International Papers

Ukrainian Heat

After a disputed election, voters take to the streets—and the country faces a meltdown.

Yushchenko supporters rally in Lviv

The international press continues to observe the descent into chaos that has followed the Ukrainian election, with coverage split between assessments of possible outcomes in the former Soviet republic and the global implications of those outcomes. International observers say the presidential election, which pitted Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich against opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko, was rife with voting and counting irregularities that tipped the results in Yanukovich’s favor and Yushchenko claims to have been the target of a poisoning attempt by his political rivals. Over the weekend, the Ukrainian parliament passed a nonbinding resolution calling for a re-vote, and Ukraine’s Supreme Court has been asked to resolve the issue. And on Monday, outgoing Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma called for new elections, paving the way for a new poll to be held next month.

Scotland’s Sunday Herald reported that, just as a huge crowd of pro-Yushchenko demonstrators in Kiev cheered the parliament’s vote, a crowd of 150,000 Yanukovich loyalists rallied in Donetsk, the eastern city where the premier once was governor.

A Sunday Herald column detailed the irregularities that marred last week’s election. Chief among them: lax absentee balloting procedures that left room for multiple vote-casting, and an alarming lack of transparency in vote-counting and reporting of results to the central tabulation center. International observers say the irregularities occurred with greater frequency in areas deemed to be Yanukovich strongholds, leading to fears that the pro-Russian premier stole the election from his pro-Western opponent.

In a particularly illuminating commentary, the Times of Britain recounted a scene that unfolded on Kiev’s Independence Square a few days ago: Lech Walesa, the shipyard electrician-turned-Solidarity-founder-turned-Polish-president greeted Ukrainians who were out protesting the election results and asked them, “What took you so long?” The symbol of Eastern European popular revolution wiped snowflakes from his face and commented, “It might be freezing cold, but I can see that it is politically hot!”

Indeed, it’s hot and getting hotter by the day, and much of the European press is focused on fears that the disputed election could lead to a civil war in Ukraine or a split into two separate countries.

The Russian daily Komsomolskaya Pravda posed a blunt question: Regardless of which candidate ultimately takes office, what will happen to the half of the country that supported the other candidate? The Italian La Repubblica fretted that tensions between the two sides are running so high that neither leader may be able to contain the situation. Both France’s Le Monde and Spain’s El Paisendorsed new elections as the best solution to the crisis caused by the faulty vote-counting. (Translations from the Russian, Italian, French, and Spanish courtesy of Deutsche Welle.)

The Independent of Britain reported that Yanukovich loyalists have been slow to take to the streets, but once they did—this past weekend—they wasted little time in raising the possibility of secession. “[L]eaders representing 17 of Ukraine’s 25 regions made clear they would never accept the pro-Western candidate Viktor Yushchenko as president and warned they would rather break away from rump Ukraine if that happened,” the paper wrote. “Increasing the pressure on the man they believe is an American puppet brought in to take Ukraine out of Russia’s sphere of influence and into the EU and NATO, they voted unanimously to hold a referendum in December ‘to determine the status’ of the south-east of the country. Such wording is thinly disguised code for independence and raises the specter of Ukraine, already sharply divided along linguistic, historical, cultural and political lines, breaking in two.”

Former Ukrainians around the world have been watching the dramatic events unfold with particular interest. Canada, which is home to hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian émigrés, has witnessed rallies, clothing drives, and more. The Globe and Mail of Canada profiled members of Toronto’s 100,000-strong Ukrainian expat community, many of whom have been rallying to show their support for Yushchenko. “There is a history of people who fought for so long, in Canada, Ukraine and the diaspora worldwide to see Ukraine free,” a Toronto business consultant whose parents came from Ukraine told the paper. “And it did gain its independence in 1991, but it still wasn’t free, there wasn’t true democracy. … We’re fighting for that final yard. We want to see that kind of freedom that we take for granted in Canada.”

The Winnipeg Sun reported that a local MP of Ukrainian descent has traveled to Kiev to see firsthand how the election aftermath unfolds. “People are fighting with everything they’ve got for their right to demonstrate,” she told a reporter via cell phone from Independence Square, where hundreds of thousands of Yushchenko supporters were demonstrating. Speaking for many observers around the world, she described the situation as “mind-blowing, scary and worrisome,” and summed up by saying, “I think the real question here is how long can this go on.”

Correction, Nov. 29, 2004: Based on information supplied by Reuters, the photo caption accompanying this story originally referred to Lviv as being located in “Eastern Ukraine.” In fact, Lviv is located in Western Ukraine.