Russia Watch: New Kremlin headache: Democracy is alive and well in Ukraine and Georgia

Vladimir Putin is suffering back pains and is cancelling foreign trips and his annual November press conference marathon.

He may also be suffering from a foreign policy migraine: multi-party democracy is alive and well in the most unexpected of places: Russia’s neighboring southern republics — Georgia and Ukraine.

The key to democracy is decision by the voters. Any American who tells you he or she knows who will win the U.S. presidential vote on Tuesday is either lying or blindly partisan. Opinion polls indicate a very tight race.

Back to the old USSR.

On Oct. 1, foreign reporters flew into Tbilisi, Georgia for the parliamentary elections. According to common wisdom, and the polls, the election would be won by the party of Mikhail Saakashvili, president of Georgia for the last eight years. Then, the thinking went, the Georgians would jump up and down about fraud, things would quiet down, and Saakashvili would sail on to become a super-empowered prime minister.

Wrong. Georgian voters thought otherwise.

In an unexpected turn of events, voters migrated heavily to the opposition party of Bizdina Ivanishvili. Ivanisvhili’s supporters won. Saakashvili conceded defeat. And last week, Ivanishvili became the new prime minister of Georgia.

Last week, a similar scenario played out in Ukraine.

The government of President Viktor Yanukovych held his midterm presidential elections. Going into Sunday’s vote, analysts predicted the worst, saying the government had done its best to tilt the vote in its favor. And the tilt was pronounced.

According to OPORA, an election watchdog group, 41 opposition candidates were physically attacked or harassed by government officials. The most prominent opposition leader, Yulia Tymoshenko, was in jail, held largely incommunicado. In the three months prior to the election, the TVi, the nation’s only independent TV channel, was dropped from cable packages offered to six million Ukrainians.

On the spending side, the government pumped so much money into social spending that the budget deficit tripled during the first nine month of this year. In addition, the government postponed two unpopular moves: allowing the national currency, the hryvnia, to devalue and household gas prices to rise.

And then there was the sneakiness – confusing voters with clone parties.
At one polling station I visited, there were three Green Parties. Two of them featured photos of candidates who looked like they’d been recruited from the middle management of the post office – solemn middle aged men in coats and ties. The third, presumably the real Green party, had women and younger men in edgy haircuts.

Around the nation, OPORA counted 45 cases of “twins” – or clone candidates.

My VOA Ukrainian Service colleague, Oksana Lihostova, a savvy political observer, writes me that she intended to vote for an opposition candidate, Teriokhin, Sergii. But, on filling out the ballot, she marked the space for Teriokhin, Andrii, a pro-government candidate. His name came first – A before S.

She emails me: “And when I was leaving the station, I saw on the wall a picture of another Teriokhin. Only then did I realize that I had been deceived.”

These kinds of election dirty tricks put a bad taste in people’s mouths. They prompted Brussels and Washington to give the election poor grades. On Monday, the State Department called the election “a step backward.” The European observer mission said: “Democratic progress appears to have reversed in the Ukraine.”

But, as foreign observers packed their bags, Ukrainian poll watchers and vote counters in contested races were, in some cases, wrestling over control of boxes with ballots, in other cases, sleeping with their arms around them.

One week after the election, the dust has largely settled. Vote counting in several districts has been so disputed that re-balloting may be needed.


But, OPORA, the most respected election watchdog group, declared that the final results for the five big parties only varied from their own parallel vote counts by maximums of 1 percent point.

For all the money spent, President Yanukovych’s Party of Regions won only 30 percent of the vote. His parliamentary delegation will be 186 — nine seats smaller than going into the election. His allies, the Communists, increased their delegation to 32. Huffy about coming in fourth out of five, the Communists now are threatening to not work with the president.

The three opposition parties won a total of 50 percent of votes cast.

Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland Party reversed its slide, adding six new seats for a total of 104. President Yanukovych’s ham-handed handling of the opposition leader can be thanked for her political resurrection.

Voters wiped out the party of Viktor Yushchenko, the former president who has been seen as soft on his successor.

In its place, there are two new totally new opposition parties, Svoboda, or Freedom, and UDAR, the pro-European party lead by Vitaly Klitschko, the heavyweight boxer.

On one side, President Yanukovych’s party controls 41 percent of parliamentary seats.

On the other side, the opposition will control 40 percent. President Yanukovych will only fashion a working majority by luring back the communists and a large number of independents.

Gone are his October dreams of a two-thirds majority that would allow him to change the constitution. To get legislation passed, he will have to create situational majorities. And, with the next presidential election two years away, the interest of independents in helping an unpopular president will not last long.

And this brings us back to the policy headaches for President Putin.

On the domestic front, Putin has been trying to persuade Russians that they are better off under his personalist rule – “vertical power” dressed up with democratic window dressings. But, Georgians and Ukrainians, his former Soviet brethren, seem to prefer real, multi-party democracies.

On the foreign policy front, Russia’s President has spent two years alternately cajoling and threatening Yanukovych, trying to lure Ukraine into a Moscow-dominated Customs Union – sort of a Soviet Union lite.

Now, it is clear that a majority of Ukrainian voters do not want that. The three opposition parties that collectively received half of the vote are all pro-Western and all favor a free trade treaty with the European Union.

In Ukraine, the sour grapes mood is so strong in Yanukovych circles that government supporters demonstrated outside the Russian Embassy on Thursday. They charged that Ukraine’s opposition candidates were subsidized by Alexander Lebedev, a Russian oligarch opposed to Putin. In response, Lebedev, an investor in Ukraine, wrote in letter of complaint to President Yanukovych: “The masterminds behind this show clearly wanted to question the parliamentary elections results.”

Maybe, instead of looking for wild, convoluted conspiracy theories, it might be best to go back to a basic rule of democracy: listen to the voters.


(Photo: milkybarkid78)






James Brooke VOA Moscow Bureau Chief

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow last summer – the hottest on record. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.