Ukraine's local elections a democracy test

AP News
Posted: Oct 28, 2010 10:22 AM
Ukraine's local elections a democracy test

When democracy activist Volodymyr Podrezov went on a hunger strike to protest alleged election fraud, authorities in Kiev were quick to respond. They set up a fair right near Podrezov's tent and bused in farmers to sell steaming grilled meat and bakers to hand out free pancakes with sour cream and jam.

"They are mocking us," said Podrezov, 50, who belongs to the main opposition party of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Since he came to power this year, President Viktor Yanukovych has curbed anti-government protests, sent security forces to investigate civil society groups, manipulated the Constitution to boost his powers and sought to limit press freedoms.

The Kremlin-friendly president is turning out to be no democrat.

Upcoming local council elections are being watched as a barometer of how far Yanukovych has rolled back freedoms gained after his first fraud-tainted grab at the presidency in 2004 sparked the Orange Revolution that brought in an era of tumultuous democracy.

Russia and the West have long vied for influence over this nation of 46 million whose web of pipelines carry natural gas to much of Europe. That struggle intensified after Yanukovych moved to improve rocky relations with Russia while continuing to pursue closer integration with the EU.

The boosted presidential powers, widespread allegations of voter fraud and restrictions on free speech have sparked concern in the West, including from U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. In a phone conversation with Yanukovych this month Biden stressed the importance of democratic checks and balances and exhorted the president to oversee free elections.

Orange Revolution heroine Tymoshenko, who lost the February ballot to Yanukovych and was later voted out as prime minister, is convinced the elections will be rigged. She accuses his government of printing fake ballots, pressuring her activists not to run, and blocking the opposition from vote-tallying commissions.

Tymoshenko says she will not recognize election results in three key provinces, including the Kiev region, where authorities have registered defectors from her party as candidates while, she claims, refusing to allow her genuine supporters to run.

"He is a pathological falsifier," Tymoshenko said.

Yanukovych's legal adviser Olena Lukash denied the accusations, saying the authorities were committed to conducting a clean vote. She said the election violations were minor and have been addressed.

She suggested that Tymoshenko should challenge alleged violations in court instead of promoting her party with publicity stunts.

"You can go on hunger strikes, you can block parliament, but all your actions should be aimed at working in the framework of the legal procedure," Lukash told The Associated Press.

Kiev Gov. Anatoly Prisiazhnyuk denied that the food fair was aimed at pressuring Tymoshenko's activists on the hunger strike, saying similar markets have been set up throughout the capital.

In recent months the government has imposed restrictions on opposition rallies, eroding a major democratic achievement of the Orange Revolution that set Ukraine apart from many other former Soviet countries like Russia where opposition protests are usually banned. In an ominous sign, responding to a request by Kiev city authorities, a court ruled last week that Tymoshenko's party is forbidden to protest outside Yanukovych's office because that violates national security.

Civil society groups also feel threatened. Last month the national security service probed several non-government agencies funded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros for alleged ties with the opposition and briefly detained a historian researching the activity of security agencies in Soviet times.

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Free press, another Orange Revolution victory, is under siege. Over the past year, Ukraine fell a staggering 41 points on the press freedom list compiled by the Paris-based watchdog Reporters Without Borders, ending up on a par with countries like Iraq.

An investigative journalist who wrote about corruption in the eastern city of Kharkiv disappeared in August and an investigation into the case has stalled. Journalists covering Yanukovych complain that his press service allows no critical questions and takes only friendly questions from submissive reporters.

Channel 5, the only television channel out of about a dozen networks with national coverage which regularly broadcasts opposition views, could soon go off the air after a lawsuit initiated by national security chief Valery Khoroshkovsky, a Yanukovych ally. A media group controlled by Khoroshkovsky argued that a government licensing body had committed procedural violations when awarding Channel 5 its national frequency earlier this year and asked the court to revoke it.

Opposition lawmaker Yuriy Stets, who serves on Channel 5's advisory board, blasted the lawsuit as part of a government campaign to muzzle the media.

"They want there to be just one train on the railroad tracks showing just one set of images," Stets said. "They want us to go back to telling jokes about politicians in our kitchens like in the old times."

(This version CORRECTS Corrects spelling for Kiev governor in 14th paragraph)