Kyiv, 24 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- This Sunday, March 29, Ukrainians will go to the polls to elect the new parliament. They will also cast their votes for regional and municipal deputies. The electoral campaign is in full swing. The mud is flying, knives are out and there are even bodies on the street.
Last month (Feb. 11) Petro Shkodun, former head of department in the Cabinet of Ministers, was arrested on charges of stealing "sizable sums" of government money. Prior to his arrest, Mr. Shkodun, who has been associated with the former Prime Minister Pavel Lazarenko, had begun an investigation on the government money spent to renovate the private apartment of President Leonid Kuchma in Kyiv. Shkodun is to go on trial on March 30, a day after the elections.
Last week (March 19) the General Prosecutor sent a letter to the Parliament asking for the lifting of former Prime Minister Lazarenko's parliamentary immunity so that criminal charges could be brought against him. Lazarenko is alleged to have deposited more than four million dollars of state money in a Swiss bank account for personal use. Lazarenko is also alleged to have used money from the Cabinet of Ministers Reserve Fund to renovate his dacha for himself and purchasing six buildings at a cost of more than one million dollars.
After having been ousted by President Kuchma from his post as Prime Minister, Lazarenko announced his intention to run against Kuchma in the next presidential election and to this end formed a political party.
In what looked like a reaction to those allegations, the newspaper "My" ("We") yesterday (March 23) published a list of alleged expenditures of state funds to renovate President Kuchma's apartment in Kyiv (bedroom furnishings for 141,800 dollars, plumbing for a shower stall for 10,527 dollars, kitchen appliances for 26,189 dollars) for a total of about 1.5 million dollars. The article also said that the government paid 28 million dollars to renovate Kuchma's dacha, five million dollars for luxury cars for the President and his staff. The "My" said that all the money came from the Reserve Fund of the Cabinet of Ministers.
In a recent interview with RFE/RL, Speaker of the Ukrainian Parliament, Oleksander Moroz said that the fund had been set up to cover emergency expenses and is controlled by the Cabinet of Ministers alone. Moroz said that money from the fund had been used for such non-budgetary expenditures as renovating the Palace of Culture in Kyiv for some 80 million dollars.
Observers in Kyiv say that, while those allegations of corruption have yet to be proven in court, they tend to discredit the Ukrainian political establishment and strengthen the communist and socialist opposition.
The Electoral Campaign in Odessa.
One of the most difficult electoral contests is the one in the Ukrainian port city of Odessa. It pits the city's anti-communist incumbent mayor Eduard Hurvits against the Odessa region's sitting governor Ruslan Bodelan.
Bodelan was appointed by President Kuchma and is closely associated with the People's Democratic party and the national government. Hurvits is a local politician, who heads a city political machine. Both are determined to use every means to win.
Could the elections in Odessa be honestly decided? "It's a big job, and it's not going to be easy," said Odessa City Election Commission OCEC Assistant Chairwoman Zoya Shklerok in a recent interview with RFE/RL. "But we're going to try."
Shklerok is responsible for 323 voting sites. At each of these sites she will position a sealed ballot box or "urn." A team of 12 to 13 election officials appointed by the city government will be on hand on each site to keep the count accurate. But that may not be enough to keep things honest.
Unlike many other races across the country where voters are confused by a dizzying variety of small parties, unknown candidates, and nebulous promises, in Odessa the big race is a popularity contest between the two known and determined protagonists.
"The situation is very tense here," OCEC Chairman Leonid Kapelushin told RFE/RL. He was shot twice last month by unknown persons. He declined to say whether he had received threats before each attack.
Deploying local law-enforcers to keep the election even-handed is complicated in the situation in which Bodelan retains direct control of the police force, prosecutors' offices, and court systems.
Hurvits has charged that members of the Bodelan camp have used intimidation tactics and filed suits with friendly judges against media supporting the Mayor in the election run-up.
Bodelan has countered that a city militia recently formed by the City Executive Council are little more than the sitting mayor's bully boys. He also alleged that the Hurvits-appointed election commission enforces the rules unequally, nit-picking opponents on advertising and procedural regulations.
Shklerok disagrees: "We are charged to enforce the national election law," she said, adding that "I don't rule out the possibility of a mistake, but in general all candidates receive the same treatment."
Both sides have claimed that their opponents plan to use organized crime links to skew election results. Bodelan charged that Hurvits associate Olexandr Angert is "the gangland boss known as 'Angel."
Bodelan further alleged that last month unknown persons shot Boris Anikeichik, who was said to have been preparing to testify to an anti-organized crime committee that he witnessed payoffs from Angert to Hurvits. Bodelan supporters have also alleged that Hurvits is also closely linked to Chechen mafia.
Hurvits has denied the allegations. His supporters have counter-charged that Bodelan and his family are closely associated with Russian mafia. Bodelan has also denied that.
Ballot box tampering, ballot falsification, and polling place strong-arming in the upcoming elections have been predicted by both camps.
Two weeks ago (March 10) Hurvits asked President Kuchma to send in the National Guard, arguing that the forces which are nationally-recruited and have no stake in Odessa politics, were necessary to keep the March 29 elections peaceful. "Local law enforcement agencies have proved unable to keep peace and security in our city," he said. "We need outside help to keep the elections quiet."
Hurvits has called on the national government at least three times in the last twelve months to assist in keeping the peace, usually after a murder of a public figure. Investigative committees from the Ministry of Internal Affairs have come and gone but nothing has been done to increase security.
Now international election monitors are arriving. Charged to observe and report, they concede that in Odessa their job is cut out for them. "We have identified Odessa as one of the places in Ukraine where elections are particularly partisan and disputed," said Mark Powers Stevens, an official with the Ukraine mission of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), in a recent talk with RFE/RL. "We will be paying special attention down there."
OSCE will have 12 to 15 monitors in Odessa in the two days preceding the ballot and during the elections. One of them is Eric Roman Filipink. He told RFE/RL that "We are making no judgments ahead of time. We are aware of the relatively tense situation here."
In the last two weeks Filipink, who had monitored elections in Albania, Serbia and Croatia, met with Hurvits, Bodelan, and law enforcement officials to establish an information base about the local situation. "Our job is to observe...and to be available to the candidates," he said.
But at the end, whether the elections in Odessa will be clean or dirty depends only on the way its participants make them. "I think that overall the elections will be fairly honest," Shklerok said "The two sides are so interested in the results that they will probably not let their opponents try any tricks."