Ukraine’s parliamentary election on Sunday aroused international interest because of the fear that the country, having revolted against undemocratic elections in 2004, was in danger of lapsing into bad old ways. A variety of international organizations sent a total of 2,000 observers, with Canada’s contribution at 600.
Our election observer mission began its work July 12 under the auspices of the Canada Ukraine Council; it came under the jurisdiction of the Ukrainian World Congress on Sept. 17. We fielded between three and five long-term observers to analyze the campaign. Then we brought in 200 short-term observers for the election itself.
We have found that the parliamentary vote did not meet international standards for democratic elections. The long and dirty campaign was characterized by: the imprisonment of two opposition leaders; a decline in media freedom; non-transparent and uncontrolled election expenditures, including the use of government finances; doubts about the independence and impartiality of the Central Election Commission; and a growing number of incidents, often involving the authorities, of harassment, intimidation and, in some cases, violence, principally against the opposition.
On voting day, our observers reported several serious violations, such as duplicate ballot boxes, as well as a great surplus of ballots at some polling stations, and a shortage at others. In past elections, surplus ballots have been used for fraudulent purposes.
As I write, the final tabulation of votes has not been completed. The danger is that the election may allow President Viktor Yanukovych to continue pursuing increasingly repressive policies. It’s difficult to see how he can otherwise achieve his apparent goal of making his family an increasingly dominant economic force in Ukraine. As it is, the direction of Mr. Yanukovych’s policy is arousing increasing resentment and opposition, not only in the general population but also among the President’s apparent allies, including in the Party of Regions.
The question is, when we consider the outcome of the election, what lessons should we draw for Canadian policy toward Ukraine?
We must avoid the tendency to give up on Ukraine. It’s important that Canada should continue to be involved in supporting Ukrainian independence, in promoting democratic and economic reforms where possible, and in strengthening the civil society. Until now, our policy has been buttressed by the often unspoken assumption that it would lead by easy stages to Ukraine’s becoming a stable democratic country with a prosperous market economy. In making this assumption, we may have underestimated the difficulties created for Ukraine by its difficult history.
Unlike the countries in eastern Central Europe that became independent at the same time, Ukraine had, at the moment of independence, been only obliquely affected by the evolution of Western culture over the previous 400 years from authoritarianism to pluralism. Ukraine had also little tradition of what is the backbone of democracy: the separation of powers. The country also had had no previous experience as an independent state or, since the First World War, as a market economy. It had few of the government structures needed to run a state.
There are very few European countries that have smoothly made the transition from dictatorship to democracy. Most that made the journey before the advent of the European Union have fallen back at least once. Ukraine has not had the benefit of an offer of EU membership, an offer that has eased the way to democracy for so many other counties in eastern Central Europe and the Balkans.
An independent Ukraine free from Russian domination remains important for both stability in Europe and the possibility of eventually reaching an understanding with Russia. The relationship between Russia and Ukraine is likely to remain difficult for the foreseeable future. Relations between successor states often remain unsettled for a long time. Furthermore, the Russian imperial tradition conceives of Ukraine as being a part of Russia. Moscow is seeking to persuade Ukraine to join its Eurasian Customs Union, now including Belarus and Kazakhstan, and its Collective Security Treaty Organization. These structures would give Russia strong voice over the economies, finances and defence of the other members, and accord Russia the right to intervene militarily to keep the other states in line.
Should Russia succeed in re-establishing its hegemony over Ukraine, it could prolong the instability of the area, prevent the spread of democracy, divide Europe and, by offending our consciences, make it difficult for the West to achieve reconciliation with Russia.
In view of these factors, the West, including Canada, should be prepared for a long-term engagement in the area, especially in Ukraine, if it wishes to contribute to stability in Eastern Europe, and to overcome the division of the continent.
Derek Fraser, a former Canadian ambassador to Ukraine (1998-2001), is the principal electoral observer for the Ukrainian World Congress.