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Today Moscow and St. Petersburg are the principle cities of Russian culture, but its 10th century roots are traced to back to the present capital of Ukraine, Kiev. Since the Mongols overran the Kievan Rus, control for the area that now comprises Ukraine has been contested by the Lithuanians, the Poles, the Russians, and later the Austrian Hapsburg empire. In the late 1700's Catherine the Great incorporated most of present-day Ukraine into the Russian empire. After WWI, Ukraine was briefly an independent nation, but it was reabsorbed into the newly formed USSR. During the 1920's and 1930's tens of millions died in Ukraine as a result of Stalin's forced seizure and collectivization of peasant-owned land. All of Ukraine was occupied during the Nazi invasion of the USSR. Like the Balts, many tens of thousands of Ukrainians asserted their desire for autonomy from the USSR by fighting with the Germans against the Soviets; there was even a Ukrainian SS division.
When the USSR collapsed in 1991, Ukraine became a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Ukraine worked closely with the US on disarmament of the former soviet ICBM's left under Ukrainian command. Ukraine also fell into the patterns of kleptocracy and oligarchical rule seen in Russia, Belarus, Moldova and the Central Asian Republics. It's existed as a semi-democratic, semi-capitalist nation with tensions between corruption and rule of law, free speech and censorship, political pluralism and one-party rule.
Ukraine is split geographically, demographically and politically. The northwest part of the country is more rural, ethnically Ukrainian, mostly Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholic and western-oriented. The Black Sea coast, the Crimea and the Eastern region is more industrial, Russian speaking, Russian Orthodox and oriented toward Moscow.
Ukraine is almost 80% ethnic Ukrainian and about 17% ethnic Russian, with the rest of the population made up of Belarusians, Moldovans, Romanians, Tatars and others. The Black Sea was once multi-ethnic and cosmopolitan, with large numbers of Greeks, Turks, Jews, Armenians, Romany, Germans and others, but WWII and Stalin's ethnic purges left Ukraine more homogeneous, although the Jewish population--despite the murders of 600,000 Jews in the Shoah--is still, after the U.S., Israel, France and Russia, the fifth largest in the world.
The Main Characters
Kuchma is the outgoing President. The former director of the USSR's main missile factory, he's been President since 1994. Kuchma has made some moves toward market reforms, but his commitment to democracy is dubious. In 2000 a journalist critical of his government was abducted and later found beheaded. A former Kuchma bodyguard produced tapes purportedly revealing discussions between Kuchma and advisors discussing how to silence the journalist. The scandal led to street protests, and in 2002 Kuchma resorted to manipulating the state-controlled media to prevent a win in the parliamentary elections by a coalition led by former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko. Kuchma has worked closely with Russian Premier Vladimir Putin, and helped secure Putin's support of the candidate Kuchma endorsed as his successor, Prime Minister Viktor Yanokovych.
Yanokovych's youth is often described as "troubled," when in fact it's more accurately described as criminal. He served two prison sentences, including one for physical assault during an armed robbery. He eventually became an engineer and appratchnik, working his way up from factory manager to governor of his home region of Donestk, a heavily industrialized region in the east. He's allegedly aligned with one of the country's mafia-like groups that control regional economies across the former USSR. Kuchma backs him, and appears to have convinced Putin he was worthy of major Russian backing. While he learned Ukrainian, his first language is Russian, and his base is the eastern, Russian-oriented part of the country.
Trained as an accountant, Yushchenko is the former director of the national bank and one-time Prime Minister dismissed by Kuchma in 2001. Once considered a somewhat bland technocrat, he's apparently been radicalized by what he plausibly claims was an attempt to assassinate him with poison in September (at a private dinner with the head of the Ukrainian internal security services), and that he attributes for his metamorphosis from movie-star handsome heartthrob to the aged man with the gray hair and pockmarked and bloated skin. (See before and after photos here.) Yushchenko's wife, an American citizen of Ukrainian heritage, is a former appointee in the Reagan and G.H.W. Bush administrations who met Yushchenko while serving as an advisor to USAID at the start of the Clinton administration. In 2001 a Russian journalist alleged she orchestrated a move to help Yushchenko seize power. She successfully sued the journalist and the station that broadcast the claim for libel. While Yunokovich is generally portrayed as the candidate of the corrupt oligarchs, others point out that Yushchenko is also closely allied with some of the ultra-wealthy who benefited from the privatization of Soviet-era assets and businesses.
Involvement of the Russians and the West
Many Russians consider Ukraine to be part of the Russian heartland. It's the cradle of their culture, most of it was attached to Russia or the USSR for 200 or more years, and their economies are still closely linked; almost all of the natural gas Russia exports goes through Ukrainian pipelines, and much of Russia's food comes from Ukraine, the "breadbasket" of the USSR. Russia also docks its Black Sea fleet at the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol under an agreement signed after the dissolution of the USSR. A recent poll of Russians showed 70% don't think of Ukraine as a foreign state.
But probably the two most important factors for the Russians and Putin in particular are political. First, NATO and the EU continue to creep eastward, now all the way to the Baltic Republics on Russia's northeastern border. Ukraine is seen by the Russians as a buffer between them and Europe, and within it's sphere of influence. Second, a Yushchenko win could strike fear in Putin and the authoritarians in control of the states of the CIS; as legal and democratic transfers of power occur further east, it could become harder for Putin, Belarusian dictator Lukashenko, and the strongmen ruling the "Stans" to resist democratic pressures.
Whatever the combination of motives, Russia has clearly weighed in heavily in trying to install Yunokovich. In October, Jane's Intelligence Digest reported that Kuchma had agreed to withdraw the Ukrainian fleet from Sevastopol and grant full control of the port to the Russians. In return, Putin reportedly agreed to cut $800 million dollars from taxes on Russian oil sales and to help Yanukovych; supposedly Putin views Yanukovych as a willing partner for negotiations leading to a free trade zone between Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. To that end, Putin has, according to a Russian magazine, put over $50 million into Yanukovych's campaign,
Some have alleged that the U.S. is behind Yushchenko's campaign and the subsequent protests, even calling it a "coup", while others have characterized the alleged U.S. involvement as a "sophisticated and brilliantly conceived exercise in western branding and mass marketing that, in four countries in four years, has been used to try to salvage rigged elections and topple unsavoury regimes," the other three countries being Belarus, Georgia and, most successfully, Serbia. It's plausible that the CIA is behind this, but it's almost certainly a woefully inadequate explanation. Movements like this have occurred all over Eastern Europe in the last twenty-five years, including Russia, and few of them required direct U.S. involvement or manipulation to reach critical mass. And in addition to attributing too much to any U.S. involvement, such thinking certainly neglects to consider the likelihood that rather than being insufficient to secure an unquestioned win for Yanukovych, the strong-handed tactics of Putin and the Russians created a backlash by the ethnic Ukrainians and probably some Russians as well who don't relish the thought of once again coming under the direct control of an autocratic ruler of a Russia that appears to be trying to reassert it's imperial prerogatives.
The Campaign, the Election and the Alleged Vote Rigging
Yushchenko campaigned on a platform of fighting corruption, liberalizing the economy, shifting spending from defense to social programs, recalling Ukrainian troops from Iraq and building ties with the west leading to membership in NATO and the EU. Yanukovych emphasized his ties to Russia, with Putin even coming to Ukraine twice to campaign with him. He also proudly touted his Communist background; "My life in the Soviet Union and the Communist Party gave me the priority of the idea of justice and equality."
After Yushchenko won the first round but failed to garner the 50% necessary to prevent a runoff, Kuchma fired the heads of 11 administrative districts, 10 of which were won by Yushchenko. Yushchenko's visage appeared on posters in the East with the caption "Nazi." (Yushchenko pushed back by pointing out that his father fought in the Red Army, and as a POW was interned in Auschwitz.) The media ceaselessly attacked him. And it was then that the real vote rigging began.
Fraud was everywhere in evidence..."This election was stolen in broad daylight," says Stephen Sestanovich, a former U.S. ambassador in the region and an election monitor sent to Ukraine by the National Democratic Institute in Washington. [Note: NDI is affiliated with the Democratic Party; its counterpart is the International Republican Institute.] It's not enough to condemn the ballot as flawed or even illegitimate, as many international organizations have done, he adds. "My preferred word is 'criminal'."
International observers recorded an astounding variety of abuses. Yanukovych loyalists were issued certificates allowing them to cast absentee ballots wherever they wished, then transported by bus or minivan from polling station to polling station where they voted repeatedly. Intimidation was routine. At military institutions, cadets were instructed how to vote. At a state-owned alcohol refinery in the central Ukraine town of Zhytomyr, Yanukovych representatives came to the company director and told him that he would be fired if his workers did not support their candidate. Similar pressure was applied at state hospitals and universities; many were supplied with ballots already filled out. In Zaporizhzhia, in southern Ukraine, European observers watched as stacks of blank ballots were taken into a back room, then returned after being checked for Yanukovych. When two members of the Ukrainian Parliament objected, the lights mysteriously went out and unknown assailants beat them up.
Turnout was high across the country, nowhere more so than in pro-Yanukovych eastern Ukraine. There, an improbable 96 percent of registered voters cast ballots. At one polling station in Donetsk, observers for the NDI recorded more than twice as many votes as there were people on the official voting list--a not uncommon phenomenon. In pro-Yushchenko districts, the game was to disqualify as many citizens as possible, often by posing technical challenges to the final count that would be resolved by a show of hands on an election committee dominated by government appointees. Early on Election Day in Simferopol, reports Sestanovich, one Yanukovych official proudly pointed out a small narushenia, or "violation," not noticed by his rivals. "Oh, yes," he said. "That will allow us to disqualify the entire ballot," worth some 1,700 votes for Yushchenko. Some of the trickery was almost juvenile. In one pro-Yushchenko district, NDI observers found (and kept as evidence) pens with invisible ink. Mark your ballot and, poof, within six minutes it would record a vote for... no one.
Shortly after the polls closed, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which had monitored the election, declared it insufficiently democratic, citing problems like those mentioned above, and U.S. Senator Richard Lugar rejected the integrity of the process. Exit polls commissioned by "western governments" declared Yushchenko the winner. But Putin publicly congratulated Yanukovych on winning, a full two days before the results were officially announced. When the results were released, the election authorities declared Yanukovych, on the strength of large margins in the East, the winner by about 3%.
(Tomorrow: the reaction to the results and what could happen next.)