Formerly The NIS Observed, An Analytical Review
In the Orange Revolution of 2004, Ukrainian citizens rose up to demand justice and truth: They demanded that an overtly rigged presidential election be overturned and their opinions counted. And they won. This year, as Ukrainians prepare to vote in the first parliamentary election since their revolution, they do so in a new atmosphere of freedom and fairness. While many voters may be disappointed that, following the revolution, change didn’t come as quickly as they anticipated in a number of areas, the parliamentary campaign of 2006 clearly demonstrates the impressive level of political freedom and debate that has blossomed in Ukraine in just over one year.
In 2004, then-presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko was refused time to advertise or appear on the primarily state-controlled Ukrainian media. He was routinely attacked by “journalists,” as numerous dubious, intensely negative “documentaries” appeared all over Ukraine’s television channels. At the same time, Yushchenko was refused permits to hold rallies, denied airplane landing rights to campaign in certain regions, followed by security service personnel, threatened, and finally, poisoned.
Those supporting Yushchenko were bullied, subjected to “investigations” by tax and police officials, followed, and, along with Yushchenko, placed under a constant state of siege. Media found to be critical of the administration in power simply were shut down, journalists were threatened (threats which were taken seriously given the earlier murder of journalist Georgiy Gongadze and the disappearances of several others), and an atmosphere of oppression prevailed against those not supportive of the regime in power.
Alternatively, Yushchenko’s opponent, then-Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich – the chosen successor of President Leonid Kuchma – was praised at every turn on Ukrainian television and radio, and in state controlled newspapers. Certain journalists were rewarded for their support of Yanukovich, as most news distribution followed restrictive orders issued directly from the presidential administration (there were, of course, brave exceptions). Yanukovich received massive assistance from the state apparatus in holding rallies and “contacting” voters, state workers were threatened with the loss of jobs if they did not vote for him, and students were told they would lose their stipends and housing. Moreover, this assistance continued throughout the now-discredited first round of voting.
My, how things have changed.
In 2006, advertisements for parties taking part in the parliamentary elections – even those overtly opposing President Yushchenko – appear regularly on all media outlets without restriction. Candidates travel, hold rallies and appear on media talk programs without problem or constraint. Although some candidates have complained of obstruction by officials at the local and regional level, complaints are aired loudly, and generally, problems are corrected. Even in Donetsk, the region of the country with the highest level of election fraud and violence in 2004, and the region where officials still cling to many of the old ways, candidates from all parties are allowed – if not welcomed – to campaign and speak to the press.
During one week on Ukrainian television, viewers could watch hour-long press conferences with former revolution leader and prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is running separately from Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine party in these elections, Socialist Party leader and former Orange Revolution partner Oleksandr Moroz, and Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov, the political leader of Our Ukraine. Additionally, they could see lengthy interviews with the leaders of the smaller PORA and Viche parties, a political debate on possible parliamentary coalitions, regular news reports on the activities of all parties, and enough political advertising to irritate even seasoned Western political analysts.
On Independence Square, the site of the largest Orange Revolution protests in 2004, all parties can, and often do, maintain booths to distribute campaign material, and on weekends, set up small soundstages to conduct rallies. There is no greater sign of the new freedom in the country than the fact that on 11 March, Yanukovich’s Party of Regions held a rally for hundreds of voters almost on the same site where hundreds of thousands protested against him slightly more than one year earlier. The rally was not obstructed, not watched by security personnel videotaping attendees, and not barred from coverage by the media.
This is particularly impressive given that Yanukovich seems poised to win the greatest number of seats in the next parliament (25-30%). President Yushchenko and those around him have not responded as most leaders of the former Soviet Republics have done when faced with similar political challenges, rather they simply have campaigned harder, and challenged Yanukovich to debates. They have accepted that – as during the third round of the 2004 presidential election when Yanukovich received 44% of the votes – there is a portion of the citizenry that supports the former Prime Minister’s pro-Russia, anti-NATO program. In other words, they have responded as any Western political party would do.
There are, of course, individuals within Our Ukraine who have suggested that Yanukovich should not be allowed to run in this election, because past crimes committed in his youth and his alleged involvement in 2004’s election fraud should disqualify him. Yushchenko, however, has shied away from this idea, as he has shied away from pursuing Kuchma for his past alleged crimes (including alleged involvement in the murder of Gongadze). For better or for worse, Yushchenko has chosen to allow his opponents to rehabilitate themselves. Perhaps this is not the justice demanded during the orange revolution, but it is freedom – and a level of freedom unknown in that part of the world.
It is also worth highlighting that President Yushchenko and Our Ukraine face challenges not only from Yanukovich but from his former revolution partner, Yulia Tymoshenko. A poll released on 10 March by the respected Democratic Initiatives Foundation found Yanukovich with 30.4%, Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine Bloc at 17.1% and the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc with 16.9% of voter support. Yushchenko’s decision to break from Soviet and post-Soviet electioneering practices has allowed his party to face the possibility of placing third in the election, but should also prove to his citizens – and the West – that it is possible to hold a fair and free election in the former Soviet region.
There is little worry, however, of vote tampering or rigging. Yushchenko’s message of non-interference seems to have been clearly delivered to election workers. These workers complain that they are afraid to make mistakes for fear of being charged with fraud. This fear has contributed to difficulty filling election positions throughout the country, but it speaks volumes about the tone being set by the presidential administration.
The incoming parliament will be tasked by new constitutional amendments with creating a majority coalition and choosing a prime minister and cabinet. Previously, the president named the prime minister, who was then confirmed by parliament. Now, the country has moved in the direction of a parliamentary republic (although the president will maintain more power than most presidents possess under this form of government).
Numerous majority coalition scenarios exist, including agreements between Yanukovich and Yushchenko and between Yushchenko and Tymoshenko. Should the parliament fail to reach a majority coalition agreement within 30 days after opening its session, the president has the right to disband the body and call new elections. It is unclear whether this is a scenario being considered by Yushchenko, but it is hard to believe that the president would embrace this idea over a coalition with his former partners, especially following a difficult campaign, having made such progress on political freedom and with such unpredictable consequences.
It is also hard to believe that Yushchenko would choose to unite with former Prime Minister Yanukovich, the man who was complicit in the oppression of him and his associates in 2004. Even more, Yanukovich leads a party that voted in 2005 to oppose joining NATO, oppose reforms needed to join the WTO, oppose joining the EU without a special agreement with Russia, and oppose anti-monopoly free-market reforms that might have threatened the control some party members hold in certain industries. Clearly, Yushchenko has many decisions to make in the next month or two.
Also clearly, Ukraine has come far in slightly over one year. The atmosphere on the streets is cautious but hopeful, and the campaign resembles some of the most hotly contested in the West. For over one year, Viktor Yushchenko has said that his country is part of Europe. And there can be no doubt that the president has given Ukrainians two of their most important demands during the revolution, and two of the fundamental rights of European nations – the freedom to choose their own political leaders and the freedom to learn about them from an uncensored press.
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