A rigged or fraudulent election would be a national tragedy, undoing one of the few accomplishments of the last five years: Ukraine’s ability to hold a democratic presidential election on Dec. 26, 2004, followed by two mostly free and fair parliamentary elections in 2006 and 2007.
But as the Jan. 17 vote approached, leading presidential candidates sounded alarm bells and accused each other of plotting massive fraud. Whether the threats are real or simply pre-election hype will be known sometime next week.
Here’s a look back to the dark days of 2004 at what went wrong then, how it was righted by the Orange Revolution and the ultimate Dec. 26 election of President Victor Yushchenko and what is at stake for the country. The following summary was pulled together from numerous reliable accounts, including books, interviews and newspaper articles:
Back to the future?
The fix was on to rig the 2004 presidential election as early as April of that year, according to multiple sources. The aim by authorities was clear-cut: To transfer power from authoritarian President Leonid Kuchma to his chosen successor, the twice-imprisoned then-prime minister, Victor Yanukovych.
The scheme was modeled after the Russian transition from Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin in 2000. Presidential chief of staff Victor Medvedchuk was supposed to remain in that position to smoothen the transition, given Yanukovych’s relative inexperience in national politics. He had been prime minister for less than two years then.
However, this time the opposition knew about the plans to hijack the electoral process – and democracy – well in advance. “We had been preparing to counter the election fraud for one and a half years prior to the elections,” said Mykola Katerynchuk, Yushchenko’s chief counsel in the Supreme Court following the Nov. 21, 2004, runoff between Yanukovych and Yushchenko.
The plan was to give Yanukovych a modest 3 percent margin of victory over opposition leader Yushchenko, regardless of how Ukrainians voted, according to unverified yet high-quality audio recordings. Oleh Rybachuk, Yushchenko’s chief of staff during the election, obtained the audio recordings allegedly from a State Security Service source.
Rybachuk was believed to have been the chief conduit between the State Security Service – popularly known as the SBU -- that was supplying the Yushchenko team with useful information about Yanukovych’s actions.
The recordings weren’t allowed as evidence during the Supreme Court hearing into election fraud.
To complete the task of Yanukovych victory, the entire top-down state machinery had been mobilized – including an estimated 85,000 state employees --- according to the respected Committee of Voters of Ukraine watchdog. The co-conspirators would include members of the Central Election Commission, Transport Ministry, Interior Ministry, and local and regional government administrations. The CEC’s central computer would be tampered with and fake exit polls, creating the public expectation of Yanukovych victory, would be commissioned.
Russian-based printing presses rolled out counterfeit ballots. Even the Moscow Patriarchate Orthodox Church, with millions of loyal followers in Ukraine, got into the act with sermons demonizing Yushchenko as an American stooge while promoting Yanukovych.
An estimated $393 million was spent on Yanukovych’s campaign, of which $17 million was doled out to dummy candidates. By comparison, American presidential candidates George Bush Jr. and John Kerry spent a combined $600 million in 2004.
Earlier in 2004, Yanukovych said he wanted to see a free and fair election. “I want to see Ukraine and myself ending these elections spotless,” candidate Yanukovych told the Associated Press on July 15, 2004.
Instead, the Yushchenko campaign documented more than 18,000 election violations in 18 oblasts while Yanukovych filed 750 charges of fraud and intimidation. After the vote, the expectation of Yanukovych was reinforced by a premature congratulatory phone call from then-Russian President Vladimir Putin on Nov. 22 – before the official results were even announced. Putin would again congratulate by telegram later as crowds on Kyiv’s Independence Square turned into a massive tent city protesting the stolen election.
Media reports, scholarly accounts and unverified recordings of telephone conversations allege that Yanukovych’s campaign strategy was the brainchild of Medvedchuk – charges he vehemently denied. “I never stole anything. I’ve always been a law-abiding citizen. I haven’t seen or known who falsified the presidential elections and have a moral right to hold public office,” Medvedchuk said in Chernivtsi on Nov. 23, 2005.
Medvedchuk has told the media that he has since filed nine lawsuits regarding accusations in his involvement in the 2004 election rigging, all of which ended with rulings that he was not involved.
The star team
The media labeled Medvedchuk’s secret outfit the Zoriany (Star) team because they were allegedly housed in the Zoriany cinema on Kyiv’s Moskovska Street. They allegedly had access passwords to the CEC computer server which, according to Halyna Mandrusova, then in charge of the CEC central database, were locked up in the safe of Serhiy Kivalov – CEC chief and Yanukovych's ally.
Zoriany was located barely a half-mile from the CEC and it is alleged that they were connected to the CEC computer system via a fiber optic cable and that they controlled vote counting from the cinema during the first Oct. 31 and second Nov. 21 round of elections. They allegedly did the initial vote counting, not the CEC.
“In both rounds there were significant time delays in the posting of results [that came out] in large volumes with intervals instead of the usual, real-time gradual flow of voting results on election day,” said lawyer Katerynchuk.
The CEC’s Mandrusova testified on behalf of Yushchenko with proof that the election commission’s central computer was being manipulated externally.
Also, a report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe criticized the national election commission for: not publicizing the number of ballots it printed; not resolving problems with the computerized tabulation of results; not carrying out Supreme Court decisions related to election complaints; failing to improve accounting of absentee ballots, allowing for “large-scale multiple voting;” and failing to fix flawed voter lists.
“The international election observation mission calls upon the CEC to act as a politically neutral administrative body, and reiterates its appeal to the CEC to post on its website all polling station commission results for both election rounds … as soon as they are received,” the report read.
The Zoriany gang allegedly included the multi-millionaire Kluyev brothers, Serhiy and Andriy, reputedly Yanukovych fixers. Serhiy was the deputy chair of the Donetsk city council and the Party of Regions’ treasurer while Andriy was the first deputy minister for the notoriously corrupt energy sector, head of Yanukovych’s campaign office and allegedly oversaw the flow of voting data entering the CEC’s database, according to media reports and audio recordings.
The outfit also involved: Serhiy Lyovochkin, Kuchma’s former adviser and today a Party of Regions parliamentarian. In 2004, he also sat on the supervisory board of state telephone company Ukrtelecom; Eduard Prutnik, coordinator of financial resources and former head of the State Committee of Television and Radio; Oleh Tsaryov, Party of Regions lawmaker; and Yuriy Levenets, one of Yanukovych’s key Russian political “technologists.”
A number of information technology specialists have also been implicated in media reports and audio recordings involved in computer tampering: Heorhiy Dzekon, Ukrtelecom board chairman; Yevhen Zymin and Serhiy Katkov, high-level employees of Soft-Tronik, a company that dealt in fiber optic transport networks and which was part of an Austrian holding company.
Election day fraud
But the Zoriany team was only the last link in the chain. According to OSCE observers, intimidation was prevalent during the Nov 21 vote. Unauthorized persons, including police and local state officials, were present in almost half of the polling stations visited by observers. Police were present in 59 percent of polling stations while unauthorized persons were present at 38 percent of the territorial election commissions. The OSCE estimated that 5 percent of ballots were added to the ones cast by the voters, mostly through absentee ballots.
Suspiciously high voter turnout was reported in many central and eastern regions. Donetsk had a highly suspicious 96.7 percent turnout, 18.6 percent more than in the first round. “It’s good that so many people come to the polling stations,” Kivalov said on Nov. 23, 2004, when asked about the suspiciously high turnout.
OSCE observers witnessed and reported: “Abuse of state resources in favor of Yanukovych;” pressure on citizens whose livelihood depends directly or indirectly upon the state to acquire and surrender to their superiors “absentee ballots,” thus depriving them of the right to vote; multiple votes using absentee ballots with some voters being transported by bus in a number of regions; reluctance of the CEC to grant relief on complaints, thus impeding legal recourse where violations occurred; last minute dismissals of polling station commission members from the opposition; overt bias in the state-funded media; and inflammatory campaign language targeting Yushchenko.
All the violations added up to an estimated 2.8 million fraudulent votes, according to the Ukrainian Committee of Voters, more than enough to put Yanukovych over the top. “There was certainly fraud, though this is difficult to quantify,” Gert-Hinrich Ahrens, a leading member of OSCE observer delegation told CNN on Nov. 23, 2004.
Abuses were high in the fraudulent Nov. 21 second round in central Ukraine; when those fraud opportunities were squeezed out in the Dec. 26 third round, Yushchenko’s clear-cut support in these regions became evident.
Yanukovych, the victor
The authorities funded a number of fake exit polls to rival the traditional one financed by Western embassies and international organizations. The real struggle was to establish which version of the parallel exit polls people would be more likely to believe. The state-controlled and Russian media ended up citing the “new” polls to confuse viewers.
Kivalov is today a leading lawmaker in Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. His job then was to collect, count and announce the result. He took less than two days to declare Yanukovych’s victory, on Nov. 24, despite persistent calls by American and European leaders to investigate the large number of outstanding election charges. Kivalov has since written a book enying any culpability in fixing the 2004 election.
“Overall, state executive authorities and the Central Election Commission displayed a lack of will to conduct a genuine democratic elections process,” an OSCE report concluded. “The second round of voting was compromised by significant shortcomings.”
Despite the widespread reports, Yanukovych was insistent he had won. “The Ukrainian people have spoken,” Yanukovych’s campaign manager and current presidential candidate, Serhiy Tigipko said on Nov. 24. “After a spirited campaign with two rounds of voting, they have chosen Victor Yanukovych as their new president. Now is the time for Ukraine to move forward and for Mr. Yushchenko to concede the election for the good of the nation.”
Tensions and fears that bloodshed could break out between hundreds of thousands of street side protesters and state militia were high in 2004. Current Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, Yushchenko’s key ally back then, played a major role in rallying Orange Revolution protesters against the election fraud. In an attempt to mount the pressure against the Kuchma-Yanukovych regime, she called protesters to “surround all government buildings, block railways, airports and highways.”
“We have a strict intention to seize power in our hands at these sites,” she said.
At one point, opposition supporters from the youth-backed Pora civil movement had boxed Kuchma inside his dacha outside of Kyiv in late November. Poland’s former President Aleksandr Kwasniewski, who played an integral role in the European intervention in the post-election crisis, told him then: “If you are stuck in the middle of nowhere, it means you have no power.”
Almost overnight, the immense power yielded by the Kuchma regime seemed impotent against the protesters. Hryhoriy Surkis, current president of Ukraine’s Football Federation and former lawmaker; Medvedchuk, Kuchma’s former chief of staff; and billionaire Victor Pinchuk, Kuchma’s son-in-law; Hennadiy Vasyliev, then general prosecutor; and Mykola Bilokon, the interior minister were among those placed on Washington, D.C.’s visa watch list. They were banned from entering the United States based on “a presidential proclamation that gives the U.S. government the authority to deny visas to foreigners engaged in corruption and undermining their country’s election process,” the Washington Post reported on Nov. 18, 2004.
Anger and despair erupted into massive protests around the nation, the largest centering on Kyiv’s main square, Maidan Nezalezhnosti.
There were unconfirmed reports that up to 500 Russian special military forces were deployed at an Interior Ministry military base in Irpin, near Kyiv, according to Jane’s Intelligence Digest. According to media reports, those troops included two bodyguard details for Kuchma, Medvedchuk and their families. Ukraine’s secret service denied these reports, as did Russian officials.
Court cancels results
The opposition filed 18,000 complaints with the Supreme Court on Nov. 29, which effectively halted the process of moving Yanukovych closer to the presidency, according to lawyer Katerynchuk.
On Dec. 3, the Supreme Court partially recognized Yushchenko’s claims of election fraud in eight of Ukraine’s 25 administrative districts. After a five-day televised hearing, the court also cancelled the CEC’s decision declaring Yanukovych winner of the second-round runoff. A repeat vote was ordered.
“It’s long been obvious that in 2004, the Supreme Court of Ukraine illegally ordered the third round of the election to take place, and accusations of [election] falsification were unproven,” Kivalov said in an e-mail message to the Kyiv Post.
The judges accepted most of Yushchenko’s accusations that the government’s manipulations had prevented a free and fair election. Yushchenko lawyer Katerynchuk said his strategy was to show that fraud was so widespread that it was impossible to know the result. The ruling read by Anatoly Yarema, the presiding judge, cited “unlawful” misconduct by the CEC that made it “impossible to declare who won.”
Five years later, only some 60 low-level state employees were ever convicted of election-related fraud, according to Katerynchuk. “This shouldn’t have gone unpunished,” he said. “Kuchma’s criminal regime is still largely intact.”
In the middle of this tense standoff, an international roundtable was under way to mediate. It included the two candidates, Kuchma, Verkhovna Rada Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn, OSCE officials, European Union High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana, Polish President Kwasniewski, Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus, Polish foreign affairs minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz (also Chairman of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe) and Russian Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov.
Part of the talks focused on giving Kuchma immunity from prosecution. While no formal or public agreement was ever disclosed, it appears that the ex-president got a de facto pledge of immunity from Yushchenko. In five years of Yushchenko’s presidency, no credible investigations were conducted into Kuchma-era crimes, including the 2004 election fraud, the 2000 murder of muckraking journalist Georgiy Gongadze and the 1999-2000 audiotapes that purportedly captured Kuchma plotting dozens of crimes.
A truce was reached in which Yushchenko agreed to constitutional changes that, in 2006, weakened presidential powers and shifted them to parliament. Experts refer to this as the “Kuchma-Medvedchuk” compromise.
On Dec. 8, 2004, parliament passed the proposed constitutional changes that were the outcome of the international roundtable. All parties in parliament – except Tymoshenko’s bloc, whose members urged Yushchenko to retain full presidential powers – voted for the amendments. Yushchenko decisively won the repeat vote on Dec. 26.
Five years later, Medvedchuk and his inner circle have become supporters of presidential front-runner Tymoshenko. Medvedchuk even published a column last month admitting that the constitutional changes were a mistake. He joined Tymoshenko in calling for a return to stronger presidential powers.
Meanwhile, no one mentioned in this article has been convicted of crimes related to election fraud. Most have never been charged with anything. Some people, like Kivalov, were even given awards by Yushchenko. And, in a twist of fate that has proven hard for many Ukrainians to stomach, Kivalov currently heads parliament’s justice committee and serves as dean of an Odessa-based law academy.
“No criminal cases have been opened (against me) and this affirms that all of the CEC members acted within the confines of the law, without any abuse (of the law),” Kivalov said.
On Jan. 5, 2005, Kuchma accepted Yanukovych’s resignation as prime minister and temporarily replaced him with trusted confidant Mykola Azarov.
Azarov took care of Kuchma’s retirement package two weeks later by securing for him the right to draw a full presidential salary, to use state dacha number 72 and its staff, and to have two cars and four drivers. His travel and medical care would be free for himself and his wife.
The humiliated ex-president, who many Ukrainians think should be in prison, also received a discount on electricity bills, an adviser and two assistants. These perks were to be covered by the taxpayers for the rest of his life, but Tymoshenko as prime minister moved to cancel them.
Kyiv Post staff writer Mark Rachkevych can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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