Ukraine's Next Step | Freedom House

Ukraine's Next Step

The Wall Street Journal Europe By Adrian Karatnycky
Ukrainians are going to the polls Sunday in the most boisterous and significant elections since they opted for independence in 1991. The two-month campaign for a new parliament has seen hundreds of election violations, including physical assaults on candidates, suspicious auto accidents involving party leaders, pressure on workers to vote for pro-government parties, dirty tricks, efforts to exclude opposition candidates from the airwaves and illegal use of government resources and institutions for campaigning, most of which are being orchestrated by allies of the country's scandal-ridden President Leonid Kuchma.

As significantly, there is massive involvement by Russian campaign advisers, headed by a close associate of President Vladimir Putin, making it clear that Moscow seeks to influence Ukraine's elections by assisting parties eager for a close alliance with Moscow. Mr. Putin, who has given high priority to enhancing Russian-Ukrainian relations this year, traveled to the port city of Odessa on March 17 in what many see as a last-ditch bid to boost the sagging popularity of parties linked to President Kuchma.

While Mr. Putin puts a friendly face on relations with Ukraine, some of his former image-makers are engaged in a campaign of rumors and dirty tricks that have targeted pro-Western reformers. They have concocted and spread a myth about something called the "Brzezinski plan," an effort allegedly orchestrated by the former U.S. national security adviser to destabilize Ukraine and ensure the triumph of pro-American and anti-Russian politicians.

A Russian-Style Campaign

Anti-American themes are ubiquitous on Ukrainian airwaves. A few days ago, the leader of a splinter party in the pocket of pro-Kuchma oligarchs accused a group of respected political scientists of links to U.S. military intelligence. Their transgression was the release of a poll that showed reformers making broad gains.

On March 14, a television station co-owned by President Kuchma's son-in-law accused reformist Viktor Yushchenko's front-running Our Ukraine bloc of being financed with U.S. money. And on March 18, President Putin's chief of staff, Alexander Voloshin, declared that Russia works closely with two pro-Kuchma parties and the Communists, while criticizing Our Ukraine for "openly anti-Russian positions."

Russian campaign consultants, who have earned a reputation for dirty tricks and last-minute use of kompromat (compromising materials, usually of sexual or financial misconduct), are beginning to influence the campaign. Dirty tricks are employed daily against reform parties, including suspicious "blackouts" at conference halls, cancellations of debates, and local power outages during candidate appearances on television.

The IMU may even pose a threat to US national security. A document appearing on Hizb-ut-tahrir's website in October declared that "a state of war exists between [the US] and all the Muslims."

More ominously, Julia Tymoshenko, a former energy magnate who served as a deputy prime minister and drastically reduced corruption in the energy sector, was the victim of an auto accident in late January. On the very day a court ruled that an ongoing criminal investigation could not prevent her from campaigning around the country, a car laden with heavy food crates plowed into the passenger side of her Mercedes. Ms. Tymoshenko received a severe concussion, suffered from an intracranial hemorrhage and sustained neck injuries.

Two factors make the stakes high in this race. Incumbent President Kuchma has a little over two and a half years left in office and the jockeying for succession has begun. Moreover, the succession is complicated by the fact that Mr. Kuchma is mired in serious allegations of corruption and criminality that implicate him and his closest advisors.In November 2000, tapes alleged to be President Kuchma's conversations were spirited out of the country by a former member of the president's guard. They reveal a president at the center of vast criminal enterprise in which he instructed that reporters and political opponents be intimidated, listened to reports of arson against the homes of his critics, colluded in cover-ups of financial irregularities, and received offers of huge bribes from political cronies.

While the authenticity of the tapes has yet to be established in a transparent process (the president has vetoed legislation that would give Ukraine's parliament strong investigative powers), most Ukrainians believe the substance of the allegations is true: that their president is part of a highly corrupt system of power.

Initially, Mr. Kuchma's troubles appeared to be confined to domestic transgressions (including alleged links to the murder of journalist Georgy Gongadze). But in mid-March, the head of a parliamentary commission investigating Mr. Kuchma charged that on one tape the president discusses the sale of $100 million of sophisticated antiaircraft weaponry to Iraq. The other man in the conversation -- Valery Malev, the head of the country's arms export agency -- died several days before the sensational revelations were made public when his car crashed into an oncoming heavily-laden truck.

Allegations of illegal Ukrainian arms sales to Iraq are now being investigated by the Bush administration. If corroborated, they would make Ukraine an international pariah state and fuel efforts by even President Kuchma's stalwarts to nudge him toward an early retirement. Well before the newest allegations, some of the president's closest allies were putting out feelers about securing guarantees of immunity from prosecution to ensure a smooth transition to a post-Kuchma era.

Yushchenko Rising

The nature of any immunity from prosecution will depend on the balance of forces in parliament, a matter of no small interest to the incumbent president and his allies. As importantly, the leading political force in parliament will be best positioned for the eventual struggle to succeed him. All this makes the upcoming election of overarching importance for this nation of 50 million that is a crucial lynchpin of stability in eastern and central Europe and the object of Russia's hegemonic ambitions.

Surprisingly, polls indicate that despite a deck stacked against reformers, Ukraine's voters appear eager embrace democracy, clean government, and serious economic reform.

According to the latest polls -- and barring massive vote fraud -- Our Ukraine leads with around 30% of the vote. Despite the vast weight of the administrative apparatus and media arrayed against him, the bloc's leader, Mr. Yushchenko, is remembered by voters as the man who helped turn around a nearly moribund economy. A further 7-8% is likely to go to radical opponents of Mr. Kuchma.

The retrograde Communists are likely to capture up to 25% and parties allied with Mr. Kuchma around 20%, while a nominally pro-Kuchma social democratic party controlled by economic oligarchs may muster a further 8-10%. The balance of seats will likely go to independents and parties dominated by members of Ukraine's business elite.

This means Ukraine's next Rada (parliament) could well have the largest pro-reform bloc in Ukraine's history and Mr. Yushchenko could emerge as the front-runner to succeed President Kuchma in the next presidential vote.

While the election may see serious voter fraud, it's unlikely that anger over irregularities will trigger mass protests or that President Kuchma will become the Ukrainian version of Slobodan Milosevic. On the other hand, suggests one reform analyst, Ukraine's increasingly active civil society is strong enough to ensure that Mr. Kuchma doesn't become Ukraine's version of Robert Mugabe.

Adrian Karatnycky is the president of Freedom House.

Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.

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