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Jason McLure answered questions online Jan. 6 about his experience reporting on the recent elections in Ukraine. McLure’s article, “Ukraine’s Test,” appears in the Jan. 3 issue of Legal Times.
McLure: Welcome to all, and thanks for logging in to Legal Times for our chat about Ukraine. I see that there’s been some breaking news on the story this afternoon: the Associated Press is reporting that Ukraine’s Supreme Court has rejected an appeal of the December 26 election results by former prime minister Victor Yanukovych. Though Yanukovych can still appeal to the Central Election Commission when it releases its final election results, today’s decision appears to be one more step toward ending Ukraine’s political crisis. I’m happy to take your questions and read your own insights into Ukraine’s election. I was just wondering how you viewed the temperament of the country as a whole. Did you feel that the election results would be accepted by the opposition? � Will McLure: Well, I think that the country is fairly divided right now. If you think the red-state blue-state thing here was polarizing, it’s exponentially worse in Ukraine. Obviously, Yushchenko’s supporters are delighted with the outcome of the Dec. 26 election, but I sensed there was a fair amount of bitterness from Yanukovych supporters. The new president has a tremendous amount of work ahead of him to unite the country and reconcile its divisions. That could start by appointing Russian speakers to important positions in his Cabinet. Great story. Here is my question: In speaking with Ukrainian citizens, did you get the sense that the vote mattered to them more symbolically, i.e., as an expression of democracy, or more politically, i.e., they really felt like the vote would translate to a change in the country? Thanks. � Mike, Rockville, Md. McLure: Thanks for the question, Mike. Overwhelmingly, I got the sense that the vote was important as an expression of democracy and much less an indicator of support for Victor Yushchenko. My perspective was that Ukrainians across the political spectrum were very concerned with how their country was being viewed by the outside world, and even opponents of Mr. Yushchenko seemed embarrassed by his alleged poisoning. I think that many Ukrainians voted for Yushchenko to vote for democracy, and that many will happily vote against him in the next election. But what was most important was establishing a precedent of free and fair elections and transparent government. How spontaneous do you think the orange protests in Kiev and elsewhere really were following the first election? � Jed McLure: It’s clear that the protests in Independence Square had been planned ahead of time, as they were extremely well-organized. The logistics of providing food, coffee and tea, and, yes, bathrooms and showers to the thousands of folks who camped out there for weeks was no small effort. One example of this cited in a recent article by the editor of the Kiev Post in The New Yorker was that members of Pora, a youth group opposed to Yanukovych, were screening protesters in the early days to prevent them from bringing alcohol to Independence Square as part of an effort to keep from inciting the police. Do you think the West had any influence over the people’s actions? � Jed McLure: Thanks for the follow-up, Jed. If by influence you mean covert operations by Western intelligence agencies working to support the opposition, I think that’s something that would be foolish to rule out completely. But my sense was that what’s happened in Ukraine was really driven by a grass-roots movement spearheaded in large part by young people. Yet while there, I saw clear evidence that Western support for democratic institutions was making a difference in the country. In Kremenchuk, the town I visited, several of the fearless young journalists I met were producing independent newscasts through a grant from the U.S. and Canadian embassies. I think the American Bar Association provided invaluable training and resources to Ukraine’s Supreme Court that helped lay the groundwork for the decision overturning the November election results. But I don’t want to overstate the impact of outside forces. What made this “revolution” go was a feeling of deep-seated disgust among Ukrainians for their corrupt government. Is it known how much was spent by each candidate during the election, and who were the most significant political contributors (in terms of money and political cache) for each of the candidates? � G.G., attorney, Washington, D.C. McLure: If those figures are available, I’m not aware of them. What’s clear is that in the run-up to the November elections, the Yanukovych campaign enjoyed not only a huge advantage in terms of money, but was also able to use state-run and state-supportive TV channels to essentially drown out Yushchenko’s messages in the mass media. In Kremenchuk, that played out on a smaller scale, where the local newspaper was forced to run dozens of articles praising Yanukovych. In that town, citizens didn’t have access to Channel 5, the one independent Ukrainian TV channel. But it’s certainly clear that Mr. Yanukovych benefited from Russia’s support. The extent to which that support was financial I don’t think is entirely clear. I was intrigued by this story’s parallels with the stories coming out of Ohio and other places here. Though perhaps not of the same magnitude, marked discrepancies were reported between exit polls and vote counts, consistently to the benefit of President Bush. I was curious whether, during your travels, you encountered any Ukrainians who were as aware of our situation as we were of theirs? � David, Nashville, Tenn. McLure: Actually, a number of Ukrainians I spoke to were very interested in how Americans could re-elect President Bush, particularly after the release of the movie “Fahrenheit 9/11.” But as to parallels between Ukraine’s November election and what happened in Ohio, I really don’t think there are any. The scale of the fraud in Ukraine was just enormous. What is interesting though, is that Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, released exit polls during the afternoon of America’s Election Day showing John Kerry significantly ahead. We all know how that turned out. Luntz’s firm also conducted exit polls in Ukraine, and his results that evening showed Yushchenko winning by 15 or so points. The actual ballots showed him winning by about seven percentage points. So I think there’s reason to treat early exit polls with a lot of skepticism. Did you get a sense of how Ukrainians feel about Americans and our foreign policies? How did they respond to you personally? � Will McLure: Thanks for the follow-up, Will. Those are great questions, because I think Ukrainians respond to American citizens and American foreign policy entirely differently. Overwhelmingly, the Ukrainians I met treated me with respect. Perhaps this was a function of being in a small, out-of-the-way city, but the folks I spoke with in Kremenchuk � no matter their political stripe � were really interested in just meeting and talking with a living, breathing American. But nearly every Ukrainian who broached the topic could not understand why America is in Iraq . . . and Ukraine has a small contingent of its own in Iraq. Many also expressed opposition to Russia’s policies in Chechnya, and I think they viewed the two situations similarly: a big power sticking its military in a place it doesn’t really belong. But unlike many folks I’ve encountered in the Middle East, Ukrainians were able to separate my status as an American citizen from the foreign policy of my government. I thought your description of the Ukrainian press was very interesting. Did they view their roles in the same way the U.S. press does? � J.S., Annandale, Va. McLure: Thanks, J. As a reporter, I was perhaps overly interested in how Ukraine’s media system operated and how its journalists did their job. But I think the change in how journalists have reported the news both on Ukrainian television and in its newspapers is emblematic of the changes in the country as a whole. But there’s still a long way to go. When I went to interview the head of the local Yanukovych campaign with a group of local Kremenchuk reporters, two of the reporters wore bright orange scarfs, the color of Yushchenko. That’s kind of like going to interview John Kerry or John Edwards with a Bush-Cheney bumper sticker across your forehead. Yet it’s hard to fault the reporters for being so openly pro-Yushchenko � the choices they were facing were so incredibly stark. It will be interesting to see how television news in Ukraine changes. Many of the channels are still controlled by a few powerful oligarchs with their own, not so hidden, political agenda. Is it premature to gauge how the end result will impact Ukraine’s relationship with Russia in light of Putin’s vocal involvement during the crisis? If not, how do you see things unfolding? � David, Nashville, Tenn. McLure: Great question, David. That’s an issue I think a lot of pointy-heads here in Washington are pondering right now. Putin has obviously lost a lot in terms of credibility with the West. I shouldn’t expect that President Bush will be issuing anymore statements about how he’s looked into Mr. Putin’s eyes and seen his soul. All the same, both Russia and Ukraine need a good relationship with each other. The cultural and economic ties between the two are as great as those between the United States and Canada. And at this point, at least until Ukraine can forge closer ties to the European Union and to NATO, the country still needs to get along with Putin. What will be interesting to see is whether Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution” has the same effect on Russia that Georgia’s “Velvet Revolution” last year had on Ukraine. The Americans that you described in your story as volunteer election monitors � How did they get involved in the effort? Were they sponsored by an organization or part of an organization, or were they essentially on their own? Did you have to be lawyer to be allowed to participate as an election monitor? � C.B., Washington, D.C. McLure: Good question, C.B. David Lorello, one of the Americans I met in the process of reporting this, became an election monitor in part as a result of falling in love with a Ukrainian woman here in the United States. Am I advising you to fall in love with an Iraqi in order to monitor the Iraqi elections? Not exactly. Actually, David has a really deep and abiding interest in election law and democracy, and is fortunate that he works for a firm that was willing to fund his important work. But many of the election monitors in Ukraine were there because they had some cultural tie to the country. A group named the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America organized over 2,000 monitors from the United States and other Western countries. There was also a significant contingent of election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. These tended to be former public officials from Europe and North America who monitored elections in various places sort of as a hobby. And no, you don’t need to be a lawyer to monitor an election. My impression is that most election law is pretty straightforward, and that when there are violations � as there were in Ukraine � they’re readily apparent to anyone with even a basic knowledge of civics. I wonder if you got a chance, while you were there, to get a sense of where and how Western law expertise can be applied successfully to the post-”orange revolution” Ukraine. � Olha McLure: Thanks for the question, Olha. A lot of that is going to depend on how Ukraine’s economy develops. Right now, I get the sense that there are very limited opportunities for Western-trained lawyers in Ukraine. But if Yushchenko is able to reform the courts and stamp out the corruption that has hindered foreign investment in the country, I think you’ll see those opportunities start to open up. I know a lot of American firms rushed into Moscow soon after the end of communism and were stung by the currency crisis in the late 1990s. I expect many of them are feeling a bit of “once bitten, twice shy” and will wait to aggressively pursue business in Ukraine until it’s clear that problems with the judicial system and corruption are straightened out. In your article, you mentioned that, after it became clear that Yushchenko was going to win the election in December, Mayor Hlukhov pulled out an orange folder containing a letter from Yushchenko promising forgiveness to those who supported Yanukovych. Notwithstanding this letter, do you think that regional and municipal leaders who supported Yanukovych will suffer any retribution from either Yushchenko or their electorates, and has their power been weakened considerably as a result of the Orange Revolution? � G.G., attorney, Washington, D.C. McLure: Good questions, G.G. I certainly hope that there won’t be any retribution taken by the government against those who lawfully supported Yanukovych during the election. That’s the sort of thing that could spark violence, and I really believe Yushchenko is savvy enough not to do that. I expect that the government will likely investigate the most egregious violations � the poisoning of Yushchenko, for example. But for the good of the country, I think the new president will have to give most all of the Yanukovych team a pass � just as Gerald Ford did for Richard Nixon. It would be virtually impossible to prosecute folks on the level of Mayor Hlukhov anyhow; they’re just too numerous. And I think many of Yanukovych’s supporters in government � like Kremenchuk’s mayor � have seen that the days of autocracy are fading, and they need to adjust to the new Ukraine. Do you think the election of Yushchenko will be a step in Ukraine’s more-likely alliance with the E.U., and how will such an alliance shape the future of Ukraine? � Sharlene, Rockville, Md. McLure: Good question, Sharlene. There’s no doubt that Yushchenko’s accession moves Ukraine closer to Europe. But it’s still a long way from joining the European Union, and I’m not sure that there is overwhelming support in Ukraine to do that right now. I asked this exact question of many of the folks I met in Ukraine, and many said that while they wanted closer ties with Europe, they didn’t necessarily see that the country should join the E.U. But if that’s the direction Ukraine pursues, the government has a lot of work to do in terms of reforming its economy, its media, and its court system. There’s also a very tangible fear in Ukraine that too much openness to the West too soon will result in American and European companies buying up much of the country and putting many Ukrainian businesses out of work. That fear drove a lot of Ukrainians to vote for Yanukovych, and I think it’s a legitimate one. In time, as the country grows and becomes more confident politically and economically, that fear may fade. Do you think we will ever find out, definitively, who poisoned Yushchenko? Will charges be filed, or will the matter be quietly dropped so that all may look forward to the future and not rehash the past? � Bill, New York, N.Y. McLure: Good question, Bill. Your guess is probably as good as mine, but my sense is that’s something that won’t be publicly aired for some time yet. I think we all can be rightfully suspicious of who was behind the poisoning, and if it was in fact high-level officials in the Kuchma government, that’s something that should be prosecuted. But I would not be surprised if that investigation is eventually dropped for “lack of evidence.” The truth might be just too explosive politically for the country to withstand right now.
McLure: For those who are interested in becoming election monitors, there are two other excellent resources here in Washington I should mention, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, both of which frequently send monitors overseas. Thanks to all for your thoughtful questions and for logging on to LegalTimes.com. We look forward to presenting more interactive features in the future.

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