EIGHT YEARS AGO this month, an inspiring movement took hold in Ukraine. After the 2004 presidential election, demonstrators filled the streets to protest a vote marred by fraud and corruption in what came to be known as the Orange Revolution. A runoff election was annulled, a new vote was ordered by the courts, and the second runoff was deemed free and fair. People power worked.
Given that promising moment, it is distressing to see Ukraine’s political system now backsliding. The campaign leading up to the Oct. 28 vote for parliament was rigged to benefit President Viktor Yanukovych and his ruling Party of Regions. This time, there was no revolution, just relatively small but determined protests, and a brushoff from the prime minister, Mykola Azarov, who declared, “These were the best organized elections in Ukraine in the history of its independence.”
In fact, they were “best organized” in a peculiar post-Soviet fashion now evident in Russia and elsewhere in Eurasia. The features of this system are slicker than some of the pitched battles for power in the 1990s, but they are onerous nonetheless, designed to give the ruling party an insurmountable advantage through subterfuge and subversion.
In Ukraine, the rigging of the election began long before voting day. According to a report by international election observers, the campaign lacked a level playing field for all candidates: Those in power “abused” their state resources for political gain and benefited from “a lack of balanced media coverage.” Not to mention that former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko and Yuri Lutsenko, two prominent opposition political leaders, have been imprisoned following trials that were widely criticized as politically motivated. While election day was largely peaceful, there have been allegations of fraud in the voting process and tabulation.
The campaign was outwardly competitive, with a wide range of parties and candidates. But “harassment, intimidation and misuse of administrative resources” were used to prevent many candidates and parties from getting their message to voters. State-owned newspapers attacked the opposition; public workers such as teachers and nurses were required to attend rallies; events for the opposition were blocked and obstructed; state television “displayed a clear bias in favor of the ruling party.” Fortunately, there are other media channels and unrestricted Internet access in Ukraine, but their reach is limited.
The United States invested heavily after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the idea that Ukraine, with a population of 45 million, could become a member of NATO and look westward. Russia has also beckoned from the east and holds enduring historic and economic ties to Ukraine. Unfortunately, Ukraine seems to be sliding into the Russian mold of a pseudo-democracy, with elections, parties and candidates on the surface, but less and less real competition underneath.