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Ukraine: EU Says Free Elections Are Key To Closer Ties

The European Union has warned Ukraine that irregularities already evident in the run-up to the presidential elections on 31 October may harm ties with the bloc. Addressing the European Parliament in Strasbourg, representatives of both the EU's Dutch presidency as well as the European Commission said Ukraine will remain an important partner. However, they said, Ukraine must use the elections to show it adheres to common values with the EU and is prepared to put them into practice.

Strasbourg, 28 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- EU officials addressing the European Parliament on behalf of the current EU Presidency said the upcoming presidential elections in Ukraine present the country with a stark choice.

The Dutch minister for European affairs, Atzo Nicolai, who spoke for the EU's current presidency, said Ukraine is at an important crossroads. He went on to note -- without naming candidates -- that one path Ukraine can choose is that of "democracy, development, justice, and rule of law."

The tightly contested elections pits current Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych against the main opposition leader, Viktor Yushchenko.

Neither Nicolai nor EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen went into great detail to outline any other paths. But both made it clear that only what Nicolai described as "fair, free, and transparent" elections would bring the country closer to the EU.

Nicolai indicated EU hopes are not very high to begin with.

"Ukraine's track record in the areas of democratization, human rights, upholding the rule of law, and reform process is mixed at best," Nicolai said. "Remaining questions about the disappearance of Ukrainian journalists, the current process of constitutional reform, and the practical absence of pluralist media are some examples."
Verheugen emphasized that the EU would not apply lower standards to judging Ukraine's elections than it would do elsewhere.

Nicolai offered a long list of specific concerns relating to the preparations for this weekend's elections.

Restrictions placed by Ukrainian authorities on the media came first on the list.

"There are clear indications that there is a biased media coverage," Nicolai said. "As you know, it is essential to provide all political candidates with equal access to the media. [Also], direct pressure on independent media has been growing in Ukraine, creating big difficulties for pluralistic and independent mass media to cover the electoral process. Only independent and free media coverage of the electoral process can ensure free, fair, and transparent elections."

Nicolai went on to list other infractions of democratic practice. He said political pressure was being exerted on the voters, who were coerced into taking part in rallies and campaign events. There are also reports of "administrative harassment" of the opposition. Government funds and property are also being made available to some candidates to help them campaign.

Nicolai said the EU appreciates invitations extended by the Ukrainian government to foreign electoral observers to monitor the poll. However, he said, the EU deplores the fact that independent Ukrainian monitors are not allowed at polling sites.

Verheugen noted in his speech that in contrast to some other countries in the region, "several real candidates" are in the running. However, he also emphasized that the EU would not apply lower standards to judging Ukraine's elections than it would do elsewhere.

Both Nicolai and Verheugen referred to participation in the EU's European Neighborhood Policy as the preeminent inducement held out to Ukraine by the bloc. However, the program explicitly avoids commitments such as an EU membership perspective.

Nicolai said the EU is aware of the possibility that a neglected Ukraine may gravitate toward Russia, but again linked an EU counterstrategy to the conduct of the presidential elections.

"Some say that if the EU doesn't do more for Ukraine, Kyiv will automatically drift into the arms of Moscow," Nicolai said. "The Single Economic Space is often quoted as evidence that this is already happening. Furthermore, the conduct of the upcoming presidential elections could cast a shadow on our relations - and here lies the task for the Ukrainian government and its people."

Nicolai spoke at length about Ukraine's strategic importance to the bloc, saying it could expect closer consultation in EU foreign policy and defense decisions.