BRAMA, Sep 29, 2004, 11:00 am ET|
The Turning Point Ukrainian Elections: Ukraine, Russia, the U.S. and West, and Diaspora
Keynote remarks by Orest Deychakiwsky, Staff Advisor, U.S. Helsinki Commission
Ukrainian American Bar Association (UABA) and Ukrainian Medical Association of North America (UMANA) - Miami, FL, Saturday, Sept. 25, 2004
Thank you for the honor of inviting me to speak to the UABA and UMANA, two of among the most respected organizations in the Ukrainian-American community. I have had the pleasure of working with some of you and others in your organizations in various capacities over the years, including when I was President of TWG, and it's good to see old friends. And UMANA was an organization I feel that I literally grew up with, as my late father, Dr. Mykola Deychakiwsky, was very active in UMANA, and for a long time served as either President or Secretary of the Ohio Chapter.
The choice is clear
A number of analysts have stated that this is the most important year since Ukraine became independent 13 years ago - specifically referring to the October 31 (and, the very likely runoff three weeks later) November presidential elections. Now you often hear that every election is important, but this one truly is -- the stakes are high.
This election will determine Ukraine's future for years to come -- not only with respect to who emerges as leader, but also because the election process itself - how the election and election campaign is being conducted - sends powerful signals as to Ukraine's commitment to democracy.
This election represents the first time since independence that a democratic opposition candidate has a chance of winning and replacing the old order - provided, of course, that the elections are free and fair. Opinion polls in Ukraine have long signaled danger to Kuchma and the oligarch clans supporting him. With Our Ukraine leader Yushchenko's popularity growing (he's currently the preference of around 40 percent of the electorate, which is very high by Ukrainian standards), next month's election looks like it could result in Kuchma supporters losing the reins over the presidency and the power and assets that go with it.
The choice between the two candidates is clear. Yushchenko's vision is that of a Ukraine founded on democratic European values, which will enable each citizen to realize their socio-economic potential in a country governed by the rule of law. On the other hand, Prime Minister Yanukovich essentially wants to maintain the status-quo of preserving the current system of a regime ruling over competing financial-industrial groups (i.e. oligarchs) and corrupt government bureaucrats implementing unpopular policies with little respect for individual liberties and basic human rights. Given the status quo, it's no accident that 80 percent of Ukrainians believe that Ukraine is heading in the wrong direction and two-thirds think elections will be falsified. Trust in state institutions is at an all-time low. The regime appears to be putting considerable efforts to ensure the election does not become a choice between democracy and oligarch capitalism.
There are many deeply troubling aspects in Ukraine's pre-election environment - one need only recall the local Mukachiv elections of last spring, which give new meaning to the term bad elections. But it goes beyond Mukachiv. It's the closing of Radio Liberty and independent TV outlets; attempts to shut down independent Ukrainian newspapers; temniki (secret instructions to media from presidential administration about what to or not to cover and how to cover it); pro-government domination of the broadcast media; it's the Volia cable media company, which broadcasts the objective, independent Channel 5 being disconnected in various regions and its managers being arrested; it's sudden tax inspections; illegal searches of opposition candidates office; disruptions or interference of Yushchenko's meetings with voters; use of state resources to assist the Yanukovich campaign; forcing workers to sign petitions of support or forcing them to join rallies for Yanukovich; orders to local administrations to intimidate people working on Yushchenko's campaign; the illegal video and taping of Yushchenko's private life by interior ministry officials, an alleged assassination attempt against Yushchenko involving a Kamaz truck (which seem to be involved in a disproportionate number of suspicious "accidents" in Ukraine), and, not least, the recent poisoning of Yushchenko. This is in addition to all sorts of other "dirty tricks" against Yushchenko, including falsely portraying him and those close to him as extremist nationalists and fascists in order to weaken him in eastern Ukraine - a cheap attempt to divide, rather than unite, Ukraine. Moreover, there are concerns about the ability of courts and electoral commissions to adjudicate and resolve election law violations, and the heavy pro-Yanukovich distribution of leadership posts on territorial and precinct election commissions. And this is by no means a complete list of problem areas. In short, the powers-that-be are working hard to stack the deck.
These election issues are part of a larger context of problems with the media, human rights and civil society in Ukraine. The Freedom House Nations in Transit publication annually surveys all 27 post-communist states. Since the evaluations began in 1997, Ukraine's scores for electoral process, independent media, governance, constitutional-legislative-judicial framework, and corruption have all dropped. This reflects a basic consensus by Western governments, media, think-tanks, as well as by objective Ukrainian entities.
Not all black and white
But Ukraine is a complex entity, and not all is black and white. The Ukrainian political system does have positive features. And everyone recognizes that countries don't overcome the stifling, brutal legacies of Soviet communist domination overnight. But what. What has been troubling about Ukraine is the backsliding, the movement in the wrong direction.
First, Ukraine has its independence. The fact of independence is an astounding historical achievement, and something many here - in one capacity or another -- our parents, grandparents, relatives, friends actively struggled for and some paid the ultimate sacrifice for. And, even with all its serious flaws, independent Ukraine is preferable to Soviet Ukraine, especially in terms of fundamental human rights and freedoms. The problem is in the quality of Ukraine's independence.
So, in the good news category, but even this good news has caveats: The economy (GDP) has been improving in the last few years - starting when Yushchenko was Prime Minsiter -- following the dramatic decline of the 1990's. This is positive and encouraging. On the other hand, you have Yanukovich and the other powers-that-be, instead of taking advantage of this upturn to implement long overdue reforms in various sector or reduce state bureaucracy, they've been very active in the last few months in reaching back-room deals. During first six months of this year, for example, more tenders have been awarded to the lowest bidder than during the entire previous decade of state privatization. I will quote from a recent Our Ukraine publication, because I think it sums up the problem accurately: "Yanukovich's tenure in office has given a clear definition to Ukraine's contemporary oligarch capitalist. Instead of maximizing privatization proceeds and budget revenues to finance essential state services and help the most needy, Yanukovich has developed a closed circle whereby state assets are given to a small group of oligarchs who enjoy significant tax privileges, returning little to the state budget for public use."
There are some bright spots in Ukraine's democracy and human rights record. Two important ones since independence have been in the area of respect for national minorities and religious liberties. This is something that the international community has recognized and went a ways in giving Ukraine a positive initial reputation in the 1990's. Unfortunately, this positive record has been seriously tainted for reasons that anyone who follows Ukraine is at least broadly familiar with: pervasive, debilitating corruption, including at the highest levels, manipulation of elections, violence against the political opposition, the murder of journalists, including the Gongadze case, which has become the poster child with what's wrong with Ukraine, and the now four-year, high-level cover-up, a cover-up that gives new meaning to the term contempt for the rule of law. Sadly, the scandals of the Kuchma Administration make Watergate look like child's play.
Importantly, and thankfully, Ukraine has some countervailing influences to the ruling regime. It does have an, active, democratically oriented political opposition and a growing civil society - something missing in most of the other former Soviet states, including Russia, where the political opposition is being emasculated thanks to Putin's growing authoritarianism. Indeed, the fact of genuine political opposition in Ukraine is one reason why the current election campaign battle is so intense. The "vlada" fears that, even with all of its cheating and machinations, Yushchenko might still win. Ukraine also has a real parliament, with a real opposition which does not always do the president's or government's bidding. Indeed, just two weeks ago, the pro-government parliamentary majority fell apart, something which may seriously impair Yanukovich's election bid. And, to its credit, the Rada passed resolutions calling for monitoring of the elections and, most recently, creating an ad-hoc committee to investigate the poisoning of Yushchenko. This, too, contrasts sharply with Russia and Belarus where their parliaments and civil society are much more constrained. (Although I hasten to add that just because Russia, or Belarus, is worse, does not mean that what's going on in Ukraine is by any means acceptable, or excusable, especially given Ukraine's oft-repeated desire to join Europe.)
The Russia factor:
Russian elites, not surprisingly, would prefer Yanukovich -and not only because Yushchenko is perceived as being a Ukrainian nationalist and is pro-Western. A substantial portion of Russian elites have never come to terms with Ukraine's independence and would like to recover great power status, hence, look askance, to put it mildly, at the eastward expansion of NATO and the EU. Moreover, Russia considers that control of the gas and oil pipelines through Ukraine is required for maintaining substantial Russian control of the shipment of gas and oil from the former Soviet Union to Western Europe. The Russian political leadership seems to believe that a Yushchenko victory would lead Ukraine to turn westward and put an end to all of Russian efforts to integrate Ukraine. But part of it also has less to do with grand politics and a lot to do with cold, hard cash, specifically the shady energy sector. Russian energy related capital has had a very close relationship with Kuchma and his assorted governments and there have been a lot of schemes in which some people have made a lot of money, which under Yushchenko would likely disappear. Many Russian businesses would prefer operating in the murky environment of the current status quo. It's not accidental that you don't hear calls for free and fair elections in Ukraine from Putin or that the controlled Russian media is biased towards Yanukovich. This is not to say that the Russians would completely trust Yanukovich, just as they don't completely trust Kuchma, or that some, especially those who value more transparent business arrangements, don't even favor Yushchenko.
The U.S. and West
Another issue is US and Western response and interest in the elections. There is serious and persistent interest - in Congress, where a resolution calling for democratic elections in Ukraine sponsored by Rep. Henry Hyde and Chairman Rep. Chris Smith and Co-Chairman Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell at the Helsinki Commission has recently passed the Senate and is about to pass the House; numerous statements from just about everyone - the Helsinki Commission, US government, Canada, European Union, OSCE Council of Europe; a whole host of prominent public figures from the United States visiting to deliver the "free and fair elections message" - former president Bush, Armitage, Brzezinski, Albright, Soros, McCain, Lugar, Holbrooke, Clark, as well as President Bush at the NATO Istanbul summit - but is even all this enough? Are they listening? Unfortunately, there are serious doubts. Would the situation be even worse if the international community remained silent?
Also, the election observer issue will be an important one. The OSCE, which takes the lead in election observation in Europe and the not-so-newly independent states plans to send some 700 people, which is one of the largest contingents ever, and there will probably be several thousand other international observers. Yet, people are legitimately asking whether that's enough. In fact, members of your organizations may want to become part of elections observation efforts - either in Ukraine, or here, at Ukrainian embassies or consulates. As important, in my view, as international observers, especially the OSCE, who are essentially the ones who put the imprimatur on the elections for the world, are domestic observers - both political party and non-partisan observers. If both international and domestic observers are out in full force and are unimpeded, it might help to reduce cheating on voting day and the vote count.
A brief observation about our own elections here and US policy towards Ukraine, recognizing that one can give several speeches on this topic alone (and recognizing that I may be threading on thin ice among some given the charged atmosphere of own forthcoming elections here). As one who worked with various Administrations on Ukrainian issues, I've reached the conclusion that given the same set of negative developments - Gongadze case, Kolchuga, corruption, attacks on media freedoms, lying to US about arms sales to Macedonia, and, very importantly, the U.S.'s understandably changing priorities in the post 9/11 world and the war on terror, a Democratic (i.e. Gore) administration would have had generally the same approach towards Ukraine as the Bush Administration. The reality is that a significant determinant in U.S. policy towards Ukraine is the behavior of the Ukrainian authorities themselves. Nevertheless, there is fundamental consensus across party lines in this country when it comes to supporting an independent, democratic, rule of law Ukraine. Both prominent Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives - a steady stream of who have been traveling to Ukraine over the last few months - have all been delivering the free and fair elections message, because there is a strong understanding of the importance of these elections to Ukraine's future. Can more be done? Certainly. At the same time, our leverage is, frankly, not unlimited. Engagement with Ukraine will continue no matter who wins the elections - ours and theirs, although the quality of that engagement will depend a lot on what happens in Ukraine and on external factors.
Role of the diaspora
The painful dilemma for the Ukrainian diaspora is that we are witnessing a leadership of an independent Ukraine that is largely in different to the fate of the Ukrainian people - although there are good people in all branches of government trying to do the right thing under difficult circumstances -- but all too many among those who run the country are what I call patriots of their "ridna kyshenya" (patriots of their native pockets). Unfortunately, Russia at times has exploited this weakness, and most assuredly will continue to do so if the status quo continues after the elections.
Sometimes you hear that the opposition is not much better than the current regime. I say nonsense! Yes, the democratic opposition isn't perfect, and even if Yushchenko wins it will take time to turn things around. However, the opposition leaders do have something profoundly lacking among many in the current ruling regime - and that is, a moral and ethical core and patriotism - and that means a hell of a lot!
As for diaspora efforts, I'm a big believer that almost everything helps - the valuable efforts of UABA and UMANA and others, efforts large, small, individual, in the legal, health, cultural, educational, youth, women's, charitable, and other fields. There are people in the diaspora - including many of you - contributing knowledge, time, energy, and, very importantly, financial resources -- because you are not indifferent!
Diaspora efforts also include supporting and joining efforts for Ukraine to become a real democracy, a key component of which is free and fair elections. Most Ukrainian Americans are not duped and recognize the realities of the current regime. After all, just think of how far ahead Ukraine would be in terms of foreign investment if you didn't have the current status quo. Or, if there were a genuinely independent judiciary - something now lacking in Ukraine by almost everyone's admission -- or police that respect the human rights of average citizens - how much better would things be for the Ukrainian people? Or imagine how far ahead Ukraine would be in the highly problematic health care field if you had rule of law, less corruption, and accountability by the authorities to the people? Let's take HIV/AIDS - a very serious problem in Ukraine, as many of you know better than I do. Or trafficking. I realize that these are multifaceted and complex issues, but I challenge anyone to tell me why you wouldn't have more progress combating these scourges under a Yushchenko Administration versus a Yanukovich one.. Imagine what can be done if the billions that were stolen by the oligarchs sitting off shore - if even a fraction of that was being used effectively by authorities who cared about their own people -- to help build Ukraine's health, legal, educational, political infrastructures? Let's not forget that 5-7 million Ukrainians have been compelled to seek work abroad in the last decade. The Ukrainian population has also shrunk by 5 million, a demographic disaster similar to that of the 1933 famine or World War II. I believe that a decade of irresponsible leadership bears at least some responsibility for this sad state of affairs.
Therefore, I'm a believer that every expression of concern matters - whether by the US government, the Helsinki Commission, OSCE, or, for that matter, the diaspora. The alternative is to remain silent, which only gives the regime the green light to act with impunity. The West continues to support democracy and human rights in Ukraine, which not surprisingly, the pwersvlada resents. But it's important to stress that Ukraine freely joined the OSCE and other European institutions, and thereby is obligated to adhere to its commitments. Nobody put a gun to their head and said do it. The regime wants respect from the international community, they want to be part of Europe, but they aren't always willing to make the choices to achieve that noble goal.
As we all know, Ukraine's independence was the predominant value, the driving force, if you will, of the Ukrainian diaspora for many decades. Hence, the understandable frustration about current Ukrainian realities. But the best way to assure Ukraine's independence and freedom for its people that so many sacrificed for, is for Ukraine to become integrated into the Euro-Atlantic community. This does not necessarily mean joining all of the institutions right away, but becoming a European country in terms of shared values - and that means respect for human rights, democracy, rule of law I am firmly convinced that when Ukraine genuinely subscribes to these values and becomes a true member of the Euro-Atlantic community of nations, she will never again have to worry about domination from any "evil empire." We can't forget that the struggle for Ukraine's independence is also the struggle to restore the human dignity of the Ukrainian people. The promotion of human rights, civil society, democratic development - including free elections -- in Ukraine is the best way to not only encourage the material and spiritual well-being of the people. It is ultimately the most genuine assurance of Ukraine's independence!
Will Ukraine achieve these goals? Obviously, an important indicator will be these elections. And it's hard to predict what will happen with confidence, because the situation is still quite fluid, and the scenarios abound. But even if they don't come out the right way, I'm an optimist and I believe Ukraine is destined to succeed, if not in the short-term, than in the long-term. My optimism is based on seeing the courage of those in Ukraine struggling for democratic change and on centuries of Ukrainian history, during which the Ukrainian people have shown their indomitable spirit, that they will always struggle for freedom and human dignity until it is at last truly achieved.