Daily Telegraph: Ukrainian campaign tainted by violence
October 28, 2004.
The "Daily Telegraph" is reporting today on the course of election campaign in Ukraine:
Corrupt leadership of former Soviet republic is resorting to dirty tricks to try to retain power in this weekend's elections. Julius Strauss reports from Kiev.
The opposition leader's face was badly disfigured, allegedly by poison. Undercover police dressed as thugs stabbed demonstrators at an anti-government protest.
Around Kiev the SBU, successor to the KGB, has been hauling off student activists and democracy campaigners. There has been a series of mysterious explosions. This is the election campaign in Ukraine - an election described as the most important in the former Soviet republic since it became independent more than a decade ago.
The result will leave Ukraine - a country of 48 million people once known as the bread-basket of the Soviet Union - firmly in either the western or Russian orbit for many years to come. It may also prove decisive in whether President Vladimir Putin can recreate a rump Soviet Union based on a common economic zone between Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine.
The campaign has been marred by beatings, arrests and attacks, apparently orchestrated by the ruling regime. With the polls giving the opposition a slight lead there is even speculation that the regime may cancel or steal the election if it does not produce the right result.
In recent years, government figures have been accused of involvement in numerous scandals, including the murder of a journalist, which, if investigated, could mean some of them not only lose power but end up in prison. The difference between the two leading candidates and their platforms could hardly be starker.
Viktor Yushchenko, leader of the opposition Our Ukraine coalition, who now wears heavy make-up to conceal his disfigured face, is offering closer ties to the West and a path towards eventual membership of Nato and the European Union.
Viktor Yanukovich, the chosen successor of Leonid Kuchma, the outgoing president, has promised to make Russian an official language, allow Ukrainians dual citizenship and move politically closer to Moscow.
Mr Yanukovich's staff have been forced to admit that he served two prison sentences for violent crime. In the West, such a disclosure might be expected to finish a politician but in the former Soviet Union the charges have less resonance.
"It's true he was a bit of a hooligan but that was a long time ago," said Lyudmila Bugayenko, 56, as she gave out leaflets in Kiev. "Anyway, he pays the pensions on time."
The Kremlin, which recently endorsed the victory of the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko despite widespread evidence of vote-rigging, has plumped for the less democratic, more pro-Russian option.
Mr Putin was expected in Ukraine yesterday for a parade marking the anniversary of the defeat of the Germans in the Second World War - the event has been brought forward a week as it is expected to boost the regime's chances - and will speak live on Ukrainian television.
Some voters want Ukraine to move closer to Moscow. Alexei, 23, who operates a weighing machine in Kiev, said: "Russia is close to us. We have a common history. We're part of their world."
But many more have had enough of the pro-Moscow faction after a decade of corruption and scandal. Sasha, 31, a bartender, said: "This election is a choice between a moral and a criminal future. It's not just about the EU and Nato - it's about us."
Last weekend, up to 100,000 demonstrators protested in Kiev against electoral abuses by the authorities. But, far from backing down, the regime has only stepped up its attacks. Pora, a student-based organisation calling for honest elections, has been a special target.
Yevhen Zolotarion, a Pora activist, said: "We've had more than 400 members arrested. In the last fortnight 16 of our activists have been beaten by police. The authorities fear us because they fear fair elections."
In a small basement flat last week one of Pora's affiliates was being raided by the SBU when I arrived. "This is an official search, you can't come in," an agent said as two policemen watched silently.
Nearby, Yurko Pavenko, an Our Ukraine MP, was making an official complaint, though little was likely to come of it. He said: "If Yanukovich wins we will live in a country where there are no civil rights and everything is controlled by oligarchs and mafiosi."
Source: IMI - www.imi.org.ua/