Harassment, manipulation, intimidation: the three months of campaigning in the run-up to Ukraine’s 28 October presidential elections have been a master class in bullying. President Viktor Yanukovych has been eliminating the opposition since winning office in February 2010. Originally defeated by the Orange Revolution after attempting to rig elections in November 2004, Yanukovych returned to win the presidency legally in 2010, replacing the revolution’s fallen idols, Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko.
Since then, Yanukovych has undone many of the Orange Revolution’s democratic gains. Employing an election strategy similar to that of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, Yanukovych has harassed the independent media, manipulated election laws and interfered in the judicial process to intimidate and discredit his political opponents.
The fate of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko best illustrates the autocratic complexion of Yanukovych’s regime. Tymoshenko was defeated for the presidency by Yanukovych in 2010. Last October, she was sentenced to seven years in prison for exceeding her powers when signing natural gas contracts with Russia in 2009. She is now facing a second trial for alleged tax evasion. Yanukovych has also suggested that Tymoshenko participated in the 1996 murder of entrepreneur and politician Yevhen Shcherban.
Although she may look like an angel, Tymoshenko is no saint. But the timing of the multiple criminal charges levelled against her suggests that she is the victim of political persecution. This position is supported by the European Union, the US and international human rights groups. On 8 August, Justice Minister Oleksandr Lavrynovych declared that people serving prison terms are ineligible to run for parliament. Ukraine’s Central Election Commission therefore registered the united opposition Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) Party without its leader, Tymoshenko.
Journalists have also experienced bullying by the Yanukovych regime. In August, Reporters Without Borders raised concerns about media freedom, stating that ‘independent media are subject to all kinds of harassment, including constant intimidation, raids and prosecutions’. The campaign group further condemned the harassment of Mykola Knyazhitsky, head of privately owned television station TVi. Knyazhitsky is being investigated on charges of tax evasion following a raid on the station by tax inspectors on 12 July. He denies the charges and insists that TVi is being harassed for political purposes. As the only independent national competitor of the pro-government station Pershyi Natsionalnyi, TVi has experienced trouble with the authorities for years. In January 2011, the courts withdrew TVi’s broadcasting frequency in response to a complaint by Inter Media Group, a company owned by the then-head of Ukraine’s Security Service, Valeriy Khoroshkovsky. The court ruling suggests that the judiciary take their orders from the government and that the government wants to curtail public access to information. In such an environment, this month’s elections will be neither free nor fair.