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Ukraine’s election web cameras: hollow eyes

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Aug. 14, 2012, 1:11 p.m. | Op-ed — by Ian Bateson

Ukraine is copying Russia by installing web cameras in all 34,000 Ukrainian polling stations. Many election experts agree that the step does little to prevent election fraud.
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Ian Bateson

Ian Bateson is a staff writer at the Kyiv Post and has contributed to other publications, including Reuters, Al Jazeera, VICE, and die Zeit Online. He can be reached at ian.bateson@gmail.com and followed on Twitter @ianbateson

 This month, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych signed a $125 million bill into law that will install two web cameras in each of Ukraine’s 34,000 polling stations in time for the Oct. 28 parliamentary elections.


 

The move comes after Russia installed web cameras and provided a live feed from polling stations during the March presidential election.  The web cameras were installed in response to accusations of vote tampering during the previous parliamentary election, supported by voter videos from polling stations uploaded to YouTube.

When announcing plans for the legislation, Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov emphasized that web cameras would eliminate any accusations of election fraud.

 “We have decided to set up web cameras at each polling station. This will remove all speculation about the possibility of election fraud.  Interestingly those who talked most about potential election fraud voted against the web cameras. We will get the job done, and everyone will have an opportunity to observe the elections online,” said the Ukrainian prime minister. 

Shielding itself from claims of election fraud is no minor concern for Yanukovych and the Party of the Regions, whose involvement in the flawed first round of the 2004 presidential election led to the Orange Revolution and the eventual election of Viktor Yushchenko.  Though the 2010 presidential election that saw Yanukovych take the presidency was deemed to be free and fair, Ukraine has consistently slid backwards in global freedom rankings since. 

When member of Ukrainian parliament, Valeriy Konovalyuk, initially proposed the legislation in March, protecting the Party of the Regions from allegations of voter fraud also featured heavily in his justification:

"The Installation of video cameras and direct and continuous broadcast of the vote not only provide effective control of the electoral process and prevent various kinds of abuse and violation of election laws, but also protect Ukraine from unfounded and adventurous accusations of undemocratic elections."

His claim that the "law will be implemented within the costs provided by the Central Election Commission for election of deputies of Ukraine in 2012 and funded by international grants and technical assistance," however, never materialized as the international community proved less enthusiastic about web cameras’ ability to ensure free and fair elections than the Ukrainian government. 

The Russian and Ukrainian web camera projects, however, are linked by more than philosophy.  The Russian firm Sitroniks, owned by Russian oligarch Vladimir Yevtushenkov, installed the cameras in Russia and it set to receive the same contract in Ukraine without competitive bidding. 

The head of the Ukrainian Central Elections Committee, Vladimir Shapoval, explained, “There are situation where a request for tender simply isn’t possible because there is no one else to do the job.”  Shapoval, however, expressed frustration at the “purely political” decision that led to the project and saw $135 million in funding materialize in three days after the Central Election Commission’s budget had previously been cut by a third. 

“I think it's just a very successful lobbying project,” commented Andrew Duda of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.

Web cameras ability to deter election fraud is also highly questionable.  Though anyone one is able to “look in” on any of the polling stations, there is no clear mechanism for reporting fraud if it is found, and it is unclear whether the footage could be used in court. 

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which observed the Russian presidential election, stated in its report that there were difficulties obtaining the recordings with access being denied without explanation and footage length limited to thirty minutes.  In Russia the cameras were switched off during the counting of ballots due to a law prohibiting the announcing election results before all polling stations had closed.

The main critique, however, was that the web cameras failed to capture the most common form of voter fraud in the region: carousel voting, whereby large groups are bused to different polling stations in order to cast multiple ballots. 

Given this background it is not immediately clear why the Ukrainian government decided to pursue the installation of web cameras so aggressively.  They neither deter the most common form of election fraud nor provide a clear framework for the use of the footage in cases of fraud, and are a white elephant project for a country still in economic crisis.

What the cameras do is provide an “official” video and Internet narrative to negate any “unofficial” videos posted on the Internet by ordinary voters.  With the advent of more portable video technology the election game has changed with Russia and Ukraine struggling not only to appease foreign observers, but also their own voters.  That was something the Russian government initially found itself unable to do. 

In response to videos of the Russian parliamentary election that seemed to show fraud, the best the government could do was claim that they had been filmed in a studio before the election.  By the time the presidential election rolled around the very existence of the cameras was deemed enough to eliminate any fraud.  The small camera phone of the voter could not compete with the giant eye of state, which it was all too happy to share with others, but only on its terms. 

The Party of the Region’s sees a potential political threat in its poor track record in running elections.  Installing web cameras is one way to confront that threat, but it is an attempt to introduce a Trojan horse of transparency.  One that even if it does not contain a lurking plot to steal away the election, is still hollow.

Ian Bateson is a freelance American  journalist. Follow Ian Bateson on Twitter @ianbateson

 

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