05.11.2010 | R. Olearchyk, J. Chaffin

US criticises Ukraine’s local elections


The US and the European Union have criticised the conduct of Ukraine’s local elections, with Washington saying polls held at the weekend “did not meet standards for openness and fairness”.

The statement issued by the US state department on Wednesday is the strongest international criticism yet of the poll in which President Viktor Yanukovich’s Regions party is dominating opposition parties amid cries of fraud.

The weekend election was the first since Mr Yanukovich took over as president and is seen as a test of his democratic credentials.

The hard-hitting comments indicate that Mr Yanukovich is seen as failing to fully uphold his promise to preserve democratic gains made since the 2004 Orange Revolution. Back then, a vote rigged in his favour was overturned amid massive pro-democracy protests.

Describing Sunday’s vote and pre-election atmosphere as a step backwards from the February presidential election which Mr Yanukovich narrowly won, the US said: “Domestic and international election observation efforts, most notably those led by the widely respected domestic, non-partisan monitor OPORA, reported numerous procedural violations on election day.”

A spokesperson for Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said she was concerned about reports of irregularities during the elections – particularly since Ukraine had been building a record for polls that met international standards.

“They undermine public confidence in the electoral process and in the further consolidation of democracy in Ukraine,” the spokesperson said.

On Tuesday, the US-based National Democratic Institute, one of the financers of the Kiev-based OPORA, issued a strongly worded statement, saying: “The environment surrounding Ukraine’s October 31 local elections has deteriorated compared to the situation during the presidential election earlier this year”.

On Monday, Mykola Azarov, Ukraine’s prime minister and an ally of Mr Yanukovich, insisted the elections were “democratic”.

In a television address to the nation on Tuesday, Mr Yanukovich called upon the country to proceed with everyday life, saying: “The local election in Ukraine is over.” But he conceded that problems existed with the vote, saying: “I recognise that the elections had technical flaws and were complex.”

Attention will now fall on the assessment given by European Union leaders. Lady Ashton will closely follow the completion of the electoral process, including the way votes are tabulated and the response to complaints and appeals, her spokesperson said.

The EU has tried to emphasise the importance of democratic reforms and the rule of law as it develops a relationship with Mr Yanukovich.

Since taking over as president, Mr Yanukovich has pledged to uphold democracy and improve relations with Russia while keeping Ukraine on a path towards EU integration. But the opposition and pro-democracy activists accuse him of cracking down on democracy and press freedom.

As during the Orange Revolution, when Moscow backed Mr Yanukovich’s candidacy, Russian observers have dubbed the vote as fair.

The sharp criticism from the US could invigorate the more west-leaning opposition.

While official results from the thousands of local ballots for regional councils and mayors will not be known until later this week, an exit poll gave Mr Yanukovich’s Regions party 36 per cent support nationwide.

The Fatherland party of his bitter rival Yulia Tymoshenko, former prime minister and co-leader of the 2004 Orange Revolution, trailed with 13 per cent.

Largely controlled by oligarchs backing Mr Yanukovich, Ukraine’s main television channels and news agencies were seen to be citing observers that backed up Mr Yanukovich’s claim that the vote was democratic.

The findings of OPORA were largely kept off the airwaves, feeding criticism that Mr Yanukovich is attempting to copy the success of Russia’s Vladimir Putin in setting up a “managed democracy”.

Roman Olearchyk in Kiev and Joshua Chaffin in Brussels

November 3 2010

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