Russia deserves a swift kick
Vladimir Putin is trying to put the boots to Ukrainian attempts at reform. He must be challenged, says ex-envoy DEREK FRASER
Wednesday, November 3, 2004  

When I was ambassador to Ukraine, Ukrainian officials would claim that, by using "administrative means," they could add 10 per cent to 15 per cent to the votes of the government candidate.

The "administrative means" used in Ukraine's current presidential election campaign, the dirtiest since independence, have probably added much more than that to the vote for Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, the candidate chosen by the current President, Leonid Kuchma, to be his successor. There have been two apparent attempts on the life of the leading opposition candidate, Viktor Yushchenko (one, a presumed poisoning, took him out of the campaign for weeks). Opposition rallies have been blocked or broken up.

The government administration has campaigned for Mr. Yanukovich. Students and public- and private-sector employees have been ordered to support him. Mainstream media have been told what to say; the rare opposition media voices have been harassed; the central and regional election commissions have been taken over; phony Yushchenko posters have been distributed, and phony Yushchenko rallies have been organized to give the impression that Mr. Yushchenko is a fascist.

The result: An electorate in which 70 per cent to 80 per cent initially wanted a change of government had, in Sunday's first round of voting (according to exit polls conducted by reputable Ukrainian firms using Western methods), backed Mr. Yushchenko by 44.4 per cent and Mr. Yanukovich by 38 per cent. The official Central Electoral Commission count, as of yesterday, has converted these results into 39.22 per cent for Mr. Yushchenko and 39.88 per cent for Mr. Yanukovich.

The European Union, the United States, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Council of Europe have all criticized the first round for not meeting democratic standards.

Although opinion polls have indicated that the majority of those who supported lesser candidates in the first round are likely to support Mr. Yushchenko in the final round on Nov. 21, the tactics used to produce Sunday's official result may lead to a Yanukovich victory. Ukraine under Mr. Yanukovich could move further toward a dictatorship, as in Belarus. Before becoming Prime Minister, Mr. Yanukovich ran the politics of his eastern Ukrainian fief of Donetsk with authoritarian efficiency. In elections, he could be counted on to produce whatever percentage Mr. Kuchma wanted.

Should Ukraine become increasingly authoritarian, there will pressure in the West to treat Ukraine under Mr. Yanukovich as we treat Belarus under its dictator, Alexander Lukashenko -- that is, as a political pariah. The problem is, such a policy will further isolate Ukraine, whose independence, under Russian pressure, has already suffered from the relative political isolation of Mr. Kuchma (arising from the strong suspicion that he has had some of his political opponents murdered).

In considering what to do in confronting the gross violations of democracy in Ukraine, we should look at Russia's role in bringing that country to heel and in encouraging a Yanukovich victory. Moscow has taken advantage of Mr. Kuchma's isolation to press Ukraine into becoming a member of the Common Economic Space, which is, in Russian eyes, intended to become a common market but with all the central institutions under Russian control.

It has pressed Ukraine to abandon its goal of joining NATO, the EU or even, as an independent actor, the World Trade Organization. Its security organs have co-operated with their Ukrainian counterparts in harassing Mr. Kuchma's opponents. As in past elections, Russia has apparently poured in money in support of Mr. Kuchma's interests. Mr. Putin's PR specialists have worked for Mr. Yanukovich; Russian TV has campaigned for him. At the end of the campaign, Mr. Putin used an official visit to Ukraine to make a TV broadcast on Mr. Yanukovich's behalf.

Russia, in its efforts to recover its great power status, is trying to construct a confederation with corrupt dictatorships: Belarus, Kazakhstan and (it hopes) Ukraine. It is also seeking economic co-operation with the West to recover its dynamism.

Russia should be forced to choose between the one or the other goal. We should make it clear to Russia that, if the second round of voting in Ukraine is as fraudulent as the first, Russia's candidacy to join the WTO will be put on hold.

Derek Fraser, a senior research associate at the Centre for Global Studies at the University of Victoria, was Canada's ambassador to Ukraine from 1998 to 2001.