The government is searching for mechanisms to offset the huge loss of popularity over the past two years. It appears that administrative leverage, manipulations and falsifications are going to be applied on a massive scale.
Based on various surveys, the current rating of those in power ranges between 14-18%. According to the mass media, even Andriy Kliuyev, the head of the Party of the Regions’ election team, had no choice but to inform the President of his doubts about the party’s chances of winning a simple majority, let alone a constitutional one, in the parliamentary election.
FISTS AT THE READY
Commenting on this failure of Mr. Yanukovych and his Russian spin doctors in 2004, one of them, Gleb Pavlovski, said the Ukrainian revolution “just didn’t get a timely punched in the face”. In spite of the dubiousness of this opinion, it appears that the government is taking it seriously. This is particularly so for those nudging the president to attain victory no matter what, even if it involves taking advantage of personal complexes and stereotypes. Today, Mr. Yanukovych and his team are accumulating all possible power leverages in their hands and they are doing so openly and even demonstratively. The appointment of people, supposedly linked to the president’s older son, to top positions in the Interior Ministry and the Tax Administration heralded the beginning of purges. Those loyal to the new administration found themselves in key offices throughout the entire hierarchy. A similar fate probably also awaits the SBU and the Defense Ministry, the new administration of which is also considered to be close to Oleksandr, the President’s older son.
In addition to clearly signaling the government’s readiness for a coercive scenario, these personnel shifts give grounds for other serious conclusions. The assumption emerges that the leading oligarchs will propose that Mr. Yanukovych does not run in the 2015 presidential election, appoint a successor and step down from politics with guaranteed security, if the current government loses the upcoming parliamentary election. However, the effective President may believe – and for good reason – that his only credible guarantee is to stay in power. Hence it is not only the opposition that could be facing major problems during and after the parliamentary election, but also the Donetsk oligarchic circle. When all is said and done, the latter are already moving away from “state affairs”, since the enforcement block is in the hands of the President’s group of influence while the economy is being delegated to the Firtash-Boyko-Khoroshkovsky alliance.
SURPRISES FOR THE OPPOSITION
Given the dialogues on the Zabzaliuk recordings, which have been released to the public, the government is preparing to apply a huge arsenal of instruments for the parliamentary election campaign (see THE TAPE SCANDAL below). For some reason, the mass media does not mention this as often as, for example, the circumstances or the bribe amounts given to crossover MPs, after all, this, unfortunately, no longer comes as a surprise to anyone in Ukraine.
In addition to clear hints of the application of repressive tools, people on the Zabzaliuk recordings talk about plans to have representatives of the party in power formally “represent” the opposition in electoral commissions. This will allow those in power to take the necessary decisions in commissions, where the government may not even have a formal majority. The outcome is clear, based on the 2010 local election and subsequent by-elections. Using legislation which has expanded the powers of electoral commissions as an excuse, they can get rid of all the representatives of the opposition, observers and journalists, claiming that they “interfere with the work of the commission” and provide the outcome required by the government. This is what almost happened in the Chervonoarmiysk Region of the Zhytomyr Oblast, at the pre-term election to the oblast council of majority constituency 41 on February 12, 2012. Prior to the election, the oblast electoral commission refused to register official observers from one of the opposition candidates. On February 10, 2012, the Zhytomyr County Administrative Court instructed the District Electoral Commission (DEC) to register the official observers from this candidate. The DEC disagreed with this decision and filed an appeal. On February 11, 2012. The Zhytomyr Court of Administrative Appeal dismissed the appeal and ordered the DEC to register 38 official observers from the opposition candidate. However, on that same day, the DEC, which was largely comprised of government representatives, refused to execute the order, throwing out the observers. Electoral Commission members only calmed down after the intervention of the police.
An intense search is currently under way for pseudo-opposition “new faces”, first and foremost on the agricultural territories of future constituencies. This is precisely what the voice, sounding very much like that of Ihor Rybakov, the leader of the pro-government Reforms for the Future faction in parliament, says on the Zabzaliuk recordings. Such new faces will be offered extensive support (administrative resource) from the government and financial support from the businesses close to it.
The most susceptible are the candidates in majority constituencies. The government is trying to recreate the 2002 success of ZaYedU (For a Single Ukraine), which with a rating of 12%, directly or indirectly, was able to lure most majority constituency MPs of the 4th Convention of the Verkhovna Rada to its bloc. The opposition’s plan to present a single list of majority constituency candidates envisaged by the united opposition agreement signed on January 22, 2012 raised doubts about the success of this technology. The abovementioned Zhytomyr Oblast Council election confirmed this, when in spite of the large-scale application of administrative resource, the single candidate representing Batkivshchyna (Homeland, the Bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko) and Front Zmin (The Front of Changes, the party led by Arseniy Yatseniuk) won with 43% of the vote, which is fairly good for majority constituency elections in Central Ukraine. Unlike earlier projections of victory for pro-government candidates in the amount of 160-180 of the total 225 majority constituencies in Ukraine, the opposition is now talking about their certainty of victory in most of them and the intention to fight for a further 1/3, determining that the party in power can only be assured of victory in no more than 35-40 constituencies.
However, it is too early for the opposition to rest on its laurels. What guarantees are there that an inconvenient candidate, approved and nominated by the united opposition, will be registered in the first place? Taras Chornovil, Mr. Rybakov’s former party faction colleague, virtually confirmed this in a recent interview for The Ukrainian Week. One option is for a court to cancel the party meeting to nominate a candidate, based on a complaint from one or several delegates. Even though the Central Election Committee (CEC) cannot exclude candidates from running under the new law, the Prosecutor’s Office can. In the 2010 election in Crimea, candidates not allied to the Party of Regions were largely prohibited from running on the grounds of criminal charges. Opposition candidates can also be accused of election violations. After all, it is easy to imitate the bribery of voters, punishable under Art. 157 of the Criminal Code. Prosecutors are not the only ones who can intimidate majority constituency candidates. Since many candidates will probably be business owners, pressure from tax inspectors and the Department for Fighting against Economic Crimes (UBEZ) can also be brought to bear.
The government has the leverage to use milder yet efficient mechanisms to misrepresent the will of the voter. These include the reshaping of constituencies to suit the interests of certain deputies from the party in power. Currently, virtually all members of the CEC are controlled by the government. The biggest risk for the opposition is the creation of an unfair and uncompetitive environment for the election campaign, from the mass bribing of voters to the total domination of pro-government forces in the media. According to some insiders in the Kyiv branch of the Party of Regions, virtually all the spin doctors of Leonid Chernovetsky, who directly bribed voters during the municipal election, are now working for the Party of Regions.
AND NO ONE WILL KNOW…
Meanwhile, preparations continue to neutralize the timely and proper response of the West to the election campaign in Ukraine. The scenario is based on classical practices reflecting the history and methods used by soviet special services for their operations. One example is the reaction to the recent announcement on the suspension of some EU financial aid programs for Kyiv made by Jose Manuel Pintu Teixeira, Head of the European Commission Representative Ofice in Ukraine. Several members of the mass media spread distorted information about what Mr. Teixeira said, to make it appear that he spoke against the government. Sources in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs claim the plan was to further fuel the scandal in the form of a protest from the Ukrainian side. However, this knot of “distortions” and “inaccurate delivery of information” was untied fairly quickly and the conflict petered out. Similar cases, as well as the earlier incident, when the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs incorrectly commented on the alleged recall of the then French Ambassador, Jacques Faure,as a result of his statements in the summer of 2011 regarding Ms. Tymoshenko, signal that diplomats working in Ukraine for an extended period, who are well aware of the true situation and capable of informing leading countries of local developments, could become victims of special media campaigns to discredit their reputation as a source of information.
On the other hand, Ukrainian authorities are establishing their own mouthpieces in Europe. January 2012 saw the opening of the European Center for Modern Ukraine in Brussels. Rumor has it that Leonid Kozhara, a Party of Regions MP, will be involved in it. Potential partners include European experts known for their earlier comments in favor of the Russian or effective Ukrainian government, such as Inna Kirsch. Such centers are supposed to create an “informational noise”, backing up the traditional view of “CIS observers” that “everything is just fine” in Ukraine.
Another interesting trait is that American spin doctors directed by Paul Manafort have made a huge contribution into the improvement of Mr. Yanukovych’s image over 2005-2010. They were supposedly the ones to lead the Party of Regions away from its “because” slogan and the division of Ukraine into three classes, to the more civilized “bettering life today” rhetoric and other slogans that are acceptable in the modern world. It looks as if Mr. Yanukovych & Co will not require Mr. Manafort’s services this year though. It’s possible that his former clients have revised their idea on ways to gain and maintain power.
CHANGING RULES IN THE MIDDLE OF THE GAME
When the Verkhovna Rada passed the new election law in November 2011 with 336 votes, which is unprecedented of late, the few critical voices were drowned out in the unanimous choir of the Party of Regions, BYuT and The Front of Changes. Most opposition members claimed the decision to vote for the law was right. They said that the provisions, banning the CEC from excluding candidates from running in the election and allowing electoral commissions to approve decisions by a majority of total members, not necessarily members present, would prevent falsification. Thus, the government ended up with a threshold raised to 5%, the reinstatement of the mixed majority-proportional voting system, a ban on the participation of blocs in elections, and the approval of the EU that it needed so badly.
Counter to the 1998 ruling of the Constitutional Court, the new law allows candidates to be nominated both in party lists and majority constituencies at the same time. According to some observers, this provision was left there on purpose to have the election rules revised on perfectly legitimate grounds. To do this, the authorities would have to file an appeal to the Constitutional Court claiming that the new law runs counter to the Constitution and ultimately change the election law, based on the Constitutional Court’s ruling. When presenting his recordings to the media, Roman Zabzaliuk said that he did indeed sign a relevant appeal, drafted by Reforms for the Future, the faction he “crossed over” to.
Without the back-up of being on party lists, majority constituency candidates will be more vulnerable to administrative pressure during the election. If they lose, they risk being defenseless in the face of possible revenge, as confirmed by the fate of Yulia Tymoshenko and Yuriy Lutsenko, who no longer had a deputy’s mandate. On the other hand, competition will be fierce for places in opposition party lists and subsequently the fuelling of conflicts within the opposition.
The government is likely to pass changes in the election law to cut the threshold, make life easier for the Party of Regions’ satellite parties, such as Volodymyr Lytvyn’s bloc, and mess up the opposition’s plans. The latter then would end up with a huge list of “technical opposition members” instead of the four columns and one approved list of majority constituency candidates. Many of these technical opposition members would have chances to get into parliament both on party lists and as majority constituency candidates, then once in parliament, switch to the party in power.
THE NECESSARY DEFENSE
The worst thing the opposition can do in this case is to sit and do nothing. In fact, it has already taken some steps to respond to the threats. It has signed an agreement for joint actions, the provisions of which are specified in more technical agreements between the participants. Some initiatives come up on the local level – the leading opposition parties in the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast have agreed to hold primaries in order to determine a single candidate in each constituency.
By the way, such primaries could be an answer to the government’s attempts to bring potential crossovers into parliament through opposition party lists, based on agreements with party leaders). After all, people, including candidates, potential commission members, observers, representatives and others, who can be involved in the election process, play a role that is difficult to overestimate. If these people, who have moral values, manage to resist pressure and bribery, falsification scenarios could fail. But this can only happen if the opposition finds such people and begins to prepare them using the joint forces of the united opposition right now.
THE TAPE SCANDAL
On 23 December, Roman Zabzaliuk, a 17-year veteran of Yulia Tymoshenko’s party, unexpectedly quit BYuT. The press learned of this almost immediately, but it was only on 10 January that VR Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn announced that he had joined Reforms for the Future, the party of MPs that switched from opposition factions to the Party of Regions, despite the fact that Mr. Zabzaliuk had written an official request to join the party on 27 December.
There was no explanation foro this step, taken by Mr. Zabzaliuk. In was only on 8 February, that he held a press conference, during which he made a sensational statement: this was a “special operation”. To quit BYuT, Mr. Zabzaliuk received a payout of USD 450,000 from Ihor Rybakov, leader of the Reforms for the Future faction. To confirm his words, Mr. Zabzaliuk presented five one-minute fragments of recorded and transcribed telephone conversations.
The recordings feature a voice that sounds like Mr. Rybakov. He discusses the cost of buying an MP – USD 500,000; “extra payments” mechanisms or USD 20,000 monthly for “voting properly”; and tools for falsifying the upcoming parliamentary election.
Below are the transcripts of fragments of Zabzaliuk’s recordings, originally in Russian, where a voice that sounds like Ihor Rybakov talks about buying MPs and falsifying elections
1) Z (Roman Zabzaliuk).: Can I start the conversation with around USD 500,000? Can I say that?
R (Ihor Rybakov): Yes, yes, yes, yes! Start with USD 500,000 and then the rest if they do everything right. That’s one thing. The other thing is that, if we have a deal with them, I need candidates in Western Ukraine as much as I need air to breathe.
Z.: You mean for Oblast Electoral Commissions or deputies?
R.: Candidates, goddamn it. They will be putting pressure on BYuT and Yatsyk (Yatseniuk – ed.) there.
2) R.: We need any candidates. Any f…ing candidates! The main thing is for them to be on our side. We need candidates that are popular in Western Ukraine. I don’t give a f…k, where they’re from. The main thing for me is to have these slaves… We’ll give them the majority constituencies. All the leverage we have: Oblast authorities, the governor, heads of administrations, SBU, the Prosecutor’s Office – all of them will support them. The entire administrative resource. So tough, they’ll be f…cked.
The Ukrainian Week talked with French cybersecurity expert Christine Dugoin-Clément about mechanisms for fighting fake news, the prospects for certifying true information, and the likelihood of separating propaganda from journalism once and for all.