Election Observer Says December Vote in Ukraine Was Fair

February 9, 2005
Gustav Weber talks with a student before his lecture.

German journalist Gustav Weber, an official election observer for the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe [OSCE], said he saw no evidence of fraud at the 12 polling places he visited in eastern Ukraine Dec. 26, when the Ukrainians reprised an Oct. 31 election that was struck down by the country's supreme court as massively fraudulent. The real fraud happens in how the campaigns are handled, Weber said Feb. 7 in a talk sponsored by the Virginia Transatlantic Society and the J.B. Moore Society for International Law.

Paired with an American observer of Ukrainian descent who speaks both Ukrainian and Russian, Weber was assigned to Losova, a region of about 175,000 voters roughly 250 miles southeast of Kiev, the capital. They visited some of the area's 180 polling stations in advance of the election and met representatives of the eventual winner, Viktor Yushchenko, and his opponent Viktor Yanukovich. The Yanukovich representative gave them "a cold reception," said Weber, who has also observed elections in Russia and Azerbaijan.

"The cooler the reception I get, the higher the chance I will be back to observe them," he said.

They started election day early, attempting to enter a polling place and inspect it before voting hours officially began, but despite their entreaties that they were official OSCE observers, they were kept out until voters were allowed in at 8 a.m. "We decide to come back to observe the counting at that one," he said. Ukrainian political parties also arranged to have observers at the polls. Most of those staffing the stations-90 percent, he estimated-were women. Weber's day ended around 1 a.m. at the regional polling center, where they watched votes be counted.

"We could not see fraud at any station we went to… I couldn't see any fraud at the regional station. People had no time to manipulate the results," he said. But he believed that Yanukovich was losing because in this eastern region, which should heavily favor him, he won 55 percent of the vote with a turnout of roughly 60 percent of voters. "That's not impressive," Weber said. Nationwide, he explained, the turnout was 75 percent and Yushchenko had very strong support in western Ukraine.

OSCE training instructed observers not to show any partisan behavior, not to interfere with local officials, to refuse hospitality and to distinguish between things they saw personally and things reported to them by others. "We can't do very much," Weber said. "We are more of a deterrent force."

Weber said he paid the most attention to knowing the number of those registered to vote, compared to the number of actual voters at the stations, whether police were present and who other observers might be.

While he did not see it, "some manipulation of polls took place on election day," he said. Ukrainian law allows voters who may be away from their hometowns to get absentee voting certificates and vote in another area. "People were given falsified documents and driven around to vote at different stations," he said, but he did not estimate what the scale of the cheating might have been.

Quoting Stalin's adage that "It does not matter who votes, it matters who counts the votes," Weber characterized the Dec. 26 election as "free but not fair," because the candidates did not get equal footing during the campaign. "Yanukovich had far better access to the media," he said. All three nationwide channels (one of which is government-owned and another is owned by the son-in-law of former president Leonid Kychma) supported Yanukovich. They were given an additional 1,000 frequencies to broadcast over during the campaign, while the one station favoring Yushchenko, Channel 5, was not allowed any additional frequencies. "TV reporting strongly favored Yanukovich and ignored the anti-government candidates," Weber said.

The government also used quasi-legal obstacles, such as not allowing political parties to register for the ballot. Government employees were allowed to work on the Yanukovich campaign during work hours, while employees who supported Yushchenko risked losing their jobs, Weber said. Police hassled anti-government campaigners with traffic stops and tickets and Yanukovich increased pensions shortly before the election. His campaign also used what the Russians call "black PR," Weber said, such as accusing Yushchenko's American-born wife Kateryna of being a CIA agent.

Weber speculated that the poisoning of Yushchenko with a massive dose of dioxin may not have been intended to kill him, but to make him so sick that he could no longer campaign. The poisoning did not win Yushchenko the sympathy of Yanukovich backers, he said, but did raise the passions of Yushchenko supporters who felt outraged by it and even more alarmed over the condition of the nation.

In the aftermath of the vote, Weber said four lessons need to be acted on: the technological support for elections has to be improved and voting lists in particular have to become more accurate; candidates should be assured more fair access to the media; retribution against employees who vote differently than their employers should end; and Yushchenko should try to reconcile with Russian-speaking areas.

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