The confrontation building on the streets of Kiev over the Ukrainian presidential election results will determine the future not only of Ukraine but also of Russia. In this sense, the decision that will be made by Ukraine whether it will be ruled by laws or by men is the most important that has faced a former Soviet republic since the fall of the Soviet Union.
The Ukrainian election campaign bore absolutely no resemblance to a fair contest. Viktor Yushchenko, the opposition candidate, was denied media coverage and was almost certainly poisoned. Viktor Yanukovich, the prime minister, was victorious because, according to an independent watchdog group, 2.8 million ballots were falsified in his favor. There were impossibly high turnouts recorded in Yanukovich strongholds, for example, 96.3 per cent in the Donetsk oblast and 88.4 per cent in the Lugansk oblast, and all but nine opposition poll watchers were barred from 2,000 polling stations in these regions.
Despite this, Russian president Putin congratulated Yanukovich on a “convincing victory” and the elections were described as “transparent, legitimate and free” by observers from the Commonwealth of Independent States.
The support by Russia for obviously tainted elections in Ukraine has been attributed to Russia’s desire to prevent Ukraine from slipping out of Russia’s “gravitational field.” Yushchenko, who is pro-Western, supports Ukrainian membership in the European Union and NATO whereas Yanukovich is against Ukraine’s early adherence to either organization and supports instead Ukraine’s participation in a “single economic space” including Belarus and Kazakhstan.
More important than the blow that a Yushchenko victory would give to Russia’s desire to dominate the former Soviet space, however, is the blow that it would deliver to the emerging authoritarian regime in Russia. The last three presidential elections in Russia were no fairer than the election in Ukraine and if the Ukrainians are successful in assuring a peaceful transfer of power, it will give new hope to those who want to see democracy triumph in Russia as well.
Yanukovich is the candidate of the government of President Leonid Kuchma, a regime that is corrupt and criminalized even by the unsavory standards of the Commonwealth of Independent States.
Kuchma, the former director of a Ukrainian rocket factory, handed the Ukrainian economy over to a group of communist bureaucrats turned businessmen who proceeded, as in Russia, to use their corrupt connections to officials to pillage the country’s resources at the expense of the hapless population.
The root of the oligarchs’ wealth was Russian gas that was bought from Russia at low prices and sold in Ukraine at a huge markup. The oligarchs enjoyed government sanctioned monopolies so their profits were enormous and they often did not even pay for the gas because the government guaranteed their credit. The oligarchic clans expanded into regional conglomerates, taking over steel, energy and chemical production and insulated themselves against competition with the help of tax exemptions and government subsidies.
The oligarchic system that was created did little good for Ukraine, once, by some measures, the most productive of the Soviet republics. The gross domestic product fell by ten per cent a year in the 1990s and Ukraine attracted less foreign investment than any country in Eastern Europe, even Romania and Moldova. In 1997, the World Economic Forum ranked Ukraine 52nd out of 53 countries in terms of overall competitiveness.
The system remained in place, however, because the regime controlled parliament, suppressed the media, and, when all else failed, resorted to terror.
Each of Ukraine’s three dominant oligarchic clans has its own well financed parliamentary party. The Kiev based clan of Hryhory Surkis and Viktor Medvedchuk, which has a stake in the gas industry and power utilities, controls the Social Democratic Party (SPDU), which has 39 seats. The Dnepropetrovsk group, headed by Viktor Pinchuk, who is married to Kuchma’s daughter, controls four big steelworks and directs the Labor Ukraine faction, which has 42 seats. The Donetsk group, a regional conglomerate that became rich on coal subsidies and is headed by Rinat Akhmetov, is represented by the “Regions’” faction, which has 40 seats. After the March, 2002 elections, the grip of the nine oligarchic factions in parliament was weakened but they still controlled a majority of the 450 deputies.
The only break in this situation came with the appointment of Yushchenko as prime minister in late, 1999 after the Russian financial crash in August, 1998 threatened to push Ukraine into default. During his brief tenure, Yushchenko cut state funding, reducing corruption and creating equal conditions that increased competition and production. He also made serious efforts to crack down on bribe taking and reform the gas sector. He was removed in a no-confidence vote organized by the oligarchic parties and the communists in April, 2001.
Besides controlling parliament, the regime manipulates the press. Hostile newspapers were shut down and independent journalists threatened. Channel 5, Ukraine’s only independent television station, has been disconnected in one region after another with its managers subject to arrest. At the same time, the non-resisting media has been controlled by secret instructions from the presidential administration which told them what to cover and how. The four state controlled national Ukrainian television stations, for example, ignored Yushchenko during the presidential election campaign while giving saturation coverage to Yanukovich.
Finally, oligarchic control is enforced with the help of contract killings. In the 1990s, Ukraine was the scene of hundreds of contract killings with the victims including journalists and well known political figures. Suspicions that the authorities were themselves behind a large number of these killings were always widespread. The event that, for many, removed all doubt, however, was the murder of Georgy Gongadze, the editor of Ukrainskaya Pravda, an internet publication that specialized in corruption among Ukraine’s oligarchs, and a longtime critic of Kuchma.
In September, 2000, Gongadze disappeared. Two months later, his headless body was discovered in the woods outside Kiev. In December, Alexander Moroz, a leader of the Ukrainian socialist party, played a tape before Parliament in which Kuchma is heard suggesting to his aides that Gongadze be got rid of. “Deport him. Let the Chechens kidnap him,” Kuchma said. The tape was provided by Major Mykola Melnychenko, a security guard who secretly taped Kuchma’s office.
In August, 2003, Igor Goncharov, a key witness in the investigation of a gang of assassins called the “werewolves” that was allegedly headed by police officers, died in a prison emergency ward. Immediately after his death, journalists received letters signed by him claiming that high level government officials were behind the killings blamed on his gang and that he had information about the murder of Gongadze. A month later, the Zerkalo Nedeli newspaper reported that investigators concluded the Goncharov was killed by a lethal injection while in prison.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the republics that emerged as 15 independent states shared an unenviable inheritance. Presented as an economic system, communism, in fact, was an attempt to absolutize political goals for the purpose of destroying morality. This unprecedented attempt to substitute the man made for the God given could not help but destroy the sense of individual responsibility for millions of people who lived in the former Soviet space.
A result of the absolutization of power in the former Soviet Union is that democracy has taken root only in the Baltic republics. In the other former Soviet republics with the possible exceptions of Moldova and Georgia — elections exist to confirm a decision that the authorities have already made. Until a few days ago, it appeared that Ukraine was about to strengthen this tradition. It was symbolic of the cynicism of the present Ukrainian leadership that the deputy head of Kuchma’s administration reacted to the apparent poisoning of Yushchenko that has left his face pockmarked and partially paralyzed by suggesting that Yushchenko should hire a food taster.
The widespread popular revolt against the falsified election results in Ukraine, however, has now spread from Yushchenko partisans to members of parliament, journalists working for state television, and even members of the security forces and could, if it is successful, reverse the relationship between rulers and ruled in Ukraine in a way that is sufficiently dramatic to change the entire political psychology of the former Soviet space.
It is for this reason that Putin has been so adamant in congratulating Yanukovich on his “victory.” The example of a free Ukraine will morally isolate the Russian leadership, making clear that Russia can join the civilized world or preserve authoritarian rule but not both. In this, Ukraine may repay a country that brought it communist enslavement with an example of freedom and the preconditions for a new start.