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Leigh TurnerHMA Ukraine, Kyiv
This kind of shocking action against a blogger is a reminder of why all governments need to respect freedom of the media and be ultra-cautious about any actions which constrain, or which could be seen to constrain, freedom of expression. It's also a reminder of why the Copenhagen Criteria, which set out the economic and political conditions for accession to the European Union, state that membership requires, amongst other things, "that the candidate country has achieved stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities" .
Subsequent to the Rada decision I was pleased to have the opportunity, when G8 ambassadors met President Yanukovych on 10 March, to note the importance of setting an early date for the local elections. Mr Yanukovych responded positively, saying they would definitely take place this year, probably in the autumn. This message was later repeated by a presidential spokesman. This was most reassuring. But there have been other reports since then which had again seemed to indicate that the elections might be delayed beyond the end of the year.
Against this background I was pleased to see reports this week that some MPs in the Rada have decided to propose scheduling the local elections for 31 October. This looks like good news for Ukrainian democracy. While one may debate the significance of many events in Ukraine, there is no doubt that a decision to delay an election beyond a constitutionally-set deadline would send a damaging signal about Ukraine's democratic credentials. So, as I said back in March, I hope that all the MPs and parties in the Rada will ensure that a date is set soon for the local government elections to take place at the first opportunity.
Following the announcement of the UK general election, FCO bloggers like other UK civil servants enter a state known as "purdah". This is defined in Wikipaedia as "a period... in which Government Departments are not allowed to communicate with members of the public about any new or controversial Government initiatives", and basically means that we should avoid comment on political themes or anything which might favour one UK political party over another.
The good news is that I've always tried in this blog to intersperse comments about politics with other, less political or entirely apolitical stuff, eg drawing attention to interesting things happening in Ukraine, the UK or both. Plus, I've just been back to the UK for Easter. During that time I was lucky enough to spend a day strolling the Jubilee Walkway, a route covering some of the key sights of London. As assiduous readers of this blog will know I'm a keen walker, and found the 14 miles or so of the Jubilee Walkway a terrific way to take in some of the capital's top sights. Rather than describe it in detail, I'm inserting below some pictures (taken using my phone - but now with new, improved quality) in the course of several hours. Key messages : (i) you can see a great deal of London in a day's walking; (ii) there's a great deal to see; and (iii) there are several fine green open spaces, and pubs, on the way. Any other thoughts?
Suppose a political party or parties in Ukraine voted to delay the presidential election by a few months, or a year, or two? How democratic would that be? Not at all, since the Constitution says clearly that presidential elections must be held every five years. If anyone tried to delay elections for political gain there would be an international outcry, and quite right too. The same would be true if anyone tried to delay the parliamentary elections beyond the maximum permitted term.
But amidst the furore following the presidential election and one party's reluctance to recognise the results, the Ukrainian Rada (parliament) has taken a decision just as undemocratic as delaying a presidential or parliamentary election. This was the decision, on 16 February, to cancel the Rada's earlier resolution to hold local government elections on 30 May 2010. The supposed reason for the cancellation was the absence of funding for the elections in the budget. But nearly everyone seems to agree that the decision was unconstitutional. Opponents of the move have said they will lodge a complaint with the Ukrainian Constitutional Court. Some commentators have suggested that the MPs in the Rada knew the Court was likely to overturn their decision; but that they went ahead anyway knowing that any decision by the Court to overturn the Rada action was likely to come too late for the local elections to go ahead on time.
The Ukrainian Rada has many terrific features. Not only is it distinguished by some cool Soviet-era murals, a lobby where journalists, diplomats and MPs mix freely, and live choirs at key ceremonies, but many of the MPs are serious, hard-working professionals. Unfortunately, however, the decision to delay an election beyond a constitutionally-set deadline sets a dangerous and unwelcome precedent. Every day which passes without a date for the local elections being set makes the decision more serious. I've blogged before about the risk that undemocratic behaviour by MPs will harm the reputation of the Rada and of Ukraine more widely. I hope that all the MPs and parties in the Rada, including those who voted to delay the local elections, will ensure that a date is set as soon as possible for the local government elections to take place at the first opportunity.
Following the presidential election last Sunday and the report of the OSCE/ODIHR observers that the elections met most OSCE and Council of Europe commitments, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has congratulated Viktor Yanukovych on his victory. Gordon Brown said:
"I congratulate Mr Yanukovych on his victory in Ukraine's Presidential election.
The election was a vigorous display of democracy. International observers have said it was free and fair.
The UK has long supported Ukraine's EU aspirations and we will continue to do so. A broader EU is a stronger EU, and will make for a stronger, and more prosperous Britain."
Here's a link to a great article published by the Foreign Office Europe Minister, Chris Bryant, in the Guardian on 10 February, entitled "Ukraine's inspirational electorate". I like it particularly because it draws attention to the millions of people who turned out in last Sunday's presidential election second round, in bitter winter conditions, to cast their vote. It also highlights the role of the hundreds of thousands of election commission workers who did a good job on the day to make sure people could vote and to count the votes afterwards.
While we're at it, take a look at the guest blog of Andy Tate, Management Officer of the British Embassy here in Kyiv, about being an OSCE/ODIHR election observer. Ever wondered how the OSCE/ODIHR gathered the information that helped them to conclude that the first and second rounds of the Ukrainian presidential election were democratic and met most OSCE standards? Here's your chance to find out. Fine photos, too.
A guest blog by Andrew Tate, Management Officer, British Embassy Kyiv
05:15 Sunday 7 February, Cherkasy, Central Ukraine.
It's 25 degrees below zero outside and the roads are icy. It's the start of a long day as part of the OSCE international election observer mission for the 2nd round of the Ukrainian Presidential Elections. The polling stations open at 08:00am, but we need to be at our first station (pic 1) at 07:15am to witness the opening procedures.
We had visited the previous day to introduce ourselves and are greeted warmly by the Chair of the Precinct Electoral Commission (PEC). We observe the seal on the safe containing the ballot papers being broken and the paperwork being completed. Everything is in order. At 08:30am we say goodbye having seen the first votes of the day being cast. We aim to visit ten polling stations during the day before the polls close at 20:00 ranging from village halls (pics 2 & 3) to local schools (pic 4). We manage nine. People unable to visit their local polling station are able to vote at home.
Whilst travelling between one polling station and the next we find a group of election officials visiting those people registered to vote at home. We take the opportunity to join them (pic 5). The same procedures apply. The voter's ID is checked and they then sign the voters' list before casting their ballot. At 19:30 we head to our final polling station where we intend to stay and witness the count of the ballots (pic 6). The procedures are followed meticulously and the ballots stacked against the names of the two candidates.
At around 22:30 we leave the polling station under police escort to deliver our results to the District Electoral Commission (pic 7). The place is packed with police and other PECs delivering their results. We watch as the details are entered into the computer and the data transmitted to the Central Electoral Commission in Kyiv. Our job done we return to our hotel for a de-brief and manage to get back to our rooms at around 02:30. It was a long day, but worthwhile. And a unique chance to see Ukrainian democracy in action.
7 February, the day of the second round of the Ukrainian presidential elections, dawns clear and bright in Kyiv (weather forecast, for a perfect winter's day, is here). I'm pleased to see press reporting suggesting that the polls have opened in an orderly fashion. By mid-day the candidates have both cast their vote. Let's hope that the rest of the day proceeds in an equally calm way, and that the main excitement of the next 24 hours will be watching the results come in.
A couple of people have said to me that they liked the photos I put up on the week-end of the first round of the presidential election on 17 January. I went on a beautiful walk in central Kyiv yesterday and took a couple more pics. They show that, for all the reports (including mine) of a fierce-fought campaign, ordinary life goes on. They also show that Kyiv is an outstanding capital for city-centre snowboarding and sledging; and that there's been a lot of snow in the past few weeks.
As Ukraine moves closer to the decisive second round of the presidential election on 7 February the words of the European Commission after the first round might seem a distant memory. In a statement on 18 January, the Commission welcomed the fact that the first round of the elections on 17 January "took place in a peaceful atmosphere", and urged the leaders of Ukraine to ensure that the next round of voting on 7 February would be held "in a similarly peaceful environment".
With the election two days away, not everyone would describe the atmosphere in Kyiv as a "peaceful environment". Electoral campaigning is running at fever pitch. And the two electoral camps have continued to trade tough allegations about each other's plans for 7 February - the latest about how the Rada's 3 February changes to the electoral law could make fraud easier (say some), or more difficult (say others). There's talk of street protests. Anyone might think things were spinning into some kind of crisis.
But wait. Haven't we been here before? The 18 January Commission statement also noted that the first round "was preceded by a vigorous campaign which presented voters with a genuine choice." No change there, then. That vote too was preceded by allegations that fraud was about to take place on a massive scale. I noted with interest before January's vote (Good news about electoral fraud?) that some experts were suggesting those fears were overblown. They were right: the authoritative OSCE/ODIHR observer mission concluded that the first round "was of high quality and... met most OSCE and Council of Europe commitments"; and that "Civil and political rights were respected, including freedom of assembly, association and expression."
So I've been listening with interest to what experts on detecting electoral fraud are saying this time round. And guess what? Some people I respect are saying that there's a fair chance of good quality elections on 7 February. The key, they say, will be to ensure that both presidential camps use their right to have their own people in place around the country to keep a close eye on what's going on; that both take the OSCE/ODIHR election observers into their confidence, give them maximum access, and report to them any dodgy happenings; and that both make sure that all their election commissioners turn out on the day so that neither side can accuse the other of trying to put a spanner in the works.
Now I don't want to be accused of being a follower of arch optimist Dr Pangloss. It's important to take seriously all allegations of potential electoral fraud; and, as I noted earlier this week, the OSCE/ODIHR observers, like the two presidential candidates, face a tough task on Sunday to do everything they can to ensure the election is clean. But democracy is one of Ukraine's most attractive features; and the experience of the first round shows that Ukrainians are well capable of holding elections to European standards. It seems indisputably in the best interests of both presidential camps, as EU High Representative Cathy Ashton said in a statement published on 4 February, "to ensure that the will of the people can once more be expressed at the polls this Sunday". So I hope that happens; and that after the second round I can again write that election day turned out, frankly, a bit humdrum, dull and routine.
Amidst all the allegations and counter-allegations about potential electoral abuse ahead of the second round of the presidential election on 7 February, it's good to see the short-term observers of the OSCE/ODIHR election monitoring mission are back in town. I meet a few of the British observers for a beer at a pub in Kyiv on Wednesday night, before they fan out across the country. It's inspiring to meet them. Some are volunteers who have observed elections in dozens of countries. Others are doing the job for the first time, and will be paired up with more experienced colleagues for their assignments. All have an infectious enthusiasm as they prepare for their challenging travel schedules to oblasts across the length and breadth of Ukraine. One person who observed the first round tells how kind locals provided blocks of polystyrene for election observers to stand on in freezing polling stations (I see cold conditions are again forecast); and explains how, after arriving at a given polling station when it opens next Sunday morning, she will keep observing right through the day until the votes are being counted in the dead of night.
There's a good account of a day in the life of an election observer from the British embassy here in Kyiv during the first round of the presidential elections on 17 January here.
I've written before about why I think the OSCE/ODIHR observer mission is a brilliant mechanism to prevent electoral fraud. The fierce debate between the different presidential camps which has raged this week is an indication of just how challenging and important the observers' job will be. Good luck to all of you.
There's also a possibility things could go less well. As happened before the first round, some people on both sides are accusing their opponents of planning to fix the polls in their electoral heartlands, or - devilishly - of planning to make it look as if the other side has done so. That way, the logic goes, whoever loses will have plenty of justification to cry foul and refuse to accept the result. Such uncertainty could lead to delays, court cases and confusion. So I hope, as the Europe Ministers of the UK, Germany, France and Poland wrote on Saturday, that if the OSCE/ODIHR mission gives a favourable verdict on the quality of the election, the losing side will accept the result and the new president can get on with running the country.
But rumours are going around of a possible outcome of the 7 February election which would be worse than the losing side not accepting the result and going to court. People on both sides have accused each other of planning, should they lose, to incite trouble on the streets of Kyiv. There have even been references to one side or the other having armed men ready to deploy. The aim, it is alleged, will be for the losers to provoke trouble and so to bring the result of the election into disrepute. Some politicians argue that it is therefore reasonable to pre-station groups of stout supporters around the city in order to prevent any attempt by their opponents to cause unrest.
Personally, I'm not a great believer in conspiracies. So a lot of these rumours sound like dangerous loose talk to me. There were many allegations of potential misdeeds before the first round of the presidential election on 17 January. Most turned out to be wrong. I find it hard to believe that any Ukrainian politician really wants to bring violence to the streets of Kyiv - particularly when the Orange Revolution of 2004, involving hundreds of thousands of protesters over a period of months, was peaceful. It goes without saying that any violence would damage Ukraine's reputation as a beacon of democracy in the region. So I hope that the rumours turn out to be no more than that; and that both sides will keep calm and let the debate about who should run Ukraine be decided where it belongs - at the ballot box.
One week ahead of the decisive second round of the Ukrainian presidential elections on 7 February, Europe Ministers from four EU countries have published an excellent article in Dzerkalo Tyzhnia (Weekly Mirror) called "Voting for Democracy: Ukraine's Presidential Elections". Links are here, in Ukrainian and Russian - ZT publishes in both languages - with a covering article here (Ukrainian/Russian).
The article, by Chris Bryant (UK), Werner Hoyer (Germany), Pierre Lellouche (France) and Mikolaj Dowgielewicz (Poland) welcomes the fact that the first round of the election on 17 January took place in calm and orderly conditions, and that the results have been widely accepted. "Ukraine's external reputation as a beacon for democracy in the region can only be enhanced," the article says, "if these standards are adhered to in the next round." To help achieve that, the article urges all sides to take the OSCE/ODIHR observer mission into their confidence and to give election observers maximum support and access. It concludes that: "We trust that the next round of voting will also be held in accordance with international standards and take place in a similarly peaceful environment. An election with a clear and widely accepted outcome will stand the best chance of further strengthening Ukrainian democracy."
An English version of the article is here.
A guest blog by John Foreman, Defence Attache, British Embassy Kyiv
It’s 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning at a small Ukrainian polling station. The local election commission has given one of their volunteers the honour of being first to vote. The clock ticks, the man votes to a round of applause and the doors are flung open. Voters start to trickle into the polling station, trussed up against the freezing weather.
I'm here with an embassy colleague as a short-term election monitor for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) in Europe. Other teams are fanned out across the country. Our team has been assigned to Cherkasy oblast, situated in the middle of the country and the birthplace to two of the most important Ukrainian national heroes, Taras Shevchenko and Bohdan Khmelnytsky. OSCE long term observers, who have been working on the area for a couple of months, give us a list of 179 polling stations. We are asked to visit 10 different locations.
We decide to visit remote rural areas. Fortunately the roads are passable despite ice and drifted snow. Over the day, we cover 250 km, visiting polling stations in schools, sports halls, farm clubs and theatres. Ukrainian choral music blasts out from one; in another a budding entrepreneur is running a small shop. Everyone is friendly; one flame-haired commission head thanks us for choosing her station and for supporting their new democracy. On learning that we are from the UK, some locals try out their English and we are even presented to a class of 10 years to say a few words. We talk to the heads of the local election commissions to learn of any problems in the run up to the elections and observe the voting. We then complete observation forms to send to Kyiv to be collated with those from other OSCE teams.
The efforts of locals to vote are inspiring. Far beyond the reach of public transport, old and young trudge along small roads, determined to make their voice heard. When one old lady votes and then slumps into a chair, commission members revive her with a stiff drink and warm words.
The polls close at 2000 and we watch the count. It's been a long, exciting day and everyone is tired. The votes are emptied onto the table, counted, re-counted and then recorded officially. When all are content, three commission members, accompanied by a policeman, squeeze into a Lada and race off down the icy roads towards the local district election office to deliver the results. We follow in pursuit. On arrival, a huge, jostling crowd from other voting districts is already there. It’s going to be a long night. We hand over to another OSCE team who will remain overnight and at 0200 try and find some food.
Is that it? After all the build-up of the past few months, the first round of the presidential election in Ukraine on 17 January seems to have been... normal. I've spoken to several OSCE/ODIHR observers and others who were officially accredited to visit polling stations around the country on the day. All told tales of peaceful scenes, ballot boxes supervised by representatives of different parties, electoral officials doing their best to make sure things worked, and so on. Then on 18 January the OSCE/ODIHR mission presented its "Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions" on the 17 January poll. The key finding was that: "The first round of the 17 January presidential election in Ukraine was of high quality and showed significant progress over previous elections. The election met most OSCE and Council of Europe commitments. Civil and political rights were respected, including freedom of assembly, association and expression. Election day was conducted in an efficient and orderly manner."
Efficient, orderly... it all sounds a bit dull, right? Well, the conduct of elections is one area where routine, humdrum and regular are all good and surprises, excitement and weird things happening are bad. The OSCE/ODIHR conclusion shows that the fears expressed before the election of massive vote-rigging were unfounded. It also sets the stage for the second round, on 7 February, when there will be a run-off between the two leading candidates, Victor Yanukovych and Julia Tymoshenko. The European Commission has issued a good statement welcoming the OSCE/ODIHR findings and calling on Ukraine's leaders to ensure that the second round takes place "in a similarly peaceful environment and that it will build on the positive aspects of the first round".
Wise words. The Ukrainian presidential election is far from over. The second round will be hard-fought, and the stakes are high. That makes it all the more important that the two camps continue to take the OSCE/ODIHR team into their confidence to maximise the chances of the second round running as smoothly as the first; and to minimise the likelihood of anyone crying foul afterwards. That way, whoever wins will be able to declare the presidential campaign done and dusted and get on with running the country as soon as is reasonably possible.
PS My polling-day blog of 17 January noted that there would be several exit polls published at 20.00 when polls closed, and noted concern about whether they would be accurate. In the event, with over 99% of the vote counted, the results show that several of the exit polls were in fact highly accurate. Congratulations to the organisations concerned! If forecasts are equally accurate in the second round on 7 February that will be a sign that in Ukraine exit polling, too, is now "of high quality".
Voting day in Kyiv today, 17 January and you can see why a veteran (British) politician said to me the other day it was preferable not to hold elections in winter. With a maximum of minus ten degrees Celsius predicted for Kyiv today and steady snow adding to existing falls, conditions are treacherous for would-be voters. A stroll past a few polling stations shows quite a flow of people in and out, many of the more elderly decked out with stout walking sticks, rubber galoshes and thick coats of fur or sheepskin.
The first indication of how the vote has gone will be the exit polls which are due to be released as soon as voting finishes at 8 p.m. local time. According to the BBC, there will be no less than six different exit polls, including a "National Exit Poll" organised by three polling institutes, plus others organised by TV channels or newspapers. Some people argue that these will be more accurate than the various polls conducted through the campaign, not least because the large numbers of "don't knows" will now have made up their minds. But others will view them with the same scepticism as the earlier polls, alleging that they have been manipulated by political parties. It will be interesting to see how close the exit polls are to each other - and, most important of all, to the official results.