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Ukraine: Elections Serve As Referendum On Kuchma's Rule, But Will Anything Really Change?

  • Jeremy Bransten

Ukrainians go to the polls on Sunday, 31 March, to elect a new parliament. Although recent data indicate the country may be finally emerging from more than a decade of economic crisis, the situation for most Ukrainians remains bleak. Unemployment is high, reforms are stalled, and, according to surveys, corruption is perceived as endemic. For those reasons, the poll is seen by many as a referendum on the rule of President Leonid Kuchma. Will the Ukrainian people support parties allied to the president or turn out in force to back opposition forces who promise change? And if they do, will this significantly alter the balance of political forces in the country?

Prague, 28 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- More than 30 parties and alliances will contest the 450 seats in Ukraine's parliament during the 31 March nationwide election. According to the Ukrainian Constitution, half the legislators are elected in single-mandate electoral constituencies on the basis of a relative majority, while the other half are elected according to lists of candidates from political parties based on proportional representation.

Pollsters expect that eight or nine parties will overcome the current 4 percent threshold to gain seats in the chamber.

President Kuchma, who is himself not up for re-election, has nevertheless spent considerable time campaigning for his own electoral alliance -- For a United Ukraine -- which includes current Prime Minister Anatoliy Kinakh, four government ministers, and several regional leaders.

The strongest challenge to the Kuchma alliance is being put forward by former Central Bank Governor and Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko, whose Our Ukraine bloc has been running ahead in the polls. Observers will be watching closely to see how many seats the Our Ukraine bloc, as well as the Yuliya Tymoshenko Party, headed by former Deputy Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, can garner.

But Paul D'Anieri, associate professor of political science at the University of Kansas and a leading authority on contemporary Ukrainian politics, tells RFE/RL that even if both groups do well, they will still have to contend with strong leftist opposition groups who oppose reforms and who are likely to pick up a significant number of seats.

For that reason, D'Anieri is skeptical of the reformist opposition's chances at forcing a change of course in the country's current policies.

"The big issue on the agenda is: Are you for or against Kuchma? But even the people who are against Kuchma are very much going to break down along two incompatible lines, which are the pro-Yushchenko or pro-Tymoshenko groups, as opposed to the Communist Party and Socialist Party. Especially the Communist Party is not compatible, in any way, with the pro-Yushchenko groups, so it's not simply 'for' or 'against' because even the 'againsts' are still divided against one another," D'Anieri said. "It's a referendum in the sense that the amount of votes that go to Yushchenko and Tymoshenko will be seen as an indication of just how much opposition there is to Kuchma, and in that sense it is a referendum. But it's not a referendum in that if Kuchma loses, he would be necessarily ejected from power."

Kuchma has faced and so far successfully dodged a slew of accusations from lawmakers in recent months -- from charges that he profited from illegal arms sales to allegations that he was involved in plans to murder political opponents. Earlier in March, 160 legislators asked Prosecutor-General Mykola Potabenko to open a criminal investigation into allegations that Kuchma aided former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko, who is currently in a San Francisco jail on U.S. charges of conspiracy, money laundering, and transporting stolen property. Lazarenko fled Ukraine for the United States in 1999 after authorities in Kyiv accused him of embezzlement.

Lawmakers say there is evidence linking Kuchma to charges of election fixing, conspiring to intimidate and kill political opponents, and graft. But Potabenko rejected the request for an investigation.

A stronger opposition presence in the new parliament could force the prosecutor-general to look into the charges. But even if this happens, D'Anieri said, the judicial system remains firmly in Kuchma's grip.

"The presidential administration retains -- regardless of what happens in these elections -- a lot of means of foiling any attempt by the parliament to bring it to account for the things that have happened in the past. And I'll just give you an example: Anything to bring the government, to bring Kuchma to account, would have to go through the judicial system, which Kuchma seems to have a pretty good grip on," D'Anieri said. "The whole procuratorial system in Ukraine is controlled by the executive branch, by people who are loyal to Kuchma. And I don't see much reason to believe that's going to change. Could a parliamentary inquiry have some influence on that? Yes, but again, how much would be the question."

Both houses of the U.S. Congress recently adopted resolutions warning Ukraine that future U.S. aid will depend on the fairness of the elections. The resolutions noted that Ukraine's domestic election observers have already reported numerous violations, including government pressure on opposition and independent media and coercion of individuals to join particular political parties and contribute to their campaigns.

Ukraine's official state-appointed rights ombudswoman, Nina Karpachova, said in March that the unwarranted denial of registration to candidates or their removal from established electoral lists is one of the most widespread violations.

D'Anieri told RFE/RL there are serious questions about both the fairness of the electoral campaign and the possibility that the postelection vote count may be partially rigged.

"There's no question that the campaign has not been run fairly, and I think there's been a fair amount of reporting on this from institutions such as the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] and other Western observer groups, as well as press reports, starting a long time ago, prior to the 1999 presidential elections, with harassment of the opposition press, the closing down of opposition newspapers for no serious reason. So there's been a long pattern of that, and it's gotten worse as this election has approached," D'Anieri said. "Then there's the question of counting. There are some mechanisms in place to ensure that opposition parties will have access to the vote counts. But the presidential administration has tried to minimize that at every step of the way. So it's hard to be confident that the votes will be counted fairly."

The head of the presidential administration, For a United Ukraine bloc leader Volodymyr Lytvyn, has dismissed such concerns. He told journalists recently it would be physically impossible for the government to doctor election results.

But to Sergei Sholokh, head of Radio Continent -- one of Ukraine's few independent stations -- allegations of government pressure against the media are more than hearsay. In the runup to the poll, Sholokh said he received numerous visits from the tax police, threatening late-night phone calls, and other harassment in what he said is a clear campaign of intimidation by the authorities.

Despite its troubles, though, Radio Continent continues to broadcast, and Sholokh told RFE/RL he will not be cowed: "They haven't succeeded in stopping our broadcasts before the elections. We continue to broadcast, with difficulty, but we are on the air and keeping our listeners informed. I think they have not achieved what they wanted."

The outcome of the 31 March election and whether the poll is judged to be relatively free and fair by foreign observers are expected to have some bearing on Ukraine's foreign relations. Under Kuchma, Ukraine's previously warm ties with the United States and the European Union have cooled significantly. If observers from those states judge the election to have been unfair, Kyiv could find itself continuing to draw closer to Moscow.

An unprecedented 1,000 international observers will monitor the ballot, 400 of them from the OSCE. Final results are expected early in April.

(Iskander Aliyev of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)