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Analysis: A Game Without Rules

An estimated 100,000 people participated in a rally near Ukrainian Central Election Commission (TsVK) headquarters in Kyiv on 23 October to back the presidential bid of opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko and to demand fair and democratic presidential voting on 31 October. The rally -- organized by the pro-Yushchenko electoral coalition People's Power -- was held under the general slogan "The People's Power Against Lies And Falsification."

"We demand honest elections," Yushchenko told the crowd. "The people will force [the government] to recognize their choice.... The candidate of the authorities has no chance whatsoever for an honest victory."

After Yushchenko ended his speech at the rally, the crowd began to disperse. Then a group of young people with shaved heads and who wore black jackets with orange-colored symbols of the Yushchenko campaign, bombarded the TsVK offices with bottles and smokebombs, breaking several windows in the building. Within an hour, footage of the attack was being shown on Ukraine's major television channels with commentaries attributing the incident to extremists in the pro-Yushchenko camp.

Participants in the pro-Yushchenko rally managed to catch six attackers and hand them over to police. But when opposition lawmakers visited a police station three hours later to inquire about the detained attackers, they were told that the attackers had been released. The opposition accused the authorities of staging a provocation with the attack on the TsVK offices. Ukraine's pro-government television channels have remained silent over what happened with the "pro-Yushchenko extremists."

Later in the evening on 23 October, however, events took a more terrifying turn. Some 100 Yushchenko supporters remained in front of the TsVK building, where the TsVK was mulling the issue of opening 400 additional polling stations in Russia for Ukrainians who live there and want to take part in the 31 October presidential vote. The TsVK session was attended by Yushchenko, a group of lawmakers fro his Our Ukraine parliamentary bloc, and several lawmakers from the pro-government parliamentary coalition. It is little wonder that the debate was heated: Yushchenko and his supporters argued that opening so many polling stations in Russia -- with no election observers on hand for the voting there -- could lead to massive falsifications in favor of Yushchenko's main rival, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.
Later in the evening, however, events took a more terrifying turn.

At 11:00 p.m., the pro-Yushchenko picketers outside the TsVK headquarters were attacked by an unidentified group of around 100 thugs who were reportedly armed with flails, hammers, knives, and blunt objects. The picketers, along with opposition deputies from the TsVK building who hastened to help them, managed to detain three attackers: two turned out to have police officers' identity cards and pistols with them. Eight participants in the fight were seriously injured and taken to hospitals by ambulance. As one Ukrainian commentator noted, it was the first blood spilled in the 2004 presidential campaign.

What happened later is not quite clear. After Yushchenko and his parliamentary colleagues found themselves outside the TsVK building, a detachment of riot police arrived at the scene and, according to Our Ukraine legislators, blocked their way back to the building. The authorities, as well as pro-government media, subsequently accused Our Ukraine lawmakers of attacking and beating the riot-police detachment. Moreover, the police said that the two police officers whom Yushchenko's supporters detained near the TsVK headquarters had nothing to do with the attack on the picketers and were kidnapped by an unidentified group in an entirely different part of the city. Prosecutors opened a criminal investigation against Yushchenko and his backers, accusing them of an attack on on-duty police officers.

Meanwhile, Yushchenko's people admitted only that the only victim of their "attack" was lawmaker Nestor Shufrych from the pro-government Social Democratic Party-united, from whom they tore a sportshirt in a scuffle that ensued when he tried to stop them on their way back into the building. Shufrych reportedly wandered with his bare torso along the TsVK corridors for an hour after the incident.

In seemingly biased reports, pro-Yanukovych television channels and newspapers presented the 23 October clash near the TsVK headquarters as the most direct evidence that Yushchenko and his followers are preparing a violent scenario for taking power in Ukraine after the 31 October presidential ballot, irrespective of its result. "Recently the trust of voters in [Yushchenko] has noticeably decreased and his chances for a victory are becoming more and more illusory," Yanukovych's election staff said in a statement on 26 October, purporting to explain why Yushchenko favors "extremist actions."

Progressive Socialist Party Chairwoman Natalya Vitrenko then added insult to injury, painting Yushchenko as a repulsive extremist. "I assess the events of 23-24 October at the TsVK offices as actions by anti-Russian, anti-Slavic, and pro-American forces oriented toward capturing power by strong-arm methods for the benefit of the United States, under the cover of a struggle for honest elections," "ForUm" quoted her as saying. "I think the capture of power by Yushchenko would [cap] an American scenario for Ukraine's colonization."
"Fear is once again creeping into people's souls."

But there have been other, more disturbing signals from Ukraine. The "Ukrayinska pravda" website on 26 October posted a report from Donbas, Ukraine's coal-mining basin and Yanukovych's electoral stronghold, saying that coal-mine managers in the region are forming groups of miners who are to go to Kyiv and some cities in western Ukraine on 30 October for three days, purportedly as electoral observers. The website hints that such groups might be used not only for observing the election but also for falsifying the vote in favor of Yanukovych by repeatedly voting at different polling stations and for staging provocations against Yushchenko adherents.

"Fear is once again creeping into people's souls," a group of Ukrainian intellectuals and writers say in an open letter about the ongoing election campaign published on 25 October. "Today they are often afraid to speak freely [out of fear that] they would lose the very last things in their possession -- work and a piece of bread. Instead of a cozy European home with its attendant prosperous life and respect for the law, once again we are being offered Eurasian spaces with their eternal evils, barbarity, and despotism." The letter warns that a Yanukovych election victory will be a "catastrophe" and calls on Ukrainians to vote for Yushchenko.

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