A loser's victory

Published : Dec 31, 2004 00:00 IST



The Ukrainian Supreme Court annuls the contentious November 21 presidential elections and orders a re-poll, but peace is likely to elude the badly divided country, a former Soviet republic.

A DIVIDED nation, a disputed presidential election that provokes recourse to the country's Supreme Court - Ukraine today is reminiscent of the United States of November 2000, when President George W. Bush's election was challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court. On December 3, Ukraine's Supreme Court annulled the official results of the second round of the presidential election held on November 21. It ruled that the central election commission was wrong in declaring Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich the winner and that a re-election be held by December 26. The verdict cannot be appealed against.

It came after five days of proceedings, during which the court heard claims of election rigging made on behalf of the Opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko. While the 21 Judges deliberated, thousands of Yushchenko supporters gathered outside the court building, in the streets of Kiev. As the Supreme Court verdict was announced over the public address system, a roar of approval swept through the crowd. Yushchenko supporters had been occupying the city's Independence Square and blockading major government buildings for nearly a fortnight, preventing the Prime Minister and President Leonid Kuchma from reaching their offices. The street demonstrations, described as the "orange revolution" (after the colour sported by Yushchenko supporters), have been going on under the spotlight of the international media, with regular and live coverage on television.

The court's ruling has come as a victory for the Yushchenko camp, as it had been demanding a repeat of only the second round of elections involving the two candidates. The first round held on October 31 had more than 20 candidates, but none secured more than 50 per cent of the votes constitutionally required to win the election. Yanukovich and Yushchenko each polled just under 40 per cent of the votes in the first round. The official results of the second round, with Yanukovich securing 49.4 per cent of the votes polled and Yushchenko 46.6 per cent, have been nullified by the court verdict.

Yanukovich described the ruling as unconstitutional. He, however, announced that he would contest in the new round of election ordered by the court. Referring to the mass demonstrations, he said: "I am sure the Supreme Court's decision is a violation of the Ukrainian Constitution and that it was taken under pressure from the street. Without any doubt I have no other choice but to run again and to win."

In the negotiations to work out a compromise between the two camps, Yanukovich even proposed that both he and Yushchenko not participate in any new election. International mediators, among them the Presidents of Poland and Lithuania, made several trips to Kiev to solve the crisis. Ukraine's outgoing President, Leonid Kuchma, who is backing Yanukovich, has favoured the holding of a new presidential election as a solution. The Yanukovich camp points to the risks of pushing Ukraine into a new phase of conflict with another round of election, given that the vote has provoked a sharp divide in the country. Instead, the logic behind fresh elections involving the entire process is that it would allow three to six months for the situation to calm down. Yanukovich argued that his proposal of both Yushchenko and himself not contesting again was to remove the element of personal rivalry, and thereby ensure that questions could not be raised about the fairness of a new election.

However, the constitutional complications became immediately apparent. The day after the Supreme Court's ruling, the Ukrainian Parliament disapproved of changes in the electoral laws to repeat the second round. The adoption of electoral changes is linked to the issue of constitutional reform that the political parties have been negotiating for some time. Ukraine is a presidential republic and the President can appoint and remove Ministers. He also has the power to initiate legislation. The parties of the Yanukovich-led government and the socialists and communists have been advocating the transfer of many of the President's powers to Parliament. Although the centre-right Opposition is opposed to reducing presidential powers, Yushchenko agreed to support the constitutional reforms in lieu of socialist support in the elections. The negotiations have broken down, however, because the Yushchenko group has retreated from its earlier agreement to pass all the changes as a package. It is now insisting that constitutional reforms be considered only after the electoral changes are approved. President Kuchma has called for a new round of talks, in which Polish President Alexander Kwasnieski would be involved as a mediator.

YANUKOVICH supporters' demonstrations in the eastern region of Ukraine have been much less visible in the foreign news channels. The eastern region, adjoining Russia, is the industrial heart of the country. The majority of the people in the region are Russophone and members of the Russian Orthodox Church. Ethnic Russians and Russophones make up about a third of Ukraine's population. The region's links with Russia are deep rooted, to the extent that eastern Ukraine has been the historic cradle of the Russian state. Currently, it contributes almost a quarter of Ukraine's gross domestic product (GDP).

Donetsk, the capital of the region with a population of one million people, is a stronghold of Yanukovich. The region has a concentration of coal mines and industries, particularly in the metallurgical and chemical sectors. Yanukovich was Governor of Donetsk and as Prime Minister he ensured that industries did not close down in the region as a result of market reforms.

When mines were faced with threats of closure, Yanukovich increased state subsidies to the region and raised wages and pensions for miners. The Opposition claims of electoral fraud mostly concern the polls in eastern and southern Ukraine, which voted largely in favour of Yanukovich.

The Donetsk legislature voted to hold a referendum to seek autonomy from the central government. The southern province too has warned that it would press for autonomy if Yushchenko became President. Regional officials from the southern and eastern provinces met in Kharkov after the Supreme Court verdict and expressed fears of possible unrest. They described the ruling as "politically biased" and unanimously called on both contenders not to take part in the re election "in the name of peace and stability in the country".

UKRAINIANS voted overwhelmingly for independence in 1991, when the Soviet Union was breaking up. This multi-ethnic, multi-lingual nation has also been remarkably free of the kind of ethnic nationalist tensions that plague some of the other republics of the former Soviet Union. The close links between Russia and the former republics, especially economic interdependence, was formalised for post-Soviet times with the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in December 1991. While the CIS is made up of 12 states, including Ukraine and the Central Asian republics, Russia remains the dominant and indispensable partner.

Despite a decline in recent years, trade with Russia still constitutes about a third of Ukraine's total foreign trade. Ukraine has continued to accumulate a huge debt with Russia, notwithstanding measures taken in the past to address the problem. Russia has made massive investments in Ukraine's energy, industrial and media sectors. Ukraine signed an economic union treaty with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan in 2003.

In the current geopolitical context, Russia has watched with concern the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the European Union into eastern Europe, almost up to Russia's doorsteps. The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland joined NATO in 1999. Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and the Baltic republics followed suit this year. Taking the "war on terror" as a pretext, U.S. military forces have secured bases in the Central Asian Republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The presence of U.S. contingents in the region has come together with U.S. financial aid for these countries. In the last two years, Georgia and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus region entered into closer military and economic cooperation with the U.S. The Russian strategy in the face of the Western expansion is based on developing closer ties with a group of countries within its traditional sphere of influence - Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Armenia. Ukraine is central to this strategy.

On the eve of the Ukrainian Supreme Court verdict, Kuchma made an emergency trip to Moscow to confer with Russian President Vladimir Putin, delaying the latter's departure to India for an official visit. Putin expressed Russia's concern that the West was trying to divide Ukraine. The external players have been steadily backing their preferred candidates in these elections - Moscow behind Yanukovich and the West supporting the Yushchenko camp.

A similar mix of elections, street protests and external meddling was witnessed in neighbouring Georgia last year. In November 2003, pro-U.S. politician Mikhail Saakashvili and his supporters challenged the parliamentary election results that declared President Eduard Shevardnadze's party the winner. In fresh elections held in January, after the country's Supreme Court annulled the November elections and Shevardnadze's resignation, Saakashvili who won 96 per cent of the votes polled was elected President.

In Georgia, the street protests were orchestrated by the Kmara, which was aided by the Serbian student group Otpor (Resistance). Otpor was in the vanguard of the civil disobedience movement that brought down the Slobodan Milosevic regime in Serbia. In Ukraine, a group called Pora is playing a major role in the Opposition protests. It too has been trained in civil resistance techniques by Otpor. All these groups are financed by U.S. foundations, the leading donor being the Washington-based National Democratic Institute run by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Czech in origin, Madeleine Albright is a specialist in eastern European affairs. Her tenure is remembered most for her efforts to reinforce U.S. leadership in eastern Europe. It was the Clinton administration that initiated the new U.S. policy aimed at "encouraging democracy" in the ex-communist countries of central and eastern Europe.

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