Ukraine’s Election

18 November 2004

Ukraine’s Election

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s not just Ukraine’s fate that is at stake in Sunday’s election; it is probably Russia’s as well. If the Kremlin’s favoured candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, wins, then Ukraine will end up inside a

Russian-dominated common market that also includes the authoritarian regimes of Belarus and Kazakhstan and effectively recreates the old Soviet Union. Once that structure was put into place, the post-Communist gangsters would be in charge everywhere, and any hope of Russian democracy re-emerging from the wreckage would go from slim to non-existent.

The democracy that is at risk at the moment, however, is Ukraine’s fragile and much-abused version of it: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarus’s Stalinist dictator Alexander Lukashenko both showed up to support Yanukovych just before the first round of voting on 31 October. Yet when all the votes were counted the main democratic candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, managed to end up with a wafer-thin lead over Yanukovych. The other eighteen presidential candidates were eliminated, and both Yushchenko and Yanukovych made it into the second round.

Exit polls suggested that Yushchenko had narrowly won a first-round victory by gaining just over 50 percent of the votes cast, but nobody trusts the totals from the first round. Indeed, last week a group of senior police officers from Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine wrote to the speaker of the parliament, Volodymyr Lytvyn, detailing massive election fraud in the first round.

Among other accusations, the officers alleged that police were ordered to guard a room where 500,000 ballots pre-marked for Viktor Yanukovych were held before the vote, and to deliver them to various key polling stations on 31 October. (The Ukrainian Central Election Commission admitted that tens of thousands more votes were cast in the first round than there were genuine ballot papers.) Other police teams were tasked to plant bombs and create tension, and criminals were hired to join Yushchenko rallies and discredit them by acts of violence.

It’s all going to happen again this time, the Kharkiv whistle-blowers warned, and no doubt they are right. Yet here’s the thing: despite having stuffed the ballot boxes to guarantee a first-round Yanukovych victory, the authorities wound up announcing a final count that put Yushchenko slightly ahead and forced the contest into a second round. They did so because if they had declared a Yanukovych victory, there would have been mass civil disobedience in the streets.

The game that is being played in Ukraine is distinctly post-modern. The outgoing president, Leonid Kuchma, wants to ensure the election of a reliable successor, Viktor Yanukovych, who will not launch awkward inquiries into how most of the existing government’s members became disgustingly rich. Viktor Yushchenko, who gained a reputation for honesty as the head of the national bank and then cracked down on corruption as prime minister until Kuchma’s pals had him dismissed for wrecking their scams, has gained the public’s trust, and would certainly win in a fair election.

It must therefore not be a fair election — but since Ukrainians are not fools, and know that many other cynical and corrupt regimes have been removed by non-violent mass action (most recently in Serbia and Georgia), it must not look too unfair, either. Yushchenko must be defeated at all costs, but not by methods that are so obviously corrupt that they provoke millions of people into coming out on the streets in protest.

That was why Yushchenko was permitted a narrow margin of victory in the official count after the first round of voting: anything less would have brought out the mass demonstrations. Now the oligarchs in Ukraine and their Russian allies have to engineer a second-round victory for Yanukovych that convinces the mass of voters and keeps them off the streets. It has to be a relatively narrow victory, therefore, since nothing else would be even remotely believable — but it may not work even then.

A Yanukovych win would mean that Ukrainians had voted to shrink their ties with the European Union, the main source of the recent and long-overdue surge in economic growth in the country, and had instead chosen to expand their ties with the still decrepit economy and increasingly authoritarian political style of their former Russian rulers. Intuitively, it doesn’t make sense, and most Ukrainians would not believe such a result. Most opinion polls tell them otherwise, and so do their own eyes.

The goal of the game being played by Kuchma, Yukanovych and their Russian allies is to come up with a win that just barely passes public inspection and does not provoke mass civil disobedience. They can only get even within hailing distance of their goal because of their divisive appeals to Ukraine’s substantial Russian minority — offering them official-language status, visa-free travel to Russia, and dual Russian-Ukrainian citizenship — but even then the problem lies in the fine tuning. It is hard to fine-tune a narrow victory in the rough and tumble of an election campaign.

If the Putin-Kuchma-Yanukovych combine succeed, then Ukraine’s 50 million people will shortly be swallowed up in a post-Soviet union that incorporates all the corruption of the original, but none of the idealism. If it fails and Yushchenko’s centre-left coalition wins the presidency instead, then it is possible to imagine Ukraine joining the European Union ten or fifteen years from now. It is also possible to imagine Russia itself returning to democracy and joining the EU — but only if the present project fails.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 8. (“Among…violence”; and”That was…then”)