Dr Charles Tannock

Member of the European Parliament for London

Ukraine’s Borgia campaign

Daily Times (Pakistan) - October 9th 2004

By Elmar Brok, Toomas Ilves and Charles Tannock

President Bush cannot promote democracy in Iraq by cynically sacrificing it in Ukraine. It must be made clear that regardless of Ukraine’s geopolitical importance, the West will not shy away from confronting it when democracy and fundamental human rights are threatened.

With its accusations about poisonings and conspiracies, Ukraine’s presidential election campaign is a spectacle only the Borgias could love. Ten days ago, Viktor Yushchenko, the opposition candidate for president (who is leading in the polls), disappeared from the campaign trail. He re-surfaced in Vienna recovering from what at first was thought to be food poisoning.

But it is now widely alleged in Ukraine that Yushchenko’s food may have been laced with the deadly drug ricin, once a favourite of KGB assassins, who used it in the murder of Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissident, in London in 1978. In most countries, such charges would seem like paranoid delusions. Not in Ukraine, where the current prime minister, and Mr Yushchenko’s leading rival for president, Viktor Yanukovich, has been twice convicted for violent crimes.

Yushchenko has now resumed campaigning, his face partially paralysed when he spoke to a huge rally of supporters in Kiev last week. His opponents cavalierly dismiss the affair, with the deputy head of President Leonid Kuchma’s administration suggesting that Yushchenko should hire a food taster. The matter is now the subject of a criminal investigation. Suspicions of foul play deepened when the opposition’s second-leading figure, Yuliya Tymoshenko, a former deputy prime minister, was summoned by a Moscow prosecutor to answer questions related to charges that years ago she bribed a Russian military officer to benefit the gas firm she headed. Indeed, Russia’s military prosecutor has now issued an international arrest warrant for her, even though the officer she is accused of bribing was acquitted in a trial in Moscow last year of the very charges that prosecutors now want to question her about.Coming on the heels of Yushchenko’s alleged poisoning, the timing of the move against Tymoshenko appears to be anything but coincidental. Indeed, the case was reopened while Yushchenko was hospitalised — thus threatening to decapitate the opposition with barely a month to go before the presidential election on October 31.

Such strong-arm tactics are all the more distressing because according to the most recent opinion polls Ukraine’s opposition has a real chance of winning. Against all odds, Ukraine’s opposition groups have helped forge a civil society and healthy political parties far beyond anything seen in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Indeed, Russia’s president is rallying behind Yanukovich, who has open backing from Russia’s ambassador in Kiev, former prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. Yanukovich represents the Donetsk clan, one of several geographically defined oligarchic groups that compete to dominate Ukrainian business and politics. He has little sway over either the Kiev clan, led by Viktor Medvedchuk, Kuchma’s chief of staff, or the Dnipropetrovsk clan of Viktor Pinchuk, Kuchma’s son-in-law. But both oligarchs prefer Yanukovich to Yushchenko, who has vowed to “end corruption” and send “bandits” to jail.

Yushchenko’s promises resonate across Ukraine. Even though the oligarchs control all but one of the main television stations, he remains popular. Under President Kuchma, the economy has recently started to boom — thanks partly to Yushchenko’s brief, reformist premiership four years ago — but the oligarchs’ grip has grown tighter. In June, a consortium led by Pinchuk and Rinat Akhmetov, a Donetsk magnate, bought a state-owned steelworks in an auction allegedly rigged to specifically exclude foreign bidders offering two or three times as much. The move was probably more than just another property grab; it also suggests an effort to forge an inter-clan alliance for the post-Kuchma period. Such an alliance would make Yushchenko’s rule, if he wins, more difficult — and he knows it. So he is cagey about plans to confront the oligarchs. “I don’t exclude investigations of the clans behind Medvedchuk or Yanukovich, but the rest of business wants clear rules,” he says. By leaving Pinchuk off this list, Yushchenko may be hinting that he wants a truce with Ukraine’s most powerful magnate should he become president.

Europe, America, and the wider world must not stand idle if Ukraine’s rulers and oligarchs try to steal this election by any means at their disposal. Pressure must be brought to bear on Kuchma to ensure that the vote in October is transparently free and fair. Otherwise, Kiev might witness the type of protests — and the risk of civil war — that brought down Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia in 2000 and Eduard Schevardnadze’s government in Georgia last year.

Applying pressure won’t be easy. For years, President Kuchma has been in the West’s doghouse, but Europe and the United States stepped gingerly, wary of pushing him into Russia’s waiting embrace. Moreover, Kuchma’s decision to send Ukrainian troops to Iraq divided the Western alliance, as he came into America’s good graces. Perhaps unwisely, Yushchenko publicly called for troop withdrawal from Iraq after casualties were sustained.But President Bush cannot promote democracy in Iraq by cynically sacrificing it in Ukraine. Europe and the US must address the corruption allegedly surrounding the Kuchma government and its efforts to maintain power by manipulating the choice of his successor. All efforts to subvert the electoral process should be met with clear warnings that current and future aid, as well as trade privileges such as accelerated WTO accession, will be in jeopardy.

Most ordinary Ukrainians desperately want to be part of Europe. These aspirations can be used to encourage Kiev to turn toward the West and democracy. But it must be made clear that regardless of Ukraine’s geopolitical importance, the West will not shy away from confronting it when democracy and fundamental human rights are threatened. —DT-PS

Elmar Brok is chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the European Parliament and senior official of the CDU Party in Germany; Toomas Ilves is a former foreign minister of Estonia and vice-chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the European Parliament; Charles Tannock is the Conservative foreign affairs spokesman in the European Parliament and vice-chairman of its Ukraine delegation