Truthout — Where Democracy Refuses to Die

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Where Democracy Refuses to Die
By David Talbot
Monday 29 November 2004
The media was pro-government. In much of the country, the election machinery was controlled by the ruling party. Voter fraud was rampant. But the people of Ukraine will not surrender.
Progressive American voters, still downcast over the results of the presidential election – as well as an election system gravely impaired by the antiquated Electoral College, fraud-inviting electronic machines, and rampant political abuses – can take vicarious pleasure these days from Ukrainian democracy. Throughout the presidential campaign in the former Soviet republic, opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko struggled against a government-controlled media and election machinery that heavily favored his opponent, Viktor Yanukovych, the handpicked successor to the country’s corrupt and thuggish president, Leonid Kuchma. But when Yushchenko was denied victory in the Nov. 21 election, after widespread fraud, the opposition leader and his supporters did not fade away – they took to the streets and refused to accept the official version of the election.
With the Ukrainian Supreme Court still deliberating the opposition’s election challenge – and the democratic revolution in full flower on the wintry streets of Kiev – Salon spoke with Olena Prytula, editor in chief of Ukrayinska Pravda (Ukrainian Truth), the courageous Web site that has been responsible for some of the country’s only aggressive, independent coverage of the Kuchma regime. Prytula’s partner, Georgi Gongadze, was kidnapped, murdered and beheaded four years ago – an execution that a former bodyguard of Kuchma later charged was personally ordered by the president. In the past few weeks, Prytula and her small staff have thrown themselves into covering the dramatic election and aftermath, with traffic to her site ballooning to five times the normal flow. Prytula spoke by phone from Kiev, after another long, exhausting day, about the democratic uprising that contains “some small part of my work and my soul.”
Are you hopeful that the Supreme Court will rule in favor of the opposition?
It could take several days for the decision. I hope that the opposition has enough documents to prove the election was stolen.
Even Kuchma said on Monday he favors new elections.
Yes, but this is not good. To make a new election is very difficult. The opposition will have to raise new money, run new campaigns, it’s very expensive. And everybody is tired of elections already. So I’m not sure it’s the best choice for Ukraine. If Kuchma wants a new election, it probably means he hopes to find another candidate who will be stronger than his last one, Yanukovych. Nobody trusts Kuchma – so I don’t trust him when he says he wants new elections. It means he has something up his sleeve.
Is he thinking of running himself?
No, he said today that he will not enter the race.
So Yushchenko is not pushing for a new election – he wants the Supreme Court to rule that he was the real winner of the last election?
Yes, that’s true. The opposition is hoping that the Supreme Court will find that the vote in several regions was fraudulent. Most of the regions were in the east and central Ukraine, where Yanukovych is strong. His people control the government in these regions and control the vote count. You know, as Stalin said, it doesn’t matter who votes, it’s who counts. So we have the same situation – the Yanukovych people did the counting.
But the local media in these regions have a lot of video documentation that these elections were not fair and transparent. So the truth is getting out.
Do you believe the Supreme Court will rule in the opposition’s favor or the government’s?
We don’t know.
Is it similar to the U.S. election in 2000, when it was all but certain how the Supreme Court in Washington would rule, because it was stacked with Republican appointees?
Well, it’s true that our Supreme Court justices feel very strong pressure from the Kuchma government right now. But on the other hand these justices see the thousands of people on the streets and they don’t want to be enemies of these people. So I believe in the end, they will behave properly and make a just decision.
There’s discussion that Ukraine may split in two, with the eastern region, which is more closely linked to Russia, breaking away if Yushchenko becomes president? Do you think this is a real possibility?
Yes, I do. Ever since Ukraine became independent, no one even thought about that. But it’s only now, when Russian advisors who work for Yanukovych are pushing him on this, that this question arises. Because of his Russian advisors. Throughout the campaign, these advisors positioned him so that Yanukovych was supposed to represent the east, and Yushchenko the west. Actually, the election results showed that Yushchenko has support in the center of the country and partly even in the eastern regions.
The other problem is that people who live in eastern Ukraine did not get any reliable news and information during the campaign about Yushchenko and his program. Actually this was true of people throughout the country. They were bombarded with slanted media coverage and negative campaign ads that said Yushchenko was very nationalistic, that he wanted to split Ukraine and so on. And then you must realize that the governors in the eastern region know that if Yushchenko becomes president, they will lose their jobs. So they are fighting for their political survival. That’s why they are pushing for secession. And Yanukovych is too.
Do you think Putin is supporting the idea of secession?
Yes, he’s very pro-Yanukovych; he even campaigned for him and said publicly he wished for him to win. The whole idea of Yanukovych as a successor to Kuchma is very important to Putin – because he himself was a successor, and he wants to hand his own government to a successor. If voters in neighboring Ukraine frustrate their government’s succession plan, it sets a bad precedent for Putin in Russia.
What’s the mood on the streets of Kiev?
The orange people, as the opposition people call themselves, are very happy. Orange is Yushchenko’s campaign color. Yanukovych’s colors are blue and white, so we call them the blue and white people. But the orange people are all smiling and singing. And when people from eastern Ukraine come to the center of Kiev, which is where the demonstrations are based, they give them tea and coffee and food. The orange people are dancing and singing our national anthem – it’s suddenly become our most popular song! (Laughs) Can you imagine?
So the winter cold is not dampening protesters’ spirits?
Well, yes, it’s very cold. It was minus 10 Celsius the other night. It’s always snowing and sometimes there’s a bitter wind. But people are very strong. I walk home from my office at 2 o’clock in the morning, and I walk through the tent city where the orange people are camped out. And people inside are dancing – and they’re not drinking or drunk. Most of them are young people. And during the day, a lot of people who live and work in Kiev drop by and give them food and offer their support. Every evening opposition leaders hold meetings, and there are hundreds of thousands of people in the streets. There are music groups. And they have even written new songs about the current situation, the revolution that is taking place. There’s one popular song called “Yushchenko, Yes!”
I’m very proud right now of the Ukrainian people. It’s like all the people are brothers. The other day I saw people from government offices, standing near their doors. And then two babushka walked by and stopped and said, “Are you OK, are you tired, are you cold? You can come to the tent city and have some tea.” So people are just so happy with each other. They realize they can change something, they realize they are a nation – for the first time since independence from the Soviet Union.
And people are even reaching out to the elite troops that are guarding the presidential administration buildings. Girls are laughing with them, they are dancing in front of them, they are trying to make them smile. Can you imagine!
So the people of Ukraine are reveling in their democratic strength for the first time since independence?
Yes, this is true. And this is why I am so proud. And I also realize that there is some small part of my work [as an independent journalist] and my soul in this revolution. That’s why I am so happy.
Do you think of Georgi these days?
Yes, I do. And so do the people in the streets. There’s a street in the center of Kiev called Bankova Street, which is where the presidential administration is located. And the people from the tents have begun calling it Gongadze Street. They know that once Kuchma is gone, it will be officially renamed Gongadze Street. Yesterday was the fourth anniversary of the day that a socialist leader released those tapes and everybody knew that Kuchma was involved in Georgi’s death. [Kuchma has denied the validity of the audiotapes, on which he is purportedly heard ordering his security agents to eliminate the troublesome journalist.] It was the 28th of November, 2000.
Is Yushchenko in any danger right now?
Yes, everybody’s in danger. But I believe everything will be OK.
Do they use the fact that he’s married to an American woman against him?
Of course! All the time. “How can you be Ukrainian when your wife and children are American?” That’s what they say.
Do you think there will be violence?
I hope not. But right now we can see that Yushchenko and Kuchma are talking in different languages. So they can’t hear each other. Yushchenko is very democratic, very polite, he doesn’t want to split Ukraine. But Kuchma has come out today in support of the deputies in the east who favor secession. The situation is still very much up in the air.
Is there any concern about Yushchenko’s health? His face still shows signs of the mysterious poisoning he suffered earlier in the campaign (which the opposition leader charged was the work of government agents). Is he holding up all right?
I don’t know, but he is working very hard every day. You can see him in the snow and the cold. I have not heard anything bad about his health from his supporters. But Yanukovych supporters like to play up the health question. They tell people that he will die in a few years, so who will be our president then. But he’s looking very strong.
Go to Original
Democracy Inaction
By James K. Galbraith
Tuesday 30 November 2004
If U.S. officials who are complaining about election fraud in Ukraine applied the same standards in Ohio, then our own presidential election certainly was stolen.
The election was stolen. That’s not in doubt. Secretary of State Colin Powell admitted it. The National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute both admitted it. Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana – a Republican – was emphatic; there had been “a concerted and forceful program of Election Day fraud and abuse”; he “had heard” of employers telling their workers how to vote; yet he had also seen the fire of the resisting young, “not prepared to be intimidated.”
In Washington, former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski demanded that the results be set aside and a new vote taken, under the eye – no less – of the United Nations. In the New York Times, Steven Lee Myers decried “the use of government resources on behalf of loyal candidates and the state’s control over the media” – practices, he said, that were akin to those in “Putin’s Russia.”
Personally, I don’t know whether the Ukrainian election was really stolen. I don’t trust Lugar, Powell or the National Democratic Institute. It’s obvious that U.S. foreign policy interests, rather than love of democracy for its own sake, are behind this outcry. Russia backed the other candidate in Ukraine. For Brzezinski, doing damage to Russia is a hobby.
But if the Ukraine standard were applied in Ohio – as it should be – then the late lamented U.S. election certainly was stolen. In Ohio, the secretary of state in charge of the elections process was co-chairman of the Bush campaign in the state. He obstructed the vote count systematically – for instance, by demanding that provisional ballots without birth dates on their envelopes be thrown out, even though there is no requirement for that in state law. He also required that provisional ballots be cast in a voter’s home precinct, ensuring that there would be no escape from long lines. Republicans fielded thousands of election challengers to Democratic precincts, mainly to try to intimidate black voters and to slow down the voting process. A recount, demanded and paid for by the Green and Libertarian parties, has been stalled in court, so that it won’t possibly upset the certification of Ohio’s electoral votes.
In Franklin County, Ohio, there was rampant abuse, with voting machines added in Republican precincts and taken away in Democratic ones, as documented by the Columbus Dispatch. The result was a crippling pileup at the polls; many thousands did not vote because they simply could not afford to wait. I witnessed this with my own eyes. And Sen. Lugar could have, too, for much less than the price of airfare to Kiev.
According to an article by Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman: “The man running the show in Franklin County was Board of Elections Director Matt Damschroder, former head of the county’s Republican Party … Damschroder’s official records also show that while desperate poll workers called his office throughout the day, at least 125 machines were held back at the opening of the polls and an additional 68 were never deployed. Thus while thousands of inner city voters stood in the rain, were told their cars would be towed, and were then forced to vote in five minutes or less, Damschroder sat on machines that could have significantly sped the process.”
These are the established facts. Eyewitness reports of other forms of abuse include malfunctioning voting machines in Youngstown, a mysterious lockdown of the vote count in Warren County and lesser incidents that run into the thousands. And then there are allegations of irregularities in the count – how solid these are, one does not know. Taken together, are these enough to change the outcome? No one can say. But the same is true in Kiev. And there, allegations by the defeated opposition are taken in good faith, and are quite enough to satisfy international observers and the government of the United States.
So where is the press? Why aren’t there more stories on Ohio? Why is there no national pressure for a prompt statewide recount? Why no continuing outcry? Why no demand – as our friends are making with strong American support in Ukraine – that the election results in Ohio be set aside and a new vote held? Why has our election, with all its thuggery, been forgotten just three weeks after it occurred?
One reason, of course, is that the U.S. government gives direction in these matters, here at home as well as around the world. And our press, like that in “Putin’s Russia,” follows suit. Our political leaders, if one could call them that, stay silent and move on. They are terrified of being mocked and bullied by the press.
Another reason is that in Ohio, pissed-off voters are well behaved. They are working the hearings process, the recount process and the unhearing, unseeing courts. In Kiev, by contrast, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators are on the streets, staying there overnight in the bitter cold, bringing the government to a halt and the world to attention.
We’ll get our democracy back, one of these days, when the Democratic Party has a mass base and is prepared to use it in the same way.
James K. Galbraith is Salon.com’s economics correspondent. He teaches at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.
Go to Original
Russian Roulette
By Uwe Klussmann
Tuesday 30 November 2004
Russian President Vladimir Putin has positioned himself clearly on the side of Prime Minister Yanukovich in Ukraine elections – a risky maneuver that pits him directly against the democracy movement. But like so many other moves Putin has made in the region, this too is proving to be the wrong one.
After the Ukranian election, Russian President Vladimir Putin was one of the first world leaders to demonstratively congratulate Ukrainian prime minister and presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovich. At the Russia-European Union summit in the Netherlands last week, Putin expressed his solidarity with the disputed politician. “The Ukrainian people have cast their vote,” Putin said, “a vote in favor of stability, strengthening stateliness and further democratic and economic development.” No one, he said, has a “moral right” to “incite mass disturbances in a major European state.” Whoever has issues with the elections in Ukraine, Putin, a trained lawyer, said, can turn to the courts where the problem will be solved “within the existing constitution and laws.”
Such bureaucratic language and vestiges of the real socialist legacy, and the conjuring up of “stability” and “stateliness,” say more about the state of the Kremlin than they do about Ukraine. And after this statement, which can’t be dismissed as rash or thoughtless, it ought to be more difficult for German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to present Putin to a doubting public as a misjudged “unblemished democrat” in liberal colors.
In Putin’s foreign policy, like that in the United States, geopolitical interests rank higher than fundamental political values. But in that sense, regardless how the power struggle ends, Putin failed to achieve his goal of aligning Ukraine closer with Moscow through Victor Yanukovich’s election. Even if Yanukovich succeeds in establishing himself as president of the current Ukraine, in the face of very strong opposition, he’ll have no other choice than to visibly distance himself from Moscow. And it is hardly conceivable that Ukriane will fit in to the “common economic area” the Kremlin strategists are dreaming of for Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
A Streak of Bad Luck
Recently, Putin has had little luck in his efforts to turn Russia’s neighbors into tight friends and partners. Last year, he backed Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze as he aligned himself with the neo-feudal leader of the autonomous Ajaria Province, then-President Aslan Abashidze, to counter his growing opposition. Within just a few weeks, Shevardnadze fell from power as a result of mass protests that were subsidized, among others, by American organizations. And when the young and dynamic pro-West Mikhail Saakashvili got elected on the wave of the “Rose Revolution” in January, Moscow continued to side with the Abashidze. But his efforts to resist the Georgian central power with an authoritarian regime under the guise of “stability” failed at the beginning of May through another “Rose Revolution” on a Black Sea beach that forced Abashidze, like Shevardnadze, to step down.
The toppled Abashidze was disposed of by Gentleman’s Agreement and flown to Moscow. Moscow secret service agents then persuaded Putin he should build up Ex-KGB man Raul Khadzhimba as a presidential candidate for elections in Abkhazia, another Georgian break-away region that borders Russia. Putin even went so far as to risk a diplomatic uproar with Georgia by demonstratively meeting with Khadzhimba, then prime minister of the Republic of Abkhazia, a “country” that wasn’t even recognized by the international community. But Moscow emissaries went to Russia-friendly Abkhazia and rode roughshod over the locals – a move that would later backfire.
The Muscovites pushed the Abkhazis to vote for Khadzhimba. And if Moscow’s desires weren’t listened to, it threatened to close the borders and cease pension payments to countless Russian citizens living in the small Black Sea region. But on Oct. 3, the Abkhazis didn’t vote for Khadzhimba. Instead, they cast their ballots for Sergej Bagapsch, a politician friendly with Russia but not managed by the Kremlin.
The Kremlin’s homemade disaster in Abkhazia was the overture to the election adventure in Kiev. There, too, Kremlin-aligned “Polit-technocrats” under the leadership of Gleb Pavlovsky, a political analyst from Odessa, made use of their special talent for turning Russia’s friends against the Kremlin. The high point of Moscow’s PR activities was a military parade, in historical uniforms, with Putin, Yanukovich and President Leonid Kuchma in Kiev’s Independence Square on the anniversary of the liberation of the German occupation. But what was intended to be a gesture of old solidarity came across to young Ukranian observers as a mockery. Putin, with his heart for nostalgia, wanted to tend the flames of the Soviet empire without dirtying his suit with ashes.
Washington Plays Its Deck
Without the 47 million Ukrainians, whose economic potential runs the gamut from coal mines to defense companies, Putin would just be the head of a regional power, and would have to sweat with angst every time the White House called. Indeed, that’s one reason former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright lined up behind Yushchenko so early. Currently, she runs the US Democratic Party-aligned National Democratic Institute, a foundation active around the world. The foundation’s Kiev office also provided training and consulting for Yushchenko’s campaign.
In his campaign headquarters, Yushchenko hangs a photo of himself next to Albright in which he wears an expression much like a grateful grandchild sitting next to a generous grandmother. The International Republican Institute of the US Republican Party and the organization Freedom House, led by former CIA chief James Woolsey, also schooled organizers before the mass protests broke out. Additionally, Yushchenko’s wife, Katherine, worked for the US State Department. Putin knew all of this – he has nearly daily contact with the head of Russia’s SVR foreign intelligence service, Sergei Lebedev.
Moscows hurdles didn’t stop there. Take, for example, the fact that Poland’s Lech Walesa flew to Kiev to be a neutral mediator in the election crisis. That must have come as a shock to the Russians – after all, it’s a lot like showing up at a restaurant and being greeted by a bouncer rather than the waiter. Members of the Polish right and nationalists would love nothing better than turmoil in the neighboring country in the hope they could retrieve the West Ukranian area near L’viv, which Poland annexed after World War I, back into a “Larger Poland.” The Russian consulate in the West Ukrainian city of L’viv these days is besieged by thugs by day and sullied with slogans against “Jews and Muskovites.”
Meanwhile, the Russians – in Russia itself as well as in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea – can hardly be thrilled about the attempted revolution in Kiev. The Russian-speaking regions in the South and East of present-day Ukraine were artificially created by the Soviet state. And in recent days, tens of thousands of Russian-speaking people have demonstrated against being used politically to turn against Russia. In Crimea, and not just the Russian city of Sebastapol, attempts at forced “Ukrainification” have been resisted for years. And on the northern coast of the Black Sea and in Eastern Ukraine, there are already discussions under way about the creation of an autonomous area to oppose the central power in Kiev.
The meltdown happening in Kiev isn’t just that of a corrupt, government apparatus suspected of fraud, but also a state whose borders are no longer viable. In the growing chaos, Russian leaders could soon be faced with more questions than those posed by those in Kiev yearning to distance Ukraine from Moscow. Meanwhile, the desire of millions of Russian-speaking people currently living in Ukrainian territory to practice their culture and traditions accordingly autonomously and not under the control of a central government in Kiev continues to grow.