario, where the authorities’ candidate was declared winner despite evidence to the contrary. In this event, the West would be forced to adopt a harsher tone. Of Ukraine’s oligarchs, Medvedchuk is promoting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s interests to the greatest extent in Ukraine. Putin, not surprisingly, is most interested in such an outcome.