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Observing Historic Election in Ukraine

by Andy J. Semotiuk
In December 2004, I attended presidential elections in Ukraine along with 12,000 other international observers. The run off elections were held on December 26, 2004 following an international outcry about a flawed election that was held previously. This article will summarize some of my observations with respect to the new election.

A part of Eastern Europe , Ukraine lies east of Poland , south of Russia , and north of Turkey and the Black Sea . Roughly the size of France in population and geography, Ukraine has a population of 48 million, including 9 million Russians. The capitol is Kyiv. Most of the population is quite highly educated, with at least high school and some technical or university education. This distinguishes Ukraine from other countries of the Second and Third World . The large cities of Ukraine are modern cities and European in nature. In Kyiv, for example, there are cranes building new buildings all over the place. One finds an unbelievable number of Mercedes Benzes on the streets, there are neon lights everywhere, and the typical McDonald's and other Western influences are evident. Somewhat surprisingly, some of the richest people in Europe live in Ukraine.

Despite Ukraine 's fast growth and modernization, however, certain problems linger on. For example, there is the problem of Russification. To draw an analogy, imagine being in Paris and hearing the German language everywhere you went. This would be extraordinary. Yet in Kyiv, the capitol city of Ukraine , Russian dominates. In speaking to hotel clerks, police officers, or retail shop owners, their initial response is always Russian. They will only switch to Ukrainian after it is clear that the visitor wishes to speak that language.

Economically, the country is like a Potompkin village. The cities display great wealth, but if one travels not more than 30 or 40 miles outside of the city one finds himself in villages that are still back in the 18 th and 19 th centuries. In addition, over 7 million Ukrainians are working outside of the country, mostly in Western Europe , supporting their families back home. Children are left with their grandparents and are growing up without the presence of their natural parents. Recent exposés such as the book, The Natashas , written by Viktor Malarek, exposed the lucrative white slave trade and prostitution rings that capture young Ukrainian women and export them overseas to serve as prostitutes.

These are but some of Ukraine 's problems that impacted on the presidential elections in December 2004.

The Presidential Elections
Although Ukraine disarmed itself of any nuclear weapons in the period following its succession from the former Soviet Union, nonetheless it remains a strategic country from the standpoint of oil pipelines, and its proximity and influence to Russia and other neighboring states. For this reason, the presidential elections took on a greater significance than just elections being held in the country.

In November 2004, the first round of presidential elections in Ukraine took place and two leaders emerged. The contenders seemed to personify the differences to be found in Ukraine . Viktor Yanukhovych was from the Don Bas region of Ukraine . He seemed to personify Eastern Ukraine , the industrial heartland of the country. His following was largely Russian speaking, pro-Moscow, older, and part of the privileged elites of Ukraine . Yanukhovych was the hand- picked candidate of President Leonid Kuchma, the current departing president of Ukraine . Yanukhovych, up until the elections, was the Prime Minister of the country.

The opposition put forward Viktor Yushchenko. Yushchenko appeared to personify the western part of Ukraine, that is to say, Ukrainian speaking, younger, highly educated, pro-Western, dynamic people who were interested in a change in the social conditions of the country.

He is married to an American. He was regarded as the candidate who arose from the people. His family knew Ukraine 's hardships - for example, his father was incarcerated in Aushwitz during the war.

To understand the significance of the elections, and indeed the significance of the country, it is helpful to briefly look at its history. Three hundred and fifty years ago, in the 1600's, Ukraine was an independent state. In the period immediately prior to the annexation of the country by the Russian Czar in 1654, Ukraine was a leading cultural center in Europe, its population was highly literate, and the Kyiv Academy was the only university in that part of the world. Following annexation, however, the messianic Russian drive to unite all Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe, including the "Little Russians" that is, the Ukrainians - led to the complete incorporation of Ukraine into the Russian empire.

The Russian Czar followed a policy similar in nature to the imperial policy of England who settled colonials in Ireland and in Scotland in order to maintain control over those countries. In the case of Russia , the Czar sent Russians into Ukraine , millions of them - particularly into the industrial heartland and coal mining regions represented by cities such as Donetsk and Dniepropetrovsk. Essentially the purpose of the policy was to Russify the country, assimilate all Ukrainians into the Russian majority and thereby exploit the country's rich natural resources for the benefit of imperial Russia.

This policy did not change with the conversion of Czarist Russia into the Soviet Union . Indeed, in the years following the Russian Revolution in 1917, Ukraine increasingly became a backwater playground for Russians who came from Moscow to vacation in Crimea and other parts of the country taking advantage of whatever the population made available. A dichotomy began to develop however.

Western Ukraine, in particular the provinces of Galicia and Bukovina as well as Transcarpathian Ukraine, were drawn into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and later Poland, and therefore experienced differences in their political situations from that of Eastern Ukraine. Western Ukrainians were spared the hardship of a backbreaking genocide that killed 10 million Ukrainians in Eastern Ukraine and crushed resistance to Soviet Russification in 1933. Thereafter, Eastern Ukraine, and in particular the Don Bas industrial region, became a center for heavy industry and the development of weapons for all of the former Soviet Union.

Indeed, the current president of Ukraine , Leonid Kuchma, was a former head of a missile factory in Donetsk , and a former KGB officer. When the Soviet Union began falling apart, and when Ukraine declared its independence in 1991, leading persons in the various branches of government of the former Soviet Union continued on in the Ukrainian government, enriching themselves by virtue of their political positions. One such example was the ex-prime minister of Ukraine , Pavlo Larazenko who absconded with some 100 million dollars and came to California only to be arrested for traveling on a fraudulent passport and for illegally siphoning off this sum from the economy of Ukraine.

Nonetheless, as the Soviet Union broke up, various oligarchs appeared. These were individuals with massive wealth, mostly obtained through abuse of their political positions. Less than a dozen of these oligarchs to this day continue to run Ukraine . However, more recently, cleavages and power struggles emerged between these individuals who exercise such overwhelming influence in Ukrainian affairs. The result was that the government was shaken and the Orange Revolution was born.

The Orange Revolution
The year 2004 appears to have been a pivotal year for Ukraine . On the international cultural scene, Ukraine 's Roslana became the choice of some 100 million Europeans who voted for her in Eurovision, Europe 's equivalent to the American Idol television phenomenon. In sports, Vitlij Klitchko, who lives in Los Angeles but is of Ukrainian background, won the heavyweight championship of the world. In soccer, Andriy Shevchenko won the crown as Europe 's best soccer player. The prominence of these individuals, all of whom later played a role in the Orange Revolution, helped to buoy those people who were in the opposition in Ukraine supporting Viktor Yushchenko, the opposition candidate.

In the first round of presidential elections held in November 2004, serious electoral issues arose. Probably the most serious of them was an attempted poisoning of the opposition presidential candidate. Yushchenko had to break loose of his campaign in midstream to travel to Vienna for medical treatment. His face, formerly very elegant, became a visible symbol of the fact that someone had attempted to assassinate him - giving him dioxin, a poison to be found in Agent Orange. The subsequent election in Ukraine , which ultimately led to a declaration that Yanukhovych was the victor, was marred by ballot stuffing, intimidation at the polls, and excessive voting by individuals who were either dead, nonexistent in accordance with electoral lists, or repeat voters.

This abuse in electioneering reflected a broader problem faced by Ukrainian society with respect to its leadership. For example, too often leading political figures were killed in motor vehicle accidents on the way to the Kyiv airport. An example was Vyacheslav Chornovil, and George Yurchenko, both prominent pro-reform leaders who met their death on route to the airport. In the course of the presidential elections a fissure was forming, dividing the society into two camps. On one side, led by Yushchenko, the opposition called for an accounting from all those individuals who may have been involved in murders, narcotics, prostitution rings and so on. On the other were those individuals who were loyal to the current regime, and who dismissed murders, such as the murder of the top investigative journalist Georgi Gongadze, as mere examples of crime that had no link with the political leadership in Ukraine.

Until these presidential elections, Kyiv, the capitol city of Ukraine , had always sided with the east. But on this occasion, after years of being abused by Donetsk leaders who would come into Kyiv with arrogant attitudes, demanding priority service, and mistreating local Kyivans, the Ukrainian capitol shifted in support of the Orange Revolution.

As the election fraud became clearer, the population of Ukraine revolted. Some two million Ukrainians gathered in the streets of Kyiv to denounce the election results in which Yanukhovych was to be the new president. An entire tent city arose overnight, in which thousands of people slept in temperatures dipping below 20 degrees fahrenheit in order to stand in the streets day after day for weeks on end in support of the democratic revolution.

The Orange Revolution exemplified extraordinary discipline in how opposition leaders ensured that there were no outbreaks of violence. For example, four barricades separated people from the military and police who were protecting government buildings. No one except young women and old babushkas were allowed into that region to speak with the military and police soldiers. From the military point of view what soldiers saw was attractive girls giving them flowers, elderly woman feeding them hot coffee - that is to say the humanity of the revolt, and behind them the swelling wave of people power.

In short, the Orange Revolution decried the fact that in Ukraine the people's will had not been respected. The result of the demonstrations was that in early December 2004 the Ukrainian Parliament passed a vote of non-confidence in the newly elected president and the Supreme Court of Ukraine in an extraordinary and courageous decision held that the presidential election should be nullified and that a new runoff election between the two candidates should be held on December 26, 2004.

Election Observers Come to Ukraine
In early December 2004 I sat in my office in Los Angeles and watched on my computer as day after day news from Ukraine reached us. I was impressed by the discipline of the opposition and the fact that two million people were out in the streets of Kyiv demanding democracy. Though I was busy, and didn't exactly expect to welcome these developments into my life at that moment, I began to realize that the events taking place in Ukraine were of historic significance. I resolved that I should do what I could to support the efforts to democratize that country. The result was that on December 19 th , 2004 I became one of some one hundred observers from the United States who came to Ukraine to observe the election. Indeed, it was remarkable that the international community would ultimately send 12,000 people to Ukraine to guarantee the honesty of the presidential vote. The logistical effort was very impressive indeed.

On our arrival to Ukraine , each of us was credentialed as an observer, briefed extensively on Ukrainian election laws and our duty to be impartial and sent to some region of Ukraine . In my case, I was sent to the city of Khmelnytsky along with another observer from Canada , Professor Maureen Marchak from Vancouver . Typically, there were two observers, one driver, and one translator who attended at the polling stations. In our case we visited nine villages.

In each case, we witnessed extraordinary poverty, a very hard life, but a very warm and friendly welcome from the persons in the village. Despite temperatures below zero, the village halls where voting took place were not heated. People stood around in winter coats and gloves. There were no washrooms, only outhouses in the middle of nowhere. This was particularly difficult for women especially late at night when one had to go out in sub-zero degree weather in total darkness to go to the washroom. Needless to say, hygienic conditions were not of the highest quality. In some instances, toilets basically consisted of a hole in the ground. There was no medical care, no dental plan no social programs - in short, none of the trappings of modern day life in the United States . The value of human life in that society was significantly less than it is for most of us in the United States . There is a brutality about life in Ukraine that emerges from the harsh economic and social conditions that exist there. Despite these stark conditions we encountered human warmth everywhere. We were treated with great respect and each village put forward its best in dealing with us.

As far as the elections themselves were concerned, by and large this time we found the elections were run honestly and properly. Voter lists were prepared listing each of the individuals entitled to vote. Votes were collected and counted properly and then reported accurately to the Central Election Commission. Yushchenko ended up winning by a ten percent margin over his opponent. In subsequent days the result was recognized by the Electoral Commission and the Supreme Court denied Yanukhovych appeals.

On my part as an election observer I have to admit that I couldn't help but be impressed by the importance of an honest election, of the power of the ballot box, and the extraordinary importance of a nation choosing its leader. While 12,000 observers couldn't help but influence and educate the population of Ukraine in proper electoral procedures, I am positive that each one of us also took home with us the realization that the very essence of democracy is the expression of the will of the people through the ballot box.

Furthermore, I have no doubt that the democrats in Moscow and in Russia have carefully been observing the results of the Ukrainian Orange Revolution, and have been inspired by it. As President Jimmy Carter's former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski stated, if Ukraine goes democratic, Russia will have no choice but to follow. Bearing in mind the some 20,000 nuclear weapons that Russia holds, this is indeed a positive prospect.

Let me conclude by saying that when I traveled to Ukraine I carried with me a letter signed by Ken Petrulis as President of the Beverly Hills Bar Association, expressing the solidarity of the entire executive and board of directors of the Beverly Hills Bar Association with the members of the Supreme Court of Ukraine and the courageous step they took in reversing the decision of the Central Election Commission of Ukraine calling for a new runoff presidential election to take place on December 26, 2004. This letter, together with a translation, was passed onto the Associate Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Ukraine, who presided over that case. It was welcomed warmly.
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