West Sends Mixed Signals on Election Lead-Up

October 2, 2012

James George Jatras
Deputy Director, AIU

Hardly a day goes by that some important US or European personage does not issue a severe warning to Kiev linking the imprisonment of former prime minister Yulia Timoshenko and the freeness and fairness of the upcoming parliamentary elections in Ukraine.

One day, it’s EU Trade Commissioner Karl De Gucht expressing concern about “stumbling blocks” to the EU Association Agreement and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with Ukraine.

Another day it’s the U.S. Senate calling on – but not mandating – a visa ban on unnamed Ukrainian officials if Yulia Timoshenko is not released.

Speaking in Yalta, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice warned that in a “country like Ukraine...consolidation of democracy is watched carefully. If Ukraine speaks in one voice, this voice would be heard.”

Council of Europe Secretary-General Thorbjorn Jagland condemned Timoshenko’s imprisonment, and insisted the election must be honest: “It would have been better to contest the decision of this gas deal at the political level, in the Parliament, by the people (themselves). But still it is very important that the elections are being held and that they be free and fair.”

Many other examples could be given.

Certainly no one should blithely dismiss these warnings. These are substantial people, whose public utterances are indicative of how their governments are preparing for the upcoming elections.

At the same time, there are two readily discernible gaps in these and similar statements.

First, what is the connection between Timoshenko’s status and the likely attitude western governments will take toward the elections? The implication seems to be that unless Timoshenko is released, the fairness of the elections is in doubt. At the same time, Western officials seem loath to say so in so many words. The logical inference is that while Western governments would prefer elections in which Timoshenko is free to participate, they are not prepared to declare the elections invalid because she is in jail. However disgruntled they may be at the former prime minister’s conviction and imprisonment, they are prepared to take the elections at face value.

Second, warnings of this sort typically end with a threat, either explicit or veiled. While, as noted, the U.S. Senate resolution threatens (non-binding) visa retaliation, most other admonitions do not go that far.

This hardly means Kiev has a license to conduct fraudulent elections. On the contrary, foreign experts examining the conduct of the campaign so far -- for example, the president of the International Expert Center for Electoral Systems (ICES), Dr. Alexander Tsinker from Israel -- assert that "the legal framework for elections in Ukraine for the most part matches international democratic norms.” The ICES president also pointed to the independence of the Central Election Commission of Ukraine (CEC), and its use of video cameras, which will “allow fraud attempts to be significantly reduced, and will increase observers’ ability to monitor events in the polling stations.”

Tsinker concluded that the elections should not be declared rigged in advance, and no one should take the position that, “If I don't win, the elections are invalid.”

Similarly, Professor of Political Science and Advisor to the Parliamentary Group of the Hungarian Socialist Party, Dr. Laszlo Kemeny favorably compared Ukraine’s preparations to those of Georgia, where the tragicomic regime of Mikheil Saakashvili – a “democratic” favorite of the Washington and European establishment – has been shaken by videotape of the torture and rape of political opponents. Kemeny, who also observed the Georgian vote, says the Ukrainian process is more democratic: “They don’t debate in Georgia, there is one ruling party there, and it does not give a chance to anyone else to say a word.”

In short, Western governments have a lot of leeway both in assessing the results of elections, and, in the event they deem them to have been less than "free and fair," what they intend to do about it.

If they are looking for flaws in the elections, they will no doubt find them. Despite the generally positive assessments to date of Tsinker, Kemeny, and others, no one pretends elections in Ukraine will be without flaws. (For that matter, the U.S. election on November 7th, will almost surely involve accusations of fraud. Americans will take these accusations seriously enough, although we have no foreign monitors to speak of, and no web cams in our polling stations. Instead, we have electronic tally machines that are deeply distrusted by millions of U.S. voters.)

But there is a big difference between imperfect elections and a vote that is corrupt enough to be declared invalid. Western governments seem to be leaving themselves plenty of scope to criticize Ukraine's election without committing themselves to overturn results they find suspect or not to their liking.

James George Jatras: Mr. Jatras is a principal in a public advocacy firm based in Washington, DC. Prior to entering the private sector he was senior foreign policy adviser to the Republican leadership of the United States Senate. He earlier served as as an American Foreign Service Officer, where among other assignments he was assigned to the (then) Office of Soviet Union Affairs.