Three days before Americans go to the polls to select a president, Ukrainians do the same. These elections and the balloting in Afghanistan are perhaps the three most consequential elections of 2004. But while the U.S. voting is expected to be free and fair, the one in Ukraine is likely to be anything but that.
The outcome of the U.S. election can produce some differences in policy, but the way in which Ukraine's election is conducted -- at least as important as who wins -- can determine whether it continues its march toward post-Soviet democracy or slides back toward authoritarian rule.
Corruption in Ukrainian politics -- and attention called to it -- largely explain why the current president, Leonid Kuchma, is not seeking a third five-year term. Even in a society still struggling to rid itself of its communist and apparatchik past, irregularities and worse were too much to bear. But as has happened in some other post-communist societies, it is not evident whether this whiff of reform, the rejection of one corrupt leader, will produce lasting change in Ukrainian politics or only give way to more of the same.
Already, the run-up to elections has been replete with more than the usual dirty tricks. Worst of all, the Kuchma faction has tight control of virtually all the electronic media and a large part of the written press, so that even Justice Louis Brandeis' prescription that "sunlight is the best disinfectant" is denied to most Ukrainians. Indeed, this faction in power has been taking a leaf out of the anti-democratic book of Russian President Vladimir Putin, both by example and by importing Russian "technical spin doctors" to poison the electoral well.
It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that the Kuchma candidate, the current prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych could, if elected, become a credible president. He has a reasonable record of economic and social reform, and Ukraine's economy has been taking off to a degree only dreamed of a few years ago. To be sure, Yanukovych has opened the sluice gates of public spending -- particularly pensions and other direct payments -- but that indirect form of "buying votes" is practiced in other countries, including the United States.
Yanukovych has also been playing the nationalist card with the significant fraction of Ukrainians who are either part (or all) Russian or who are drawn more to the East than the West. And his party has been producing posters designed to conflate the opposition candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, with George Bush, notably in a composite photo that combines half the face of each man, another "humorous" tactic not unknown in the West.
Nevertheless, Yanukovych is far from incompetent, and his efforts as prime minister show awareness that reform of the Ukrainian economy is inescapable.
In the new Ukraine, however, political process is beginning to matter, a definite good sign in the slow progress to full democracy. A rising middleclass -- visible in the stunning modernization of the Ukrainian capital, Kiev -- is bringing with it demands for a matching politics. Indeed, despite the sophistication of the current regime's politicking and its near monopoly of the media, the opposition candidate -- Yushchenko -- has a clear lead in every opinion poll and is even ahead in government-sponsored polling.
In addition to a widespread rejection of the old politics, this reflects the fact that economic growth began when Yushchenko was prime minister (until 2001) and he took on the politically dangerous task of ensuring that revenues flowing from the energy sector made it into government coffers instead of private hands, thus laying the basis for balanced budgets and sound fiscal and monetary policies.
The most dramatic evidence of skullduggery -- by someone unknown -- was the apparent poisoning of the challenger, who has still not fully recovered. This is not unknown in Ukrainian (or Soviet) politics and has reinforced concern that the election will be stolen.
To counter that prospect, a small legion of foreign election observers will descend on Ukraine, including more than 1,000 watchers funded by the U.S. government and organized by Freedom House -- some for the Oct. 31 vote, a much larger number for the likely run-off three weeks later.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation is sending others, but so is the Commonwealth of Independent States -- Russian dominated and thus promising to rubberstamp anything that Prime Minister Yanukovych's people choose to do.
Unfortunately, the European Union is passing up the chance to promote "clean hands." Clearly, far more non-Russian outsider observers are needed if Ukraine is to have a chance at a free and fair election.
The stakes in the election are immense, including whether Ukraine will continue to immerse itself in the West or risk being absorbed in a new Russian quasi-empire. A stolen election would also significantly set back this society and its politics, badly tainting both the new president and the entire process -- whichever "Viktor" is victorious. That clearly matters to the people of Ukraine and to every one else concerned with its democracy.
Robert E. Hunter is a senior advisor at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization. He was U.S. ambassador to NATO from 1993 to 1998.
This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on October 22, 2004. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.