The biggest news to emerge from Sunday’s Ukrainian parliamentary elections was what didn’t happen. As Fakty i Kommentarii of Kiev noted in its front-page headline, “For the First Time Ever, Communists Did Not Win.” Center-right reformer Victor Yushchenko’s bloc fared well, securing around 116 of the Verkhovna Rada’s 450 seats, but scandal-ridden President Leonid Kuchma’s supporters captured a solid 185 seats, ensuring the preservation of the status quo. The Financial Times characterized the situation: “[A] loose grouping of centrists under Mr Kuchma are the dominant force but lack sufficient seats to consolidate power.”
In 2000, Kuchma was linked to the gruesome murder of an investigative journalist (see Anne Applebaum’s “A Ukrainian Murder Mystery” for more on the story), and last week he was implicated in a scandal described by the Financial Times as featuring “the death in a car crash of a top arms-export official and allegations that Mr Kuchma approved a $100 million shipment of arms to Iraq.” Although huge crowds protested Kuchma’s alleged involvement in the reporter’s death, he has held onto power because of what Britain’s Independent called “the power of the executive, which inherited its authority from the Soviet system.” Nevertheless, voters apparently shied away from what they perceived as Yushchenko’s risky Western-style reforms.
Kuchma and his associates want to shore up Ukraine’s ties with Russia, while Yushchenko seeks closer links with the West. Russia’s Rossiyskaya Gazeta predicted a splintering of Ukraine as a result of Sunday’s election: “Western Ukraine … will come under the influence of the right-wingers and the United States, the area to the east of the Dnieper will come ‘under Russia,’ while Crimea will come ‘under Turkey.’ ”
Several candidates and election observers criticized the conduct of the elections. The Independent reported that “government control of much of the media has ensured that pro-Kuchma candidates get far more coverage than their opponents,” that up to one-third of the polling stations were inadequately equipped or staffed, and that as many as 4 percent of registered voters had died but had not been removed from the rolls. At least two candidates were killed during the campaign. Russia’s Izvestiya declared: “Absolutely all the political tricks that have brought success for Russian politicians over the years were employed in the Ukrainian parliamentary elections. But the Ukrainians, being creative people, have perfected them and put them into ‘mass production.’ ” According to a Financial Times editorial, “The real offence against democracy in Ukraine is not the willingness of the state administration to manipulate the vote but its all-embracing influence on life. People live in fear of officialdom, whether it be the police or the tax bureau. To resist such a machine requires great courage.”
(Russian and Ukrainian translations courtesy of BBC Monitoring.)