On September 20-21, a delegation of observers from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) visited Kyiv to conduct pre-election monitoring and evaluate the election campaign in Ukraine. After meeting with top Ukrainian officials, diplomats, members of major political parties, NGOs and reporters, they called on the Ukrainian government to take a number of steps to ensure free elections and pluralism in the media, and stop the abuse of administrative influence. The Ukrainian Week talks to Andreas Gross, head of the delegation and Chairman of the PACE Social Democratic Group, about PACE’s evaluation of the election situation in Ukraine.
UW: Can you share your observations about the pre-election process in Ukraine?
I’m very concerned about the political situation in Ukraine. I’m particularly referring to those who see no real political alternative. Many citizens feel helpless, confronted with the fact that politics is totally dominated by money. The people who made the Orange Revolution, especially its many thousands of young supporters, are totally disappointed today, have turned their backs on politics and are lost for Ukraine’s future and nobody is trying to get them back. Only an open and pluralistic system would attract them. Instead, it is closed and dominated by big money and oligarch interests. These people are fed up with this situation and would prefer to leave the country. I have been observing elections in Ukraine since 1990 and I’ve visited the country 30 times since then. My impression is that the parties are fighting for power for themselves only, not for the general social interest. I’ve lost many of the illusions I still had the last time I came here. There is no constructive public dialogue. Political forces do not listen to each other. The government denies any positive element about the opposition, and the opposition does the same about the government. Everything is black and white, but real society and real politics are much more subtle and diverse than that.
UW: How does PACE evaluate the government’s planned crackdown on independent media over the past few months?
The media situation is a disaster in Ukraine. It is a symbol of all that is wrong in the country. I’ve heard that one can even buy news on TV. All the big TV channels, other than TVi (which is now losing its audience because it has been removed from the lists of channels provided by operators) are owned by oligarchs who thus determine the state of democracy in the media. Ukrainian TV and radio has no pluralism. This undermines the essence of professional journalism and is essentially the end of journalism. At the same time, the government dominates the courts. With all this on your plate, you might think that you need another democratic revolution. But to do this, you have to wait 25 years for another generation to make it happen, because you cannot make a revolution every ten years.
UW: Does the procedure to set up election commissions implemented by the Ukrainian government meet Council of Europe standards?
This looks like farce to me. The composition of nearly all election commissions will be one-sided. The main task of election commissions at all levels – from local to central – is to choose people who will act as referees, not players. In Ukraine, there are too many players on the commissions. Therefore, many citizens have lost their trust in the election process because there are no conditions for a transparent and fair process, no pluralism in the media, and no reliable sources of information. People feel helpless. This is the reason why so many of them have turned their back on the system, resulting in the degeneration of the political process. That is why you have so much cynicism and no power alternative to that of money in politics. The power of money can only be balanced with the power of citizens, but Ukrainian citizens are now losing their faith in themselves and their future. I find it so disappointing, even depressing.
UW: Yanukovych’s government is trying to persuade the international community that it can control the election using Putin’s video observation system at the polling stations. What is your opinion on the effectiveness of this technology?
The web cameras in Russia were counterproductive for the Kremlin because they helped the opposition prove what had really happened in the March election. And at the end of the day, the web cams documented the vote counting process. In Ukraine, we’ve just heard from the Central Election Commission Chairman that the law was prepared so badly that he does not know whether the cameras will be turned off after 8 p.m. before the counting, or whether the counting will also be recorded – and if so, will this be for the Central Election Commission only, or for the overall public too? This proves that the parliament is not functioning properly because such laws should be clear. A good discussion is a necessary condition for making the right decision – this is one of the essential roles of any parliament. Good laws cannot be made without good discussions. Now, there is a law that is difficult to implement. We pointed at that in our meeting with the Central Election Commission Chairman. There is no way that every polling station will use web cameras as it wishes. This is also an expression of the total failure of democratic institutions in Ukraine because you have a law that does not help to organize fair and good elections. On the contrary, it is a source of confusion and conflict, and may contribute to the election’s lack of legitimacy. A legitimate election process requires transparency and clarity. It is organized so badly in Ukraine, with so many flaws and deficiencies, that the outcome will be very questionable. The webcam law is just a typical example of this.
UW: Has the Ukrainian government failed its free election and democracy test?
It’s too early to say this. My personal opinion is very pessimistic when I see what has been happening over these past weeks in Ukraine. The worst thing is when big money has the power which dominates and breaks a party’s promises after the elections and people no longer trust them. This is a disaster for the development of a democratic society. That’s why I’m very pessimistic at this point. But I still hope that some things will happen that will change the situation.
UW: What is your opinion on the draft law to restore criminal liability for slander that the parliament passed in the first reading?
Now is the worst moment to do such a thing even if it were well done. But this is a very bad draft law. Doing it in this way shows that its aim is to intimidate society further and restrict open debates in the media. Slander is a very sensitive issue, so you should be very careful with it and follow the experience of democratic countries and the standards of the Council of Europe, the EU and the UN. However, the current draft law denies them.
UW: The government’s attempts to impose elements of a police state based on the Russian practice have recently crystallized in Ukraine. Does this mean that Yanukovych’s regime is primarily following Russia’s lead?
Ukraineis in some ways worse than Russia today because you don’t have big demonstrations and mobilized civil society here, which are the assets of Russia. Since last December, demonstrations have been the sign of a growing and strengthening civil society and there have been many positive developments in Russia. Ukraine hasn’t had any. Eight years ago, Ukraine had a revolution. Since then, millions of Ukrainians have become disillusioned and turned their backs on politics. Today, I see many similarities with the times of Kuchma again, especially in the lack of free speech, open media and fair laws. Everybody thought after the Orange Revolution that pluralism and freedom of speech could never ever be destroyed again. Now, they are almost ruined. Ukraine’s democracy is regressing, Russia’s is progressing. My impression is that Yanukovych is not following Putin. Instead, he is organizing his own clan and trying to “clanify” Ukrainian politics. This is even worse.
UW: Will you discuss Ukraine at PACE’s October session?
I don’t think that we will discuss Ukraine in October because of the election. Russia will be discussed at the plenary session and a resolution will be made. We will discuss Ukraine in January 2013 after the election. Our delegation will monitor the election process in Ukraine and prepare the relevant report on the election.
UW: In one of his latest interviews for Die Presse, Minister of Foreign Affairs Kostiantyn Hryshchenko claimed that the Ukrainian government would not release Tymoshenko to sign the Association Agreement and the FTA Agreement. It looks like no efforts by the European community to call on and persuade the Ukrainian government will have the desirable effect…
As far as I understand, he is sacrificing the interests of the majority of Ukrainians to the personal failures of the ruling class, if not the president. I believe that the interest of 45 million Ukrainians is much more significant than the personality of Ms. Tymoshenko. She should be punished politically through elections by the voters who know that she has made bad political mistakes, not through the criminalization of bad government decisions. If the Association Agreement is not signed within the next five years, the living standards and the economy will not improve the way they would together with the EU. Ukraine’s citizens will pay a high price for not signing the agreement. I think that the Ukrainian government should not allow this to happen and has to do everything possible to ensure that it is signed.
UW: The US Senate Committee for International Affairs recently passed a draft resolution proposing sanctions against top Ukrainian officials unless they fulfill demands to release Tymoshenko and other imprisoned opposition leaders. Does the Council of Europe have sufficient grounds to exert pressure on the Ukrainian government?
I’m not a fan of “black pedagogy”. The US and the EU have a lot of political, economic and military power. The Council of Europe has the power of values, respect for principles, and the power to convince as its tool of international influence. We do not apply sanctions. This is not our currency. We can convince others, but not press them with sanctions or restrictions into doing something that is against their will and principle.
UW: Over the years of Yanukovych’s rule in Ukraine, oligarchs have gained much more influence over the country’s economy and politics. How does this affect democracy in Ukraine?
This is the question I asked many people in Ukraine and could never get a clear answer. No other country in Europe has such influential and powerful oligarchs. This shows the legacy of totalitarianism and a specific weakness of Ukrainian society. You don’t have many forces that unite the country but many who divide it. After the suffering caused by totalitarianism and the imposed Famine of 1932-1933 organized by Stalin that killed millions, many people are even more afraid of politics. Some grave mistakes were made after independence. With weak rule of law and a lack of understanding of the market liberalization needed, the oligarch system had a chance to establish itself firmly. We need a basic common reflection on why this happened and what has to be done to change this.