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Deciding on the Borderland: The Ukrainian Elections of 2004

From: Theory & Event
Volume 8, Issue 2, 2005
10.1353/tae.2005.0020

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Ukraine. An extensive district in the south of Russia, ad. Polish Ukraina or Russ. Ukraĭna, specific use of ukraĭna border, frontier, marches, f. u- at, beside + kraĭ edge, brink, etc.

- The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. 1989.

Ber. Who's there?

Fran. Nay, answer me; stand, and unfold yourself.

Ber. Long live the king!

Fran. Bernardo?

- William Shakespeare. Hamlet, Act I, Scene i.

After achieving independence in 1991, Ukraine became the first country of the Commonwealth of Independent States to witness a peaceful transfer of power to a new parliament and a new president in 1994. The 1996 constitution guarantees basic political and civic rights, the Ukrainian economy seems to have stabilized after some initially worrisome trends and the country's transition from communism, overall, has unfolded more smoothly than one might have anticipated when the Soviet Union collapsed. In recent years, however, democracy in Ukraine has been regressing. The presidency has become increasingly powerful, the private media are controlled by a handful of oligarchs, and allegations of government corruption have multiplied. In the fall of 2000, tapes apparently recorded in the president's office implicated President Kuchma in the murder of an opposition journalist. The accusations threw the country into turmoil and the affair, quickly dubbed "Kuchmagate," did considerable damage to its reputation as democratic. By 2004, the U.S.-based Freedom House could only offer this somber assessment: "Ukraine's rating for electoral process falls from 4.00 to 4.25 owing to evidence of growing pressure against opposition parties and politicians during the year ... Ukraine's rating for civil society declines from 3.50 to 3.75 owing to the apparent efforts to limit the influence of NGOs in the run up to the 2004 presidential elections."It is in this context of a "partially free" democracy that Ukraine's presidential elections were held last fall. The two main candidates were Viktor Yanukovich, the outgoing prime minister, who ran with the backing of the president, and Viktor Yushchenko, a former prime minister and past president of the Ukrainian central bank. The campaign was expensive - the most expensive to date - and fierce; so fierce that when the opposition candidate fell gravely ill in early September, it was immediately assumed that he had been poisoned. Within days of a dinner with the head of the secret service, the dashing 49-year old candidate found himself radically transformed: his face disfigured by acne, his internal organs failing, Yushchenko had to undergo emergency treatment. He alleged foul play - accusations which medical experts in Austria would later confirm, when tests revealed the presence in his blood of thousands of times the normal amount of dioxin. When the ballots were finally cast on October 31 and November 21, international observers roundly denounced the election as rigged; and when Yanukovich emerged as the official winner with a lead of 3 percentage points, hundreds of thousands of people descended onto the streets the capital to contest the election's official results.So soon after the ousting of President Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia, and only days after the presidential race in the United States, the eyes of the world turned on Kyiv: what did this upsurge mean for the future of Ukraine? Would it embrace the West, or would it return to Russia? Would there be a governmental crackdown, and might the Eastern region really secede? When the Supreme Court invalidated the results of the second round on December 12 and when Yushchenko emerged as winner - under the scrutiny of thousands of election monitors - from the repeat election of December 26, observers throughout the West hailed his election as a victory for democracy and Western values. But the dust has not yet settled on Independence Square, and it is still time to ask what these dramatic elections in one of the world's new democracies might tell us - about elections, the West, and the relation between the two.

Elections

Common sense has it that democratic elections - presidential elections, in particular - are a crucial but ritualized act whereby "the people" of a country decides, as a sovereign subject, on the identity of its next government. On this account of democratic elections, "the people" exists prior...


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