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29.09.2010 | Halya Coynash

No Room for Democracy?

   

Soviet elections needed only a turnout.  Various enticements were normally devised since, even if the results of the people’s choice were known in advance, they looked a touch peculiar with no voters to be seen.  The situation in Ukraine as local elections approach is becoming perilously similar, albeit with more voices of protest.  In the light of highly specific methods of preparation for the October 31 local elections, it is vital that these voices are heard.

The SBU (Security Service) excelled itself yet again last week by endeavouring to ferret out information about the Director of the Institute for Mass Information, Victoria Syumar, from the frightened concierge of her apartment block.  The fact that Ms Syumar would have provided the information herself is only one of the absurdities in what would be nice to consider a comedy of errors. Ms Syumar’s outspoken stand on threats to freedom of speech and leading role in the Stop Censorship Movement make it difficult to find the situation humorous. The same must be said of the questioning of civic organizations who receive financial assistance from the International Renaissance Foundation.

It is clear that information per se is not the point of the exercise. With their visits, “chats” and checks, the SBU are ensuring that people know that the Service is vigilant and probably watching them.  So that others are a bit frightened of contact. Not without cause since the SBU can cause all kinds of hassles, as they have been doing, together with the tax police, in the case of the Crimean opposition TV channel “Chornomorska”. Not to mention the detention and criminal investigation against historian Ruslan Zabily which have done immeasurable damage to the country’s reputation and that of its new leaders. 

It all seems inept and bulldozer-like, yet these are hardly accidental blunders. Nor is it only the SBU that is collecting information about people.

The “passport of the region” questionnaires sent out by the President’s Administration to all heads of State administrations were first reported back in July in Lviv  and Kharkiv newspapers. In September, the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union published the actual document with a short article entitled: The government is preparing for the elections – collecting information about everyoneThe questionnaire wants to know about the heads of all enterprises, public authorities and bodies of local self-government in the region, the police, prosecutor’s office, courts, etc.  Spaces to be filled in include: party affiliation (political orientation); who they supported at the 2010 presidential elections; public rating; and “possibility of collaboration”.

The following was reported in July in the newspaper Vysoky Zamok:

“I was shocked by the final items of this questionnaire”, recounts the Deputy Director of a firm in the Mykolaiv region. “We had to provide information about the head’s party allegiance, his political orientation, “the level of his influence on the electorate”. As well as say whom he voted for at the 2010 presidential elections.  The mysterious item about the “possibility of collaboration” where you have to put a “+” or “-“ sign is reminiscent of the KGB practice for recruiting agents. It would be interesting to know what would happen if you hadn’t voted “for the right candidate”?  Can you expect the tax police to turn up, or the Control and Audit Department or SBU?”

His are not the only questions that come to mind reading this extraordinary document which demonstrates both a clear wish to establish control over the country and staggering disregard for fundamental principles of democracy.

With regard to media outlets, the President’s Administration wishes to know the address and phone number of the editor; the number and date if registration certificate; its sources of finance, the size of its audience and rating.

Another “initiative” for providing the President’s Administration with information was published by the Kharkiv Human Rights Group in April. According to Order No. 114 issued by the Sviatoshynsk District Department of Education of the Kyiv City State Administration, “On assigning those responsible for providing information”, each educational institution should appoint a person responsible for providing information regarding socio-political and highly publicized events in the city and districts.  There is no specification as to what this information, provided on a day to day basis, should entail. What is interesting is that within days of publication on the KHPG site, the Order was revoked.  Levels of credulity of course differ but mine does not extend to believing that the Order would have been cancelled without the publicity. Or that there is any guarantee that in other regions information about teachers, parents, etc is not being energetically gathered.

On 11 June the President’s Press Service denied any involvement, calling it a foolish and totally unnecessary initiative of the city authorities dealing with education matters.  There was more or less the same denial over the first report of the “passport of the region”. However such identical “initiatives” would have had to enter the minds of the heads of State administrations in different regions of the country. This, even given the supposed unanimity of the present regime, is just too much of a quantum leap for the imagination.

It is just as difficult to believe in a series of spontaneous bungles by individuals in the SBU, or in totally autonomous decisions by individual traffic police officers. There are reports from all over the country that the latter in May obstructed opposition supporters from reaching a planned rally in Kyiv, then on 27-28 July stopped believers from the Orthodox Church under the Kyivan Patriarchate from coming to Kyiv for the events around the Festival of the Baptism of Kyivan Rus. 

The Cabinet of Ministers has also got in on the information-gathering act.  A Standard agreement between co-founders of a media outlet and the editorial office was drawn up on the instructions of the Cabinet of Ministers on 26 July, supposedly to ensure the independence of editorial policy. The reader can decide what kind of independence we are dealing with when editors are required to provide written notification to the co-founders of membership of a political party or civic organization.

Was it “independence” that the Cabinet of Ministers were concerned about when appointing Yehor Benkendorf Director of the State-owned First National TV Channel?  Or about glowing coverage of the government which, for their information, is not one and the same thing?

Under the management of Benkendorf and his Deputy, Valid Arfusz, the First National TV Channel’s contribution to the election campaign has been considerable, only hardly to be described as informing the voters. Other terms come to mind for the intensive feeding with material about how the government is ensuring honest elections, about the unreasonable whingeing of the opposition and almost no alternative views whatsoever.

The channel’s consistent policy of avoiding subjects unflattering to the government is now directly infringing viewers’ rights to learn of serious doubts regarding the course of the coming elections. 

Concern over the Law on the Local Elections, despite the amendments passed by the ruling coalition on 30 August, has been expressed by the Committee of Voters of Ukraine [CVU] and other civic organizations (cf. http://www.khpg.org.ua/en/index.php?id=1284160591)

The worst fears have proven well-founded, as the report issued by the Civic Network OPORA confirms (http://www.khpg.org/en/index.php?id=1285276686 ).  As a result of the selection meeting held by the Central Election Commission on 15 September, the majority of head, deputy head and secretary posts in territorial electoral commissions [TEC] have gone to the parliamentary coalition which in total received 1, 042 posts. Opposition parties represented in parliament received only half that number.   This in no way reflects the electoral results at any elections, nor is it in keeping with democratic principles of equality of opportunity.  It is deeply disturbing that with a law providing the Central Election Commission [CEC] with considerable discretionary powers in deciding which candidates to choose, the result should be so obviously advantageous to the parties in the ruling coalition.

On 23 September the same concern was expressed by four members of the CEC who published an open letter to the President, well-worth reading in full (cf. http://www.khpg.org/en/index.php?id=1285340370

Elections in a democratic country can be viewed as a contract of sorts: if politicians keep at least their main promises and satisfy the needs of their voters, they can expect the latter’s support. Hardly excessive demands, yet the government seem unwilling to play by such democratic rules. They are resorting to very dubious methods aimed fairly clearly at strengthening their control and stifling, intimidating or simply muffling voices of protest,

The Committee of Voters of Ukraine has called for as large a number of foreign and international institutions and diplomatic representations in Ukraine as possible to take part in observing the local elections.  Given the methods described above and serious obstacles to fair and honest elections, the need is urgent.

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