(Washington, DC--October 4, 2004) Two election campaign observers who recently visited Ukraine expressed concern that a free and fair presidential election may not take place on October 31. With two-thirds of Ukrainians declaring their doubts about a fair election, and with allegations surfacing about the possible poisoning of an opposition candidate, both experts told a RFE/RL audience last week that this is a high-stakes election for the people of Ukraine.
Donald L. Ritter, a former Congressman and senior member of the Commission on Security and Cooperation on Europe (aka U.S. Helsinki Commission), said that if stronger Western support is not given to ensure a fair election, "the doors to Ukraine might not be as open in another 5 years." According to Ritter, members of the "[old] Soviet hierarchy" make up the current power structure in Ukraine, and are "hanging onto power to protect their benefits and privileges." They are endangering Ukraine's future because "without a free market, there can be no free people," Ritter concluded.
A former European Parliament member and European representative on the World Bank's Inspection Panel, Maartje van Putten, stressed the importance of an active European role in assisting Ukraine during its transition to democracy and free market economy. While acknowledging the role of U.S. support of democratic processes in Ukraine, particularly in funding election observer missions, van Putten said that, because Ukraine is on "our continent," Europe should do more to help democracy develop there. She expressed the hope that, "as long as the borders remain open, communication can still take place."
Ritter and van Putten reported finding government-censored media throughout Ukraine, and van Putten said there was little evidence that most of the 26 candidates for president were even conducting election campaigns. She noted seeing avenues lined with government-endorsed candidate Viktor Yanukovych's campaign billboards, but very few publicity materials supporting other candidacies, including that of opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko. Nonetheless, she found that Ukrainians were remarkably open about expressing their concerns to the election campaign monitors. Van Putten also believes that people are "communicating" information by word of mouth about conditions and campaign issues.
Both Ritter and van Putten urged the Western press to write more about the current Ukrainian presidential election campaign. Ritter asked, "Why isn't the Western press concerned about the recent [alleged] poisoning of the leading opposition candidate?" Van Putten agreed, saying that "the Ukrainian people have been denied a free society for too long."
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