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Bracing for Election Day Hijinks in Ukraine

Times Staff Writer

For a preview of the upcoming Ukrainian presidential election, one might examine what happened when this scenic town in the Carpathian Mountains tried to elect a mayor.

After the polls closed, city officials locked the doors at the election commission. Four hours later, they emerged with official results that bore little resemblance to the counts called in from the polls. Thugs later stole so many ballots that no recount was possible. Parliament deputies who tried to intervene were beaten and tossed down the stairs. One candidate’s car was blown up. The proclaimed winner finally resigned after receiving threats.

“Very rough and bad things happened in Mukachevo,” said President Leonid D. Kuchma’s former spokesman, Oleksandr Martynenko, who heads the Interfax-Ukraine news agency. “Everybody’s interested now in the question of whether we will repeat Mukachevo on the scale of Ukraine. I doubt it is possible.”

Then again, in this sprawling republic that has long formed the turbulent border between Europe and Russia, almost anything seems possible.

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If Russia has moved slowly to shake off the authoritarianism, corruption and brawling capitalism that accompanied the transition from the Soviet era, Ukraine has moved hardly at all.

Powerful oligarchic cabals control much of the government, and their leaders hold seats in parliament. Lucrative state industries have been sold off at a fraction of their values while millions of Ukrainians live on minimal wages.

Both national television stations are controlled by Kuchma’s chief of staff, Viktor Medvedchuk, and journalists who look too closely under the rug have been attacked with baseball bats, shot at or found hanging from their refrigerator doors. Radio Continent journalist Giorgi Gongadze was beheaded in 2000, and evidence increasingly points to the security services.

A court ruled in December that Kuchma, whose popularity hovers around 7%, could run again despite a two-term limit. Facing an international outcry, the president has pledged he will not be a candidate in the Oct. 31 race. Instead, Kuchma is pushing a plan to transfer power from the president to the parliament and is tentatively backing Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, who is tough enough to be a politician even in Ukraine. In his youth, Yanukovich twice served prison terms for assault. (He says he took the rap, both times, for a friend.)

Yanukovich trails the most popular politician in the country, Viktor Yushchenko, a former prime minister who is credited with fighting corruption and igniting the economy during his brief tenure. Yushchenko, running under the banner of the pro-market, pro-democracy Our Ukraine faction, has pledged to open the country to Western-style democracy and end the dominion of oligarchs.

But Yanukovich has the media advantage guaranteed by the presidential chief of staff’s patronage. During the official opening of the presidential campaign last month, Yanukovich was shown receiving hugs and traditional gifts of bread loaves from enthusiastic supporters. Yushchenko’s rally of 60,000 supporters, by contrast, was limited to a shot of revelers with wild looks on their faces as they bought vodka and beer.

Yanukovich can point to an economy that grew 9.4% last year, allowing him to find money for a pay raise for pensioners, state employees, doctors and teachers.

Yushchenko’s campaign manager, Oleksandr Zinchenko, acknowledges that the economic indicators are good. “But against what background?” he asked. “What kind of a nation is being formed?”

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Our Ukraine questions the economic relationships between political leaders and the business elite, which have seen billion-dollar state industries go into the hands of friends -- even relatives -- of the president.

In June, Ukraine’s largest steel mill was sold to a consortium backed by Kuchma’s son-in-law, Viktor Pinchuk, who is one of Ukraine’s richest men, and an even richer businessman, Rinat Akhmetov. The buyers paid $800 million, even though foreign bidders, including United States Steel Corp., offered as much as $1.5 billion.

The darkest shadow trailing Kuchma is the specter of reporter Gongadze. Tapes purportedly recorded secretly by a former Kuchma bodyguard reveal that the president made repeated complaints about Gongadze to his former interior minister, Yuri Kravchenko. In one, Kuchma suggests that “this Georgian” be “give[n] to the Chechens” for ransom, or taken somewhere. “Undress him, the [expletive], leave him without his trousers, and let him sit there. He’s simply a [expletive].”

Two months later, on Sept. 11, Kuchma was still fuming.

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“What about Kravchenko? He was supposed to take care of him?” says an unidentified voice on the tape.

“What!” Kuchma exclaims. “What did he take care of?” When Kravchenko comes into his office, the president barely says hello. “Welcome! Everything OK? So I don’t forget: Gongadze is continuing to mouth off.”

Kravchenko apologizes for “a bit of a mistake” in logistics. “I will take care of him, Leonid. I will do it. He will be sorry.”

Gongadze disappeared the night of Sept. 16, 2000, shortly after going out to empty the trash. An autopsy showed that he died within hours. His head has not been found.

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A former police officer, Ihor Honcharov, said last year that he had information that police working with a criminal gang had abducted Gongadze, on orders from Kravchenko, who was following orders from Kuchma.

Honcharov himself had been arrested on charges of being a member of a rogue police gang that had been involved in contract killing. He died in prison last August. The prosecutor general’s office recently announced that he died of spinal trauma as a result of being beaten.

The new revelations have spurred calls for Kuchma’s impeachment and drawn international attention to the election.

“The lack of a credible and transparent investigation into the Gongadze murder, particularly in light of indications of involvement by Ukrainian government officials, is troubling and has had a detrimental impact on U.S.-Ukraine relations,” Steven Pifer, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs, told a House subcommittee in May.

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U.S.-Ukraine relations have been on the mend since Kuchma dispatched more than 1,600 troops to join the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq last year. But Yanukovich has signaled his intent to draw down the deployment, and U.S. officials say the conduct of the coming election is crucial.

“We believe that the upcoming presidential election will affect Ukraine’s strategic course for the next decade,” Pifer said. “We have tried to make as clear as possible what we see at stake, and we now wait to see if the Ukrainian leadership will create the conditions for a good election.”

In Mukachevo, there are doubts.

“What we had here were completely rigged elections. They just wanted to check their methods out and see how they worked,” said Zenovy Buta, a street light engineer.

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The first round of voting last summer was so filled with shenanigans and finger-pointing that Kuchma stepped in and declared presidential rule -- appointing his own candidate in the process. But the new elections in April were worse.

“At that point, no one was paying any attention to the law whatsoever,” recalled local journalist Yaroslav Halas.

The city’s powerful former mayor, Viktor Baloha, who had given up the post to take a seat in the national parliament, returned and declared his intent to run. With the support of Our Ukraine, he was pitted against Ernest Nuser, who had lined up support from the government’s ruling coalition and five other parties. On election day, half of Our Ukraine’s parliament faction traveled to Mukachevo, a 16-hour train ride from the capital, Kiev, to act as observers.

Exit polls and reports phoned in from polling places showed Baloha with a convincing victory, many observers said. But when the tallies were assembled at the territorial election commission at midnight, Our Ukraine’s observers were prevented from entering. Meanwhile, thugs began breaking into polling stations, several deputies were beaten, and, during the mayhem, officials announced that Nuser had won by 5,000 votes. The municipal council met to declare Nuser the winner; Our Ukraine deputies who tried to enter the hall were beaten and thrown down the stairs.

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Baloha’s last option was a recount, but the day after the election, guards were removed from the election commission office. Someone broke in and stole a number of ballots.

“That made it impossible to ever prove anything by recounting the ballot papers,” Halas said. “It was such a crude job that people’s hair stood on end. People refused to believe that something so outrageous could be pulled off.”

Nuser held on until June, when he resigned in the face of what he called “protests, insults and threats "-- an indication that there had been bad behavior on both sides. Another ruling coalition loyalist, Matvey Popovich, is acting mayor until another new election is held.

“You should appreciate the fact that they were honing their methods and seeing if there would be a public reaction to what they did or not,” Baloha said. “I think the level of reaction on the part of the international community, all over the world, is positive. They won’t be able to get by with this again.”

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