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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Reflection on elections (2): Fraudsters go unpunished

Pens with disappearing ink in voting booths rendered hundreds,
if not thousands of ballots invalid in Ukraine's recent presidential race.
Forty such pens were seized by activists in Bila Tserkva region, Kyiv oblast.
(Victor Glasko)

International observers
came, saw and declared Ukraine’s recent presidential elections clean. Of course they did: a) the last thing Europe wanted right now was instability on its eastern border, and b) the Russians were pleased with any result that ensured Victor Yushchenko was out of office.

By now, the story’s old and been told: Yushchenko placed fifth when the first round of presidential elections was held in mid January. No candidate won outright and the two frontrunners – Yulia Tymoshenko and Victor Yanukovych – squared off in a runoff round on Feb. 7. Yanukovych beat Tymoshenko by more than 880,000 votes, and the latter has since abandoned a legal challenge of election results and her claim that widespread fraud had occurred. Yanukovych was inaugurated today.

The elections were deemed clean as far as presidential races go. But domestic observers (who were not allowed to be observers according to the country's screwed up election law) found that the recent poll had more problems than the parliamentary elections in 2006 and 2007. And despite the opinion of the big international observation missions (OSCE, ENEMO), there were systemic attempts to mess with the vote results. They may have been localized but the attempts were successful.

Because the vote was relatively clean, any attempts to subvert it stood out. Against a background of relative propriety, the improprieties are more obvious. Should these blatant attempts go unpunished in the name of political expediency? Should they be swept under the rug and quickly forgotten? It seems that the lessons of the Orange Revolution have not been learned by some. If the violations of 2010 are left unpunished the violators will feel like they’ve gotten away with it. There is nothing preventing them from repeating the violations in the future.

For example, there were flagrant violations in the town of Bila Tserkva during both rounds of elections. The town south of Kyiv, whose name means “white church,” saw electoral funny business organized and implemented systemically in both rounds of the elections.

In January, observers from the Canada-Ukraine Foundation found a fake election commission order postponing the vote. Copies of the order were delivered by hand to a half dozen villages surrounding Bila Tserkva (Territorial Electoral District #91). As a result, two dozen polling stations opened four to five hours late in the Yulia-friendly rural regions. Just before round one, the commission for TED #91 moved premises next door to the Regions’ campaign headquarters.

We presented a copy of the fake order at a press conference. Nobody cared, neither international observers, nor local journalists.

Fake order postponing the elections delivered by hand to homes in villages in Bila Tserkva region, Kyiv oblast, the day before round one of the vote.

On February 7, domestic observers from the Committee of Voters of Ukraine (CVU) confiscated 40 pens with disappearing ink from voting booths at two dozen polling stations in the town. A Canadian observer documented the problems at polling stations where the number of spoiled ballots exceeded 200. The ballots marked with disappearing ink were deemed “invalid” by polling station commissioners loyal to Yanukovych claiming they could not tell whom the vote was for. Commissioners loyal to Tymosenko inspected the ballots more closely, holding them up to light bulbs to discern the actual “dents” the pens made in the paper.

Most international observers looked the other way. Surprisingly, so did the Tymoshenko campaign – the victim of the voter suppression of round one and the spoiled ballots of round two.
After round one, local journalist Dmytro Hnap’s investigation into the fake order postponing the elections led him to the local Party of the Regions’ campaign headquarters where he photographed poll station commissioners queuing up to receive compensation. He posted the report on his Ukrayinska Pravda blog. Nobody batted an eye.

After round two, observers from the CVU handed the pens with disappearing ink and eye-witness testimonies on who switched the pens over to local prosecutors.

Link to disappearing ink:

Too little too late? While Tymoshenko may have abandoned her legal challenge of the court results, the country and international community should be aware: there are brazen assholes in Ukraine that organized electoral fraud and have gotten away with it. They were caught in the act but have gone unpunished. The OSCE and constituent embassies should demand these jerks be prosecuted today. Otherwise, the West will be sending the wrong message to Ukraine’s new president and the country’s old politicians: “a little fraud is OK, just don’t overdo it, and we’ll look the other way.” In the name of stability.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Reflections on elections (1): Eat your ballot!

Democracy consumer Ivan Kundirenko (

Ivan Kundirenko was drunk on the morning on Election Day. It was February 7, and Ukrainians went to the polls for the second in three weeks to elect their next president. Hammered, Ivan walked into polling station #15 in Poltava around 9:00 AM, showed his ID and was given a ballot. Next, he asked the poll commissioners to fill out his ballot. They told him that would be against the law. He proceeded to enter the draped booth to make a fateful choice between Tymoshenko and Yanukovych*.

According to police report, he stayed inside the booth for a few minutes before emerging ballot in hand and headed straight for the exit. Commissioners stopped and asked Ivan to cast into the box. He responded with loud swearing, prompt crumpling and chewing of the ballot. He made instant headlines on the domestic wires like“Drunk man tries to eat ballot in Poltava.” The exact details were clarified in later reports that said Kundirenko in fact spit out his ballot after only a few chews.

Ukrainian election ballots, printed with graphic security and anti-counterfeit features of paper money, are protected by law. Not known for their taste, they are fire resistant, individually-numbered and printed on high grade paper. Ivan’s chewed-up ballot meant the election commission had to write him up in a report. He was handed over to police who charged him with the minor administrative offenses of hooliganism and being drunk in public.

The fifty-year old Ivan returned to the polling station later that afternoon having forgotten the morning incident. He came to vote.

“I was a little drunk,” Ivan explained. “I went to vote then forgot I did and came back again later. Everything’s alright now, I’ve sobered up. I wanted to say that I voted against both candidates. I like to drink, but you won’t find a Ukrainian who doesn’t.” The Feb. 7 Hazeta po-ukrainsky report did not say if Ivan enjoyed the taste of his zakuska.

Back in Kyiv, several underground activists found inspiration in Kundirenko’s feat. Yuri K., for example, reasoned that eating your ballot is the best way to register your protest vote because that way you know for sure that nobody will steal your vote. He discussed the idea of starting up an NGO that would encourage ballot eating in future elections.

“We will demand that the paper and ink [of the ballots] be edible and taste good. If not, we will provide our activists with sauces – ketchups, mayonnaises – to help the ballots go down better.”

He also started a collection at his local bar to kelp Kundirenko pay for his legal bills. Those funds were squandered by night’s end as they went to pay for the bar tab the activists ran up while plotting ways to make their society more civil.

* According to official results, Yanukovych beat Tymoshenko by 887,909 votes on Feb. 7, 2010.