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Sestanovich: To Resolve Ukrainian Standoff, 'Something Is Going to Have to Give'

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Visiting Fellow
Interviewee: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
November 29, 2004


Stephen R. Sestanovich, the Council’s top Russian expert and an observer during the November 21 presidential elections in Ukraine, says the electoral fraud and corruption were so obvious that “something is going to have to give. Whether it is a third round of the elections, or a wholly new election, we don’t know.” He says Russia miscalculated in thinking it could manipulate the election in favor of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, and Washington is trying to walk a fine line between supporting honest elections and maintaining good relations with Moscow.

Examples of fraud his delegation observed firsthand included the use of “invisible ink” on ballots that disappeared in four minutes, voting by the same “absentee voters” at several polling places, and the voiding of ballots for the opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko.

Sestanovich, ambassador-at-large and special adviser to the secretary of state for the Newly Independent States of the Former Soviet Union during the Clinton administration, is the Council’s George F. Kennan senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies. He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor of, on November 29, 2004.

The dispute over the presidential elections is now before the Ukrainian Supreme Court. You were an observer during the November 21 voting. Could you describe the irregularities you are familiar with?

Our group was a small one- 35 people who were sent in pairs to different regions of Ukraine. Our group was sponsored by the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. Much larger efforts were mounted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe which had, I think, 800 people in Ukraine, and by a domestic organization which was undertaking a parallel count known as the Committee of Voters of Ukraine. Our own group saw plenty of interesting examples of electoral fraud.

One of the chairmen of our delegation, Abner Mikva, a former congressman and judge, made a little speech in the polling station he was monitoring, saying that he had run for office 23 times in Chicago and had never seen anything like this. What he was protesting was the invalidation of more than 2,000 votes, of which 1,700 were for the opposition candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, because a number of the pro-government polling officials had left the station so as to make a quorum impossible.

In other cases, in Kiev our observers actually saw what one usually only hears about as a rumor. They saw actual pens with invisible ink put into voting booths in a heavily pro-Yushchenko district so that the votes would not be visible and thus invalid.

The ink disappeared?

They tried it and found that the ink disappeared in four minutes.

All the ballots were filled out by hand?

Right. All by hand, and then the ballots were put into a big transparent plastic box. People began to get wind of this when they saw the ballots in the box with no mark on them.

These were small examples. The bigger elements of the falsification campaign involved three other techniques. One was absentee voting by busloads of supporters of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, who would go from one polling station to another with the little certificate that you have under Ukrainian law which allows you to vote in a polling station away from your home district. They were able to do this, going from one station to another in eastern Ukrainian regions, casting many, many votes each.

A second technique involved what is called “home voting.” In each polling station, there is a smaller, transparent plastic box which can be taken out of the station and carried to voters who are unable to leave their homes. The potential for fraud here is obvious. In the district where I was monitoring, we saw that requests for home voting generally tripled between the first and second rounds of voting. But in some of the eastern Ukrainian districts that other people in our group visited, we saw that home voting was, in some cases, 50 percent of the registered voters.

A third technique involved manipulation of the voter lists. I saw one polling station where the number of people on the list had been cut by 25 percent between the two rounds. This was in another pro-Yushchenko district. The idea was, of course, to keep that vote down.

What can you tell us about Yanukovich?

He has been prime minister for the past couple of years. He comes from Donetsk, which is one of the big industrial areas in eastern Ukraine. He has been associated in his career with someone known as Rinat Akhmetov, who is a renowned Ukrainian oligarch. Akhmetov is considered even by Ukrainian standards on the shady side of business practices. Yanukovich was the governor of Donetsk for some time and in that capacity was seen to be the agent of Akhmetov’s business interests.

As President Leonid Kuchma’s prime minister, he has, to give him credit, presided over a period of very strong economic growth in Ukraine, including very strong exports from the industrial, especially steel-producing, regions of the east. He is a very big guy, about 6 foot 5, and is said to speak rather poor Ukrainian because people in the east often have no familiarity with Ukrainian.

Is he of Ukrainian nationality?

He has Ukrainian citizenship, but is ethnically Russian. He is generally considered to be an example of the sort of leftover Soviet bureaucrat, fairly inarticulate, somebody who thrived more in a political machine than in real electoral politics.

The thing about his youth that has gained most attention in Ukraine is that he had two criminal convictions, one for assault and one for theft. The assault charge is said to involved rape and the theft involves street robberies of peoples’ fur hats. Both of these occurred when he was a young man and were subsequently quashed by a court when he became politically influential. So there are no documents available about them. But they fit into what many Ukrainian journalists and others who have tried to look into it see as a general picture of him as a foul-mouthed, provincial boss.

And the contender?

Viktor Yushchenko is also a former prime minister. He served as Kuchma’s prime minister from 2000-2001. He was, throughout the 1990s, associated with economic reform in Ukraine. He was for some years the head of the central bank and in that capacity became known to many American officials, who had a very high regard for him at that time. He is from a central district called Sumy, which is on the border with Belarus. It is an ethnically mixed area, as indicated by the fact that he is himself [Russian] Orthodox. He was educated in western Ukraine at an economics institute. His strongest support is from the western Ukraine, which is the heartland of Ukrainian nationalism. People there are more oriented toward Poland, and they practice a kind of orthodoxy but acknowledge the pope as their leader.

Yushchenko has been out of office for about the past four years. In that time, he founded a movement called Our Ukraine, the slogans of which are aimed at eradicating the corruption of the Kuchma era and orientating Ukraine more toward the West, both the European Union [EU] and NATO. But he doesn’t campaign on a platform of Ukrainian nationalism. He has been at pains to portray himself as a sort of national unifier. The Yanukovich campaign has seen an advantage in painting him as a western Ukrainian. His wife is a Ukrainian-American from the western Ukraine.

Was his wife born in the United States?

Yes, in Chicago. She used to work for the State Department, I think, for the Agency for International Development. This fact is used to paint him as a kind of traitor. There have been Ukrainian politicians who have said that it is simply wrong for a Ukrainian leader to have a foreign wife, particularly someone from the Ukrainian diaspora, which is associated with Ukrainian nationalist movements.

A little history primer. How much of the western Ukraine was annexed to the Soviet Union after World War II?

Some of the regions had been Polish. Lviv [Lvov] had been in Poland. Some were in Romania, such as Chernitsky or Bukovina. But of course these had all been in the Russian Empire prior to World War I. So they were part of Ukraine historically.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has put his support solidly behind Yanukovich, right?

Absolutely. He visited Ukraine twice during the campaign. He appeared with Yanukovich, singing his praises. More than that, the Russians have sent many of their political consultants and organizers to work with the campaign to do political advertising, to work on techniques of “getting out the vote,” to put it delicately. They have had concerts of Russian celebrities throughout Ukraine, to try to arouse enthusiasm for Yanukovich. It is said that there have been large political contributions from Russian political parties, oligarchs, and other organizations. Just today, Mayor Yuri Luzhkov of Moscow is in Ukraine, supporting Yanukovich.

Why does the Russian leadership care about this election?

I think they have a number of motives. They have seen Yushchenko as likely to put Ukraine on a pro-Western track. Some of the Russian business figures have interests in Ukraine, although I believe that Russian businesses are divided on which candidate would better serve their interests. Kuchma and Yanukovich have supported Putin’s scheme for a so-called single economic space that has been quite controversial in Ukraine, opposed by many Ukrainian officials and Yushchenko.

Yushchenko has said he is in favor of close economic ties with Russia but would not let Russia block Ukraine’s membership in the World Trade Organization or closer relations with the EU. And finally there is a kind of broader motive of Putin’s, to show that he is exerting influence within the former Soviet Union and reclaiming for Russia its rightful place as the dominant power in the region. This election looked to a lot of Russians as a kind of easy success. They thought they could replicate in Ukraine some of the electoral techniques they had used in Russia.

In this respect, I think they misread Ukrainian politics. You know, in Russia it has been pretty easy to put the opposition out of business because it really hasn’t been a mass movement. But in Ukraine, you’ve had an upsurge in popular interest on a scale you have never had in Russia. The result has been that all of the clever, manipulative techniques perfected by Putin’s regime have not worked so well because they have been challenged by leaders with a huge popular following.

To dot the “i” on the term economic space, is that a kind of no-tariff zone?

Some Russians have said that their goal was to create ultimately an economic entity like the EU, with a single currency, for example. But to start with, it is a kind of Common Market. Its central members are, of course, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.

The Ukrainian industrial area must be highly dependent on Russian energy, I would imagine.

They do get energy from Russia, although they have looked to diversify their sources a bit. What is interesting about Ukraine’s economy is that it is growing faster than Russia’s, without [sales of] energy. Whatever you say about Russian economic growth, and its dependence on high oil prices, can’t be said about Ukraine. They have been growing in the 8 to 10 percent range without that. The big growth leader in the past couple of years has been steel exports.

Where do these exports go? Mainly to Europe?

Yes. They don’t go to Russia, which has its own heavy metals sector. These are exports to other steel-consuming countries, especially in the EU.

For the United States, the dispute over the election is obviously a delicate matter, given President Bush’s friendship with Putin.

That’s right. That’s why American officials have been saying steadily that they don’t see this as a Russian-American confrontation, that the only issue is whether the will of the Ukrainian people is respected. That was Secretary of State [Colin] Powell’s message last week for instance, when he called the election “illegitimate.” It’s the right line to take. But it is a hard one to make totally convincing to the Russians, because they do see that Yushchenko does have in mind a pro-Western orientation even as he tries to maintain good ties with Russia. They also know that, given Putin’s heavy investment in a Yanukovich victory, he is going to look as though he came up badly short if Yushchenko wins.

So now it is in the Supreme Court. Any predictions?

This is all uncharted territory. There is no precedent for this. The parliament has declared the election illegitimate, but it does not have the power to call a new election. The Supreme Court is probably considering right now the extent of its powers. There is a growing recognition that simply accepting the result as initially announced by the Central Election Commission and Yanukovich and Kuchma themselves won’t wash. The crowds are too big. They have been too determined. The irregularities and fraud and criminal vote manipulation were too obvious. You’ve got people beginning to defect from the regime. Something is going to have to give. Whether it is a third round of the elections, or a wholly new election, we don’t know.