Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Europe's Ukraine II: The OSCE and Electoral Fraud - A Record of Partiality?

In an odd and obvious reversal of the sense of words, much of the punditry in the American media, both old and new, has – like Robert Kagan in his Sunday Washington Post column – qualified the Ukrainian electoral commission’s declaration of Viktor Yanukovich the winner of the November 21 elections in Ukraine a “coup d’état”. It might well be that Ukraine’s state institutions are corrupt, but Ukraine’s state institutions are, after all, Ukraine’s state institutions, and in the political contest opposing Yanukovich and Viktor Yushchenko since the election results were announced, it is quite obviously the latter and not the former who has persistently acted in defiance of them. In the ordinary sense of words, it is Yushchenko and not Yanukovich who has attempted (having himself sworn in as President in spite of the electoral commission’s findings) or threatened (sending militants to block government buildings and setting “deadlines” for finding a “legal” solution to the current impasse) a coup d’état.

In his Washington Post column, Kagan suggests that “if Ukrainians eventually vote in a free and fair election” they will be able to “thwart the reemergence of an authoritarian Russian empire along the borders of democratic Europe,” i.e. presumably the definitive anchoring of Ukraine within the Russian sphere of influence. But in fact it is not clear that if Ukrainians voted in a free and fair election, they would not precisely choose this: that is, a rapprochement with Russia – if not their subjection to an “authoritarian empire”. Perhaps indeed this is what happened on November 21. As reported in an informative and unusually even-handed article on the “Ukrainian imbroglio” in the November 29 edition of Le Figaro, a survey conducted in September by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation and the Institute for International Sociology of Kiev found that 49% of Ukrainians believe that it would be best for Ukraine to form a union with Russia and Belarus. The percentage of the vote with which the Ukrainian electoral commission credited the, in effect, “pro-Russian” candidate Viktor Yanukovich in the November 21 election was…49% (to 46% for the “pro-European” candidate Viktor Yushchenko).

The evidence offered in the “western” media that this result must be fraudulent essentially consists of exit polls conducted by private polling organizations. A November 23 article from the Jerusalem Post cites reports in the local press to the effect that some 40% of persons asked refused to respond to the poll-takers – a figure which is very plausible in the midst of a highly polarized election in a young post-Soviet democracy where voters are unlikely to want willingly to compromise the secrecy of their ballots. Of course, only three weeks before the Ukrainian elections, exit polls conducted under what were far more favorable circumstances proved wildly misleading in predicting the outcome of the US presidential elections.

Apart from the exit polls, the major source serving to undermine the legitimacy of the November 21 Ukrainian election is the report rendered by the Election Observer Mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and which claims that the vote “did not meet a considerable number of OSCE commitments and Council of Europe and other European standards for democratic elections”. It might be noted in this connection that the OSCE also sent an Election Observer Mission to monitor the November 2 elections in the US and that this mission likewise found the US elections to be not fully in conformity with the US’s commitments as an OSCE member. (The preliminary report on the US elections concludes in notably lukewarm fashion that the US “mostly met” its OSCE commitments.) It should also be noted that, contrary the impression created by the uptake of the OSCE findings in both the old and new media, the preliminary report on Ukraine does not explicitly allege electoral fraud. Indeed, the only explicit charges of fraud cited in the report concern allegations that in the heavily pro-Yushchenko western Ukraine “between 1.25 and 2 million illegal votes had been cast on behalf of voters resident abroad” and that 1.1 million votes for Yanukovich were “set aside” by polling station managers loyal to Yushchenko. The OSCE mission claims to have found no evidence in support of these allegations.

One of the OSCE findings that has received the greatest attention in the “western” media as suggesting electoral fraud on the part of the Ukrainian government concerns “suspiciously high turnout” in eastern regions that voted heavily for Yanukovich. A turn-out rate of 88.41% is reported, for instance for the region of Lugansk and a figure of 96.31% for that of Donetsk. It is thus interesting to recall that when in September 1996, elections were held under OSCE supervision in Bosnia-Herzegovina, initial estimates from anonymous OSCE sources put the total number of votes at roughly 3.2 million: this in a country counting at the time some 2.9 million eligible voters – thus giving a turnout of some 110%. A highly impressive demonstration of nascent civic consciousness indeed! The official figure cited by the OSCE put voter turnout for all of Bosnia-Herzegovina at some 82%. An analysis of voter turnout according to “nationality” (i.e. ethnic "nationality") conducted by the International Crisis Group found participation rates of 79%, 98.5%, and 103 % for Bosnian Croats, Serbs, and Muslims respectively. Despite the obvious evidence of fraud constituted by such figures, the OSCE declared the Bosnian elections free and fair, thus legitimating the victory in the presidential contest – by some mere tens of thousands of votes – of the reputedly “pro-Western” reputedly “democratic” candidate of the day: the Islamist Alija Izetbegovic.

Another of the allegations in the OSCE report on Ukraine that was quickly picked up by the media involves the insinuation that Yanukovich supporters may have used absentee ballots in order to vote multiple times in different districts. Now, just one week after the contested Ukrainian elections, the first round of presidential and parliamentary elections in Romania were marred by charges of fraud comparable in both extent and kind to those that accompanied the Ukrainian election. In particular, and as noted on the site German-Foreign-Policy.com [link in German], Romanian opposition forces have pointed to rules that permit eligible voters to vote in districts other than those in which they live, thus creating the possibility of multiple voting. German-Foreign-Policy.com further notes that the opposition claims to have hard evidence of this possibility having been exploited in favor of the ruling Social Democrats of Prime Minister Adrian Nastase. A BBC report records dryly the concurring opinion of OSCE election observers that “it may have been possible for some people to vote more than once.”

Nonetheless, in the Romanian case, the OSCE has declined to call into question the legitimacy of the elections and the "western" media has paid only meager attention to the contested vote. Why? Perhaps the Romanian opposition of Traian Basescu's Justice and Truth Alliance needs to adopt a color or wear scarves? Or perhaps it is because the "pro-Western" "pro-European" party in the Romanian vote is precisely that party which stands accused of fraud.