Ukraine’s Real Underdog


Kiev, Ukraine.

With only a couple of days before Ukrainians go to the polls for the third time in two months (i.e., f.or the presidential election’s repeat second round), outside observers might be worried that the "notorious regime" in Kiev will try to "rig" the poll again on behalf of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, declared winner from the Nov. 21 vote. The reality is that Yanukovych is the underdog, not because he lacks popular support relative to opponent Viktor Yushchenko ­ all indicators show Yanukovych’s support to be heavy in all major population centers except Kiev. Rather, it is because the administrative machinery of the state is now almost entirely in the hands of the "orange revolutionaries," backing Yushchenko.

About two weeks ago, Nina Karpachova, human rights ombudsman in the Ukrainian parliament, submitted a complaint to Speaker Vladimir Litvin about infringements of voters’ rights in a new package of reforms to the election law. The new law restricts the right of citizens to appeal to territorial election commissions (TECs) about exclusion from electoral registers. The ability of voters to lodge appeals with TECs had been a major plus of the system in the first round, and an orderly redress of grievances was not only possible but the norm. Karpachova also complained about curtailment of home-voting rights as potentially disenfranchising the disabled and elderly, and urged Litvin to introduce appropriate amendments. The law will disproportionately affect pro-Yanukovych voters. Of the 11 million pensioners in Ukraine who have benefited under the Yanukovych government, it is estimated that up to four million may be effectively immobile. The mobile ballot box is their only hope. Suspiciously, the law is designed to lose force after the December 26 election.

Litvin ignored Karpachova’s complaints, and on the same day received the Order of the State and the title of "Hero of Ukraine," awarded by President Kuchma, for "extraordinary personal services to Ukraine and the development of the state, reform of the Ukrainian political system, and consolidation of the ideals of civic unity and reconciliation in society."

Just about every state institution, it seems ­ from the parliamentary leadership to the Central Election Commission (CEC) to the foreign ministry ­ has effectively lined up behind the "Orange Revolution," making Yanukovych’s public condemnations of the "traitorous" and "double-dealing" authorities in Kiev far from mere bluster. On December 8, parliament, with pro-Yanukovych MPs abstaining, approved a new formulation for the CEC, giving pro-Yushchenko representatives an clear majority. All pro-Yanukovich nominees were rejected.

The international election-observing apparatus on December 26 will likewise be controlled by the Yushchenko-ites and active in eastern Ukraine, despite increasing evidence that Yanukovych supporters in western Ukraine are threatened and persecuted. On December 16, student unions from Britain, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Hungary and other Western countries jointly announced an "international student action" to observe the election on the 26th, using some 480 Ukrainian and 120 foreign students members of "mobile rapid-reaction groups" in southern and eastern regions of Ukraine. These areas, they said, were reportedly where "mass falsification of the vote" was carried out in favor of Yanukovych. The "Action HQ," it was announced, would cooperate closely with the office of the National Salvation Committee of Ukraine, an overtly pro-Yushchenko group, but so would the joint mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (the main international election-monitoring body), the Council of Europe and the European Union. The OSCE, relying exclusively on opposition sources for information on polling day, said it would send more than 1,000 observers to the election, the OSCE’s "largest mission ever" according to the OSCE website.

It can be little wonder that the West has been so vocal in support of Yushchenko when Ukraine’s foreign minister himself has been an ally of the "Orange Revolution" leader for years. On December 18, Foreign Minister Konstantin Grishchenko publicly announced his approval of the November 23 foreign ministry statement that the entire Ukrainian diplomatic corps supported Yushchenko. The senior civil servant added that this was "in line with the requirements of patriotism and professionalism." Transport Minister Georgi Kirpa had made his pro-Yushchenko sentiments known publicly even earlier, and the tide of rats leaving the sinking ship has only accelerated.

As Yanukovych has witnessed one after another of the members of Ukraine’s political elite turn against him, he has redoubled his efforts. "I will never let you down," he yelled to a crowd in Donetsk on December 8. "I would rather die than let them break me. You must know that!" Western media and governments have badly distorted the picture of the Ukrainian election from the beginning, painting Yushchenko as the disadvantaged candidate who must sweep to power on a popular wave of "freedom" if Ukraine is to have a happy Hollywood ending. The reality is the opposite, and in the American tradition I tend to instinctively sympathize with the underdog. That underdog is Viktor Yanukovych.

CHAD NAGLE is an American lawyer, accredited as an international observer of the Ukrainian election. He writes from Kiev.

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