In a New York Times commentary headlined “Ukraine’s troubling trends”, Ashton and Clinton argue that Ukraine stands at an “important juncture” and that Western observers report “some worrying trends” ahead of the polls.
“We are concerned about reports of the use of administrative resources to favor ruling party candidates and the difficulties several media outlets face. … Distribution of material or financial benefits to voters is another issue that should be investigated and halted."
As EurActiv reported, civil society organisations in Ukraine exposed many cases in which local authorities – oblast and regional state administration heads – endorsed candidates or political parties during work hours, using staff and office resources to assist campaigns.
Officials often accompany candidates to meetings with voters and give speeches in their support, which is strictly prohibited. The most high-profile case involves the son of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, Oleksiy, who is running in Donetsk Oblast and has been accompanied and openly endorsed by town mayors and other officials.
The Ukrainian press also disclosed cases of apparent vote-buying. Several humorous cases were reported, including where candidates gave prospective voters gifts of sparking wine, vodka or ice cream featuring their campaign portraits. Food packages, bicycles and textbooks were distributed, while with the approach of the vote, cash is reportedly being used.
Clinton and Ashton write that they expect President Viktor Yanukovich and his government to address these concerns.
‘Ukrainians have done it before’
But more importantly, the joint commentary conveys the message that achieving standards acceptable for the West is in fact in reach.
“We know this is possible because Ukrainians have done it before. Just over two years ago, they elected a new president in what many observers consider the country’s freest and fairest national election. With that contest, Ukrainians set their own high standard, a standard that should be met in this month’s election,” they write.
Setting up as a standard the presidential election held on 7 December 2010, which Yanukovich won, may appear as a surprising move. The election was in a way controversial, as at that time, Yanukovich’s opponent and prime minister at the time, Yulia Tymoshenko, challenged the election in court.
But Western monitors described the election as fair and congratulated Yanukovich.
Ten months later, Tymoshenko and her interior minister Yuri Lutsenko were sentenced to prison for seven and four years, respectively, for abuse of power. Tymoshenko led the 2004 Orange Revolution protests that derailed Yanukovich's first bid for presidency.
The imprisoned former prime minister says she is the victim of a vendetta by Yanukovich. The Ukrainian Central Election Committee’s refused to register Tymoshenko and Lutsenko as candidates. Tymoshenko’s Batkivschyna party is competing in the election in a coalition called United Opposition with Arseniy Yatsenyuk's Front for Change.
Not forgetting Tymoshenko
“We regret that the convictions of opposition leaders during trials that did not meet international standards are preventing them from standing in parliamentary elections. The Ukrainian government needs to address these selective prosecutions, including the case of former Prime Minister Yulia V. Tymoshenko and other former senior officials,” Clinton and Ashton write.
The two Western officials make it plain that the holding of free and fair elections in itself is not enough to unblock the Association Agreement, the signature of which has been pending since March. It took five years to negotiate the 1,000-page agreement, which is coupled with a Deep and Comprehensive Free trade Agreement described by both sides as the most advanced document of this type in EU’s history.
“The European Union will only be able to move forward with such an ambitious agenda if the democratic rights of the Ukrainian people, including freedoms of expression, political participation, association and media, are respected, the rule of law is put on strong footing, and progress is made on the overall reform agenda,” the Western representatives write in the Times.