A disputed verdict

Published : Dec 17, 2004 00:00 IST

A protest rally by supporters of Viktor Yushchenko in Kiev's Independence Square on November 23. - MYKOLA LAZARENKO/REUTERS

A protest rally by supporters of Viktor Yushchenko in Kiev's Independence Square on November 23. - MYKOLA LAZARENKO/REUTERS

A crisis grips Ukraine as the Opposition alleges rigging of the presidential election, and challenges the official count, which shows the pro-Kremlin Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich as emerging as the winner.

AT the time of writing, there was still much confusion about the outcome of the presidential election in Ukraine. The first set of results, with 70 per cent of the votes counted, placed the current Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovich, in the lead with 49 per cent of the votes. He was one percentage point ahead of his rival, former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko, leader of the Centre-Right opposition group Our Ukraine. As the counting continued, Yushchenko accused the government of rigging the elections. Thousands of his supporters in the capital, Kiev, had begun gathering in the city's Independence Square in response to his call for peaceful protests. With the gathered mass chanting his name, Yushchenko called for a "civil resistance movement to fight for fair elections". He asked the crowd to stay on in the square and said that they would be joined by others from the rest of the country.

As voting ended on the night of November 21, nearly 20,000 Yushchenko supporters had amassed at the same square for what appeared to be victory celebrations. The crowds were singing, and toasts were being made all around. A multitude of flags fluttered above the crowd, and placards proclaimed the cold night to be the "Night of Liberty". Exit polls had shown the opposition leader as being ahead. The voter turnout had been unusually high, touching 80 per cent. A poll conducted by Ukrainian research organisations gave Yushchenko 54 per cent of the vote as against 43 per cent for the Prime Minister. This and other polls had sample sizes ranging from 20,000 to 30,000 voters.

By the morning of November 22, however, the mood had changed. In a statement, Yushchenko accused the government of committing "total fraud in the elections", and his supporters were called upon to "defend a clear victory for our candidate". The Prime Minister's camp rejected the results of the exit polls. Their own count, done in parallel to the official one, showed Yanukovich to be ahead.

The rival camps traded charges through the long and bitterly contested campaign. The air was thick with talk of a revolution catalysed by street protests - such as those in Georgia last year or as in the one that caused the ouster of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia - in case the "people's verdict" was not respected. There were fears of possible violence if the opposition candidate lost. Thousands of security personnel were deployed in the capital, and the Electoral Commission building was sealed off with armoured personnel carriers.

The first round of the election, held on October 31 had witnessed complaints of malpractice, media bias, intimidation, and even attempts to murder. Yushchenko, carrying facial scars from an illness, accused the authorities of trying to poison him. The government, in turn, accused Yushchenko's supporters of organising terrorist attacks such as the bomb explosion in a Kiev market in August this year. In the first round of voting, neither candidate managed to secure over 50 per cent of the vote, which is required to be the outright winner. The two candidates had then won just under 40 per cent of the vote, with Yushchenko fractionally ahead, thus necessitating the second round.

FIVE of the leading television channels in the country are linked to persons close to the outgoing President Leonid Kuchma, presidential aide Viktor Medvedchuk, and the President's son-in-law Viktor Pinchuk. Kuchma backed Yanukovich for the presidency, and the major channels gave more coverage to the Yanukovich campaign. 5 Kanal, the only national channel supporting Yushchenko, and which is owned by one of his allies, says it faces the prospect of closure because of a government campaign against it. Radio stations criticising the government have had their licences revoked.

Hundreds of Western observers monitored the election process, given the crucial importance of the election in a nation that now borders the expanded boundaries of the European Union (E.U.). The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) had 600 observers in place for the first round in October. Its report concluded that the first round did not meet "European standards for democratic elections". Among other reasons, it cited the interference by the state administration in favour of Yanukovich and the disrupting of opposition campaign meetings by the authorities. The OSCE was of the opinion, however, that "the very high participation of the electorate and civil society in the election process shows encouraging signs for the evolution of Ukrainian democracy".

The head of the Election Commission also admitted on national television that the electoral rolls were a major area of dispute. Now, after the second round, the opposition is pointing to the high voter turnouts of 96 per cent and above in the eastern regions of Ukraine as not being credible. Foreign observers agreed with the assessment and spoke of other irregularities such as multiple voting in many precincts and intimidation of opposition supporters. This area is home to Ukraine's Russian-speaking population, a minority that holds the key to the Ukraine situation.

The majority of Ukraine's 11 million Russians live in the eastern regions of Donetsk, Lugansk and Kharkov. Prime Minister Yanukovich, who is himself from Donetsk and served as the Governor of the region, has received overwhelming support from the industrially developed east and south, winning 85 per cent of the votes in these areas. He benefits from the ethnic Russian vote in the east and in the Crimean peninsula.

Yushchenko has won mostly in the western and central parts, areas that are traditionally imbued with a stronger sense of Ukrainian nationalism, thus highlighting once again the deep division in the country. The divide was also evident in the parliamentary elections in 2002, when the Our Ukraine bloc won 10 times more votes in the west than in the east. The Communists got most of their votes in the east. The centrist parties, who have the support of Kuchma, managed to form a parliamentary majority. The government bloc, however, lost its majority recently after a split in the coalition.

EACH side of the divide, as highlighted by the election, corresponds to the aspirations of a part of Ukraine's population. The Russian-speaking people are mostly in the east, towards the border with Russia. The regions in the west were integrated into the Soviet Union after 1945. By their history they are a part of central Europe, and regard themselves as being the flag-bearers of the ideology of the Ukrainian nation. Nearing the end of his second term in office, President Kuchma has felt the need for Moscow's support in order to woo the ethnic Russian electorate at home in favour of his chosen successor, Yanukovich. So, with some significant moves over the past year he has signalled a shift away from Europe and towards greater cooperation with Russia.

77In September 2003, Kuchma signed an economic union treaty with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. More recently, he diverted a pipeline so as to transport Russian oil to the Black Sea for shipment. The pipeline was earlier used to supply Europe with Azerbaijani oil brought to the Ukrainian port of Odessa. Putin visited Ukraine twice during the presidential elections to support Yanukovich and has ordered the easing of travel rules for millions of Ukrainian workers in Russia.

UKRAINE was one of the largest republics in the former Soviet Union. The past decade of its independence has been characterised by many of the features common to transition economies. Power and resources have been monopolised by a group of oligarchs, who have benefited from the major privatisation programmes of recent years. Kuchma, a Communist Party technocrat in Soviet times, has been President for the past 10 years. Yanukovich has gained the support of the majority of powerful clans and represents a continuity in the pattern of rule. He also has the support provided by the entire administrative apparatus, including the bureaucracy, the security services and the official media.

According to the United Nations Human Development Report 2003 for Ukraine, the country went through some serious downturn in the decade. Between 1992 and 2001, the per capita income came down by 42 per cent and the life expectancy by two and a half years. The total population was down from 51.6 million to 48.2 million.

The effects of transition have been starkly evident in certain key sectors. Once an advanced centre for Soviet arms production, Ukraine is unable to purchase new arms or spare parts because of a lack of resources. The military's strength has come down from five lakh to around three lakh persons, while command structures have become disorganised. The current presidential election became a battle for influence over Ukraine - as to whether it would move closer to Moscow under Yanukovich, or go towards the West, as Yushchenko wants.

According to analysts, Ukraine has become a major battleground, along with the Caucasus and Central Asia, in the geopolitical rivalry between Russia and the United States. Ukraine has a long and notable history as a strategic battleground for big power rivalry. Black Sea locations such as the Crimea and Odessa evoke this turbulent history. Ukraine has been through civil wars and the famine of the Stalin era, and has suffered the ferocious battles between Soviet troops and the forces of Nazi Germany.

At the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was the third largest nuclear power in the world, with around 1,300 nuclear warheads on its soil. It has since renounced its nuclear status and handed over the warheads to Russia. Besides, Ukraine has vast agricultural and industrial potential and a sophisticated industrial base, esspecially in the fields of metal production, chemicals and machinery.

Although there are currently no prospects for E.U. membership, the E.U. has been making overtures to Ukraine for cooperation. A group of U.S. lobbyists, including former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, were in Ukraine to campaign for Yushchenko. At this point, perhaps the mood of the Yushchenko supporters gathered in Kiev will determine the way Ukraine goes from here.

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