New Kremlin Headache: Democracy is Alive in Ukraine and Georgia

Posted November 3rd, 2012 at 12:09 pm (UTC+0)

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich invested millions of dollars in wooing voters with free events, like this concert Oct. 26 in central Kyiv. Voters repaid the favor by giving his Regions Party only 30 percent of the vote. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Vladimir Putin is suffering back pains and is cancelling foreign trips and his annual November press conference marathon.

He may also be suffering from a foreign policy migraine: multi-party democracy is alive and well in the most unexpected of places: Russia’s neighboring southern republics — Georgia and Ukraine.

The key to democracy is decision by the voters. Any American who told you who would win the Nov. 6 U.S. presidential vote was either lying or blindly partisan.

Back to the old USSR.

On Oct. 1, foreign reporters flew into Tbilisi, Georgia for the parliamentary elections. According to common wisdom, and the polls, the election would be won by the party of Mikhail Saakashvili, president of Georgia for the last eight years. Then, the thinking went, the Georgians would jump up and down about fraud, things would quiet down, and Saakashvili would sail on to become a super-empowered prime minister.

Wrong. Georgian voters thought otherwise.

In an unexpected turn of events, voters migrated heavily to the opposition party of Bizdina Ivanishvili. Ivanisvhili’s supporters won. Saakashvili conceded defeat. And last week, Ivanishvili became the new prime minister of Georgia.

Last week, a similar scenario played out in Ukraine.

The government of President Viktor Yanukovych held his midterm presidential elections. Going into Sunday’s vote, analysts predicted the worst, saying the government had done its best to tilt the vote in its favor. And the tilt was pronounced.

Nice to the old folks: Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich greets World War II veterans during a ceremony marking the day of Ukraine’s liberation from Nazi invaders during World War II, on the day of the parliamentary elections in Kiev. Photo: Reuters

According to OPORA, an election watchdog group, 41 opposition candidates were physically attacked or harassed by government officials. The most prominent opposition leader, Yulia Tymoshenko, was in jail, held largely incommunicado. In the three months prior to the election, the TVi, the nation’s only independent TV channel, was dropped from cable packages offered to six million Ukrainians.

On the spending side, the government pumped so much money into social spending that the budget deficit tripled during the first nine month of this year. In addition, the government postponed two unpopular moves: allowing the national currency, the hryvnia, to devalue and household gas prices to rise.

And then there was the sneakiness – confusing voters with clone parties.
At one polling station I visited, there were three Green Parties. Two of them featured photos of candidates who looked like they’d been recruited from the middle management of the post office – solemn middle aged men in coats and ties. The third, presumably the real Green party, had women and younger men in edgy haircuts.

Around the nation, OPORA counted 45 cases of “twins” – or clone candidates.

Not nice to the old folks: dozens of “clone” candidates and parties were registered to confuse voters. Here a young man helps an elderly woman read her voting ballot at a polling station in Kyiv during the Oct. 28 parliamentary elections. Photo: AP

My VOA Ukrainian Service colleague, Oksana Lihostova, a savvy political observer, writes me that she intended to vote for an opposition candidate, Teriokhin, Sergii. But, on filling out the ballot, she marked the space for Teriokhin, Andrii, a pro-government candidate. His name came first – A before S.

She emails me: “And when I was leaving the station, I saw on the wall a picture of another Teriokhin. Only then did I realize that I had been deceived.”

These kinds of election dirty tricks put a bad taste in people’s mouths. They prompted Brussels and Washington to give the election poor grades. On Monday, the State Department called the election “a step backward.” The European observer mission said: “Democratic progress appears to have reversed in the Ukraine.”

But, as foreign observers packed their bags, Ukrainian poll watchers and vote counters in contested races were, in some cases, wrestling over control of boxes with ballots, in other cases, sleeping with their arms around them.

One week after the election, the dust has largely settled. Vote counting in several districts has been so disputed that re-balloting may be needed.

Riot police separate opposition and pro-government activists outside an election precinct in Kiev where the opposition alleged election fraud in parliamentary election. One official candidate, facing major corruption charges, is battling particularly hard to retain his seat — and his parliamentary immunity. Photo: AP

But, OPORA, the most respected election watchdog group, declared that the final results for the five big parties only varied from their own parallel vote counts by maximums of 1 percent point.

For all the money spent, President Yanukovych’s Party of Regions won only 30 percent of the vote. His parliamentary delegation will be 186 — nine seats smaller than going into the election. His allies, the Communists, increased their delegation to 32. Huffy about coming in fourth out of five, the Communists now are threatening to not work with the president.

The three opposition parties won a total of 50 percent of votes cast.

Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland Party reversed its slide, adding six new seats for a total of 104. President Yanukovych’s ham-handed handling of the opposition leader can be thanked for her political resurrection.

Voters wiped out the party of Viktor Yushchenko, the former president who has been seen as soft on his successor.

In its place, there are two new totally new opposition parties, Svoboda, or Freedom, and UDAR, the pro-European party lead by Vitaly Klitschko, the heavyweight boxer.

On one side, President Yanukovych’s party controls 41 percent of parliamentary seats.

On the other side, the opposition will control 40 percent. President Yanukovych will only fashion a working majority by luring back the communists and a large number of independents.

Gone are his October dreams of a two-thirds majority that would allow him to change the constitution. To get legislation passed, he will have to create situational majorities. And, with the next presidential election two years away, the interest of independents in helping an unpopular president will not last long.

And this brings us back to the policy headaches for President Putin.

On the domestic front, Putin has been trying to persuade Russians that they are better off under his personalist rule – “vertical power” dressed up with democratic window dressings. But, Georgians and Ukrainians, his former Soviet brethren, seem to prefer real, multi-party democracies.

On the foreign policy front, Russia’s President has spent two years alternately cajoling and threatening Yanukovych, trying to lure Ukraine into a Moscow-dominated Customs Union – sort of a Soviet Union lite.

Now, it is clear that a majority of Ukrainian voters do not want that. The three opposition parties that collectively received half of the vote are all pro-Western and all favor a free trade treaty with the European Union.

In Ukraine, the sour grapes mood is so strong in Yanukovych circles that government supporters demonstrated outside the Russian Embassy on Thursday. They charged that Ukraine’s opposition candidates were subsidized by Alexander Lebedev, a Russian oligarch opposed to Putin. In response, Lebedev, an investor in Ukraine, wrote in letter of complaint to President Yanukovych: “The masterminds behind this show clearly wanted to question the parliamentary elections results.”

Maybe, instead of looking for wild, convoluted conspiracy theories, it might be best to go back to a basic rule of democracy: listen to the voters.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

7 responses to “New Kremlin Headache: Democracy is Alive in Ukraine and Georgia”

  1. JSwon says:

    Oh, the wonders of electoral reporting. Candidate-doubles mimicking the persons from the ruling coalition, enormous FUD campaigns against Yanukovich and the state of the opposition, in one half nationalist and anti-Semitic and in other half populist and praising Soviet-era taxes and pension system, were humbly omitted. The ‘incommunicado’ Yulia Timoshenko had her daily circus on major TV channels through the last 3 years (during some months her overall timing in media was larger than acting cabinet combined), and her ousting from Ukrainian politics was probably the bigger strike for Putin — she gave him all but the total control over the Ukrainian economy by signing the suicidal gas deal in her term.

  2. Mikheil says:

    This article is preposterous.

    How is voter fraud in the US doing, anyone? Electronic voting machines?

    James, get a mirror. Or if your stuff is too heavily edited to please your apparatus, get another job.

  3. Independent Ukrainian says:

    Although this article omits some national issues, I would say that in overall this article is quite fair and acceptably written by a well-informed journalist. Obviously, other points of view are possible as democracy in Ukraine (and the whole world) is.

  4. Nikola says:

    Why is anti democracy some how associated with Russia and meanwhile the “European Commission” in Brussels are not even elected by anybody. The party that is pro Russian came out on top in the elections and the people have spoken.

    The reality is Ukraine and Russia are just way too similar not to join forces. Not in one country, but through the Eurasian Union. The Eurasian Union which will include also Belarus & Kazakhstan (as well as countries in the Balkans later on) will have more natural resources than it could ever use and will collectively create an attractive common market, much more attractive than the European Union.

    The United States media need to get over the association of the Soviet Union with Russia. The Russian people suffered more from Communism than perhaps any other Slavic nation. Today Russia is modernizing itself and since Vladimir Putin came to power, Russia’s economy and rate of private investments rapidly increased.

    Why the U.S. has this phobia of the Russian people, no one will ever no. It is this same phobia that served as a pretense for the USA backstabbing historical ally Serbia on the grounds that it would be used as a Russian satellite in the Balkans. Russia is far from the backwards system of Communism but Russia will always believe it can have enough leverage in world to have a pole of influence.

    Chances are, Russia has seen the European Union’s many mistakes, and therefore will avoid those upon the formation of the Eurasian Union in 2014.

    • RDrake says:

      Nikola, you say here:

      “The reality is Ukraine and Russia are just way too similar not to join forces.”

      Sure this is true in the east of Ukraine, and most of Krim. It is not at all true of the west of Ukraine. They have more in common with the Poles and the EU, and this includes Kiev.

      I have a question though, if you really want to end the phobia of the Soviet Union in the West, where exactly is it that you can point to in a Russian partnership or a tendency in the Russian cultural character, that the partner is not dominated? Certainly the retaliation where the power grids were sabotaged by Russian government hackers in various Baltic states would be some evidence of the intolerance of the independent pricing of gaz… and examples of this sort of thing are everywhere. And, God forbid (literally, in the case of Pussy Riot) that someone embarrasses Putin. It is actually weakness for him to drain out all cultural vestiges of “glasnost”, though again, the character of the traditional culture does not tolerate a weakness of his public image. This posture goes far back into Russia’s past.

      I actually like that Putin has kept the oligarchs out of the politic there, though the civil liberty price keeps getting higher and higher…. and more reactionary. Medvedev has less ego invested in this kind of devolution to a pre independence state of isolation.

      As far as the Eurasian Union, being a correspondent nation ‘with’ Russia, and not “being Russia” is a narrow balance to tread indeed. Russia cannot control or bully the European Union, and cannot reconcile that they are simply another nation in that mix, if they want to be. Any Ukrainian potential EU membership and modernization are threatening to Russia (self admitted) in that there is implicitly a greater value placed on self rule, civil liberties, freedom from corruption, and dissent. And the EU is not the one that created this tension… it is the very Russian influence (and expectation of conformity) that you say is not a problem anymore. There are still a lot of old communists out there voting for the Party of Regions… because corruption is all the stability that they know. Just as you must know that Russia will likely provide stability in the manipulation of the common market that it will create, same as the markets for gaz.


  5. RDrake says:

    This is a political article with western values imposed on a culture that does not reference itself to western standards (as much as the VOA would like to claim this). I have friends in Ukraine that I do not want to lose contact with, either by Yanukovich sitting heavily on the creative youth of Ukraine or by cold war style American agitation antagonizing the East by trying to insult their efforts to deal with the aforenamed unperceived culture. To give the perspective of the article some credit, the vote rigging is real, and the party’s platforms are not as important as the statement about conditions that they represent. Yanukovich, although corrrupt, in 2010 was the elector’s answer to the instability of an incoherent opposition in dissarray, and their inability to create an economic agenda absent the same traditional corruption.

    Catch words like anti-semitism do not do justice to the situation they describe for Swoboda. The Uman riots and pilgrimmages are not simple ethnic or racial issues. Nationalist movements, like those of Israel, are, like the indigenous Ukrainian language, a form of cultural survival. The jailing of Timoschenko is grotesque and outrageous, though the massive draining of State resources by politicians is a huge problem in Ukraine. Thus there is no critique of that includes that the POR simply combined a popular principle of justice with the sequestration of their main critic. This was a very efficient misdirection, which widely applied, are actually healthy, and would heal enormous gashes in an independent Ukraine’s prospects.

    Someone too, should realise, both in the east and in the west, that the various competing economic systems, some bad and some worse, are only the best advocates for their own accumulation, be it oligarchy, socialism, or capitalism. Without laws and constitutions that are transparent and guaranteed to be free of corruption, and without civil liberties and freedoms that are supported and enforced, and without a completely free press and right of dissent, any economically driven governmental systems will consume and control in ever increasing amounts.

    Any deviation from this agenda of law, transparency, and open and truthful discusson by the Voice of America, does a disservice to both theirs and the other cultures… because this aspect of truth and justice is the only virtuous alternative they offer.



James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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