Ukraine's largest democratic opposition group, the Our Ukraine bloc, is accusing the government of orchestrating disruptions of its campaign rallies ahead of next year's presidential elections. The government denies the charges, while Western diplomats and institutions are expressing concern about the latest developments.
Prague, 13 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Supporters of Ukraine's largest opposition bloc, Our Ukraine, are blaming the government for disrupting a series of meetings across the country organized to explain the party's platform to potential voters.
Viktor Yushchenko is the leader of Our Ukraine, a candidate in next year's presidential election, and -- according to polls -- the country's most popular politician. Yushchenko and Our Ukraine accuse regional officials of disrupting a rally two weeks ago in the eastern city of Donetsk by packing a previously booked hall with hundreds of anti-Yushchenko demonstrators. The party says many of the demonstrators were drunk and alleges they had been paid to take part. Our Ukraine also says police and local officials tried to block Yushchenko and his group from disembarking from their plane and leaving Donetsk airport.
Donetsk Mayor Oleksandr Lukianchenko says Our Ukraine had not "coordinated" with Donetsk police to hold the rally.
Yushchenko says he has no doubt the government is responsible for the attempts to wreck his party's meetings. He told RFE/RL he has a copy of a confidential document, allegedly originating from the office of the presidential administration, that includes instructions to local authorities for how to oppose Our Ukraine rallies, saying, "This was handed to us by competent sources from several regional authorities -- people whom we trust."
Yushchenko said the document contains advice on how to disrupt appearances by himself and his supporters, how to prevent well-known local figures from taking part in rallies, and how to infiltrate anti-Yushchenko people into rally venues.
The document is similar to instructions alleged to have been distributed by the presidential administration to Ukrainian newspapers, TV, and radio. Called "temnyky," the alleged document instructed the media on how to handle the news to cast the government in the best light and to besmirch the opposition. It was leaked to opposition members of parliament earlier this year and then made public.
Yushchenko says the government's actions show why Ukrainians need to elect a president that will oversee a government committed to the democratic rights enshrined in the Ukrainian Constitution. "The constitution does not work in Ukraine and these fundamental rights for [free] assembly and the conduct of meetings, as has been shown in Donetsk, don't work," he said.
Serhiy Vasyliev is the head of the presidential administration's press and information policy department and is the person accused of authoring the "temnyky." In an interview with RFE/RL, he denied that the "temnyky" or the new document Yushchenko claims to have were distributed by his office.
"From the moment the opposition started to attack the presidential administration, there have been so many declarations about various documents, beginning with those associated with my field of work, the so-called 'temnyky' -- which were written by others but are attributed to the presidential administration and directly to me -- and other so-called documents referred to by Mr. Yushchenko and other members of the opposition. So many of them have been mentioned that, in all seriousness, I don't want to speak about them," Vasyliev said.
Vasyliev said that, in the run-up to the election, many unsubstantiated allegations have been made by enemies of the Ukrainian government. He said the accusations now being made by Yushchenko should be viewed with that in mind. "What Viktor Yushchenko says is one thing, and what the truth may be is another," he said.
He said the document Yushchenko claims to have should be subjected to expert examination. He said there are many identifying marks on genuine official documents that prove they are the real thing. "The document that Mr. Yushchenko displays is not proof that the presidential administration is really responsible for what Mr. Yushchenko accuses it of," Vasyliev said.
In addition to Donetsk, similar campaign disruptions occurred on 9 November in the northern city of Sumy. Our Ukraine officials claim local authorities mobilized police and paid demonstrators to prevent a rally, which eventually was held in the open air instead of in a hall. The tires of some 30 buses scheduled to carry Our Ukraine members to the rally were slashed. Police detained activists distributing Our Ukraine literature.
Vasyliev said he does not believe the version of events from Donetsk and Sumy that is being put forward by Our Ukraine. He suggested the authorities in those cities did not abuse their powers and that people were merely exercising their democratic rights to oppose Our Ukraine.
"The streets were filled with representatives of society. The streets were filled with the electorate, which either will or will not vote for Yushchenko. That's their right. That's democracy in this country," he said.
Our Ukraine says such rallies are essential because the country's mass media gives little or no coverage to opposition parties.
Western diplomats and institutions have criticized the campaign disruptions. The U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, John Herbst, said interference in the campaign efforts of Our Ukraine is a "matter of concern."
The Council of Europe, of which Ukraine is a member, monitors whether governments adhere to democratic standards. Hanne Severinsen is the representative to Ukraine for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). She told RFE/RL that one of the most important human rights is the right to peaceful assembly and that if Ukrainian authorities do not ensure that right, free elections are impossible.
"If one of the most popular blocs and one of the most popular politicians cannot hold a rally without being disturbed, then I think we will have really an attempt to disrupt this [presidential election] campaign," Severinsen said.
She said local authorities loyal to Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma likely believe that using their powers to disrupt opposition activities is considered part of their duty. Severinsen said Kuchma must ensure every political party in Ukraine has the right to hold meetings freely.
"Kuchma promised [on 10 November] the American ambassador that there should be both democratic and transparent elections. So what he says is very fine, but if his authorities do not do anything, he is responsible," she said.
Severinsen visited Ukraine to speak with journalists and members of parliament about censorship during the election campaign. She said she will report back to her colleagues at PACE that the "temnyky" are having a considerable effect. "I will report on the meeting I had on [10 November] and about how 'temnyky' really seem to be influential in the way media, especially electronic media, now cover everything," she said. "If you look at the different TV stations, they have the same news in the same order. This is something new and, in a way, more efficient than when some of [the journalists] feared for their lives and then were courageous [enough to defy them]. But now they are uniform."
Vasyliev, the head of the presidential administration's press and information policy department, believes Sevirensen is being duped by the opposition. "They have made her -- Mrs. Sevirensen -- a 'zaruchnyk' [an instrument] in a political game," he said. "They have made her an instrument by which opposition groups try to influence the situation beyond Ukraine's frontiers by exploiting the name of the Council of Europe. Mrs. Sevirensen obviously does not, because she does not possess complete information, or by using information from only one source publicizes things that really do not correspond to the truth."
Sevirensen said the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is setting up a special commission of observers to monitor the presidential election in Ukraine, which is scheduled for October 2004. She says it will begin its work in February.