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Ukraine Court Considers Disputed Election as Eastern Region Threatens to Break Away

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Political tensions in Ukraine are increasing as the country’s Supreme Court considers claims of fraud in the recent presidential elections that are straining relations between Russia and the West and are threatening to break the country apart. We go to Kiev to get a report and we speak with New School University professor Nina Khrushcheva, granddaughter of former Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev. We also speak with London Guardian reporter Ian Traynor who raises questions about U.S. complicity in the dispute and investigative reporter Robert Parry about the media’s coverage of presidential elections in Ukraine and the U.S. [Includes rush transcript]

Political tensions in Ukraine are increasing as the country’s Supreme Court considers claims of fraud in the recent presidential elections.

Opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko wants the victory of his rival, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, in the November 21 election to be annulled and a new vote held on December 12. The Ukrainian parliament last week declared the election results invalid and called for an immediate overhaul of the central election commission. International observers have backed the claims of fraud and the European Union has already called for a re-run.

Yushchenko’s team has submitted thousands of allegations of ballot-rigging in eastern Ukraine. The court has begun hearing his appeal, but any ruling is expected to take at least several days.

Officials within Prime Minister Yanukovych’s camp have complained of a Western conspiracy against Ukraine. One aide told the Agence France Presse “I am certain it is Washington that is pulling the strings behind this chaos.”

Meanwhile, leaders from Ukraine’s eastern regions raised the stakes in the standoff on Sunday by threatening to spilt up the country. Delegates voted unanimously for a referendum in December on determining the region’s autonomy. Prime minister Yanukovych did not back the move while his rival has made it clear he would not tolerate any break-up of the country saying those responsible should be held “criminally responsible.”

Yushchenko ally Yuliya Tymoshenko went further, giving outgoing President Leonid Kuchma 24 hours to sack the prime minister and those governors who back a referendum.

Tens of thousands of opposition supporters have continued to pack the capital city of Kiev and other towns in central and western Ukraine. They have blockaded government buildings, including the central bank, as part of a wider campaign of civil disobedience.

Yanukovych said the disputed election has pushed Ukraine to the “brink of catastrophe.” He urged restraint saying, “There is one step to the edge. When the first drop of blood is spilled, we will not be able to stop it.”

  • Askold Krushelnycky, reporter with the London Independent. He joins us on the line from Kiev.
  • Nina Khrushcheva, professor of International Affairs at New School University. She is the granddaughter of former Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev.
  • Ian Traynor, reporter with the London Guardian. His latest piece is entitled “US campaign behind the turmoil in Kiev.” He joins us on the line from Zagreb, Croatia,
  • Robert Parry, veteran investigative journalist and author of the new book “Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.” For years he worked as an investigative reporter for both the Associated Press and Newsweek magazine. His reporting led to the exposure of what is now known as the “Iran-Contra” scandal.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We go first directly to Kiev to Ashgold Keojonitski who is a reporter with the London Independent. Welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: Can you give us the latest news in Kiev right now?

ASKOLD KRUSHELNYCKY: Well, you spoke about the Supreme Court and in deed they began their proceedings this morning. Then they took a break, and just over an hour ago they resumed their work, and it’s not clear whether a decision will be arrived at today. As people predicted it may take several days although the opposition is pressing for a quick decision or swift decision as possible.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you tell us who is protesting in the streets and is it only the opposition, the Yushchenko supporters?

ASKOLD KRUSHELNYCKY: Here in Kiev, it is overwhelmingly pro-opposition, pro-Yushchenko supporters who over the last week maintained a minimum of around 100,000 people on the streets, I would say, and sometimes swelling to about 300,000, and they’ve also effectively blocked off the main key government buildings. They control the center of Kiev and ordinary citizens just overwhelmingly support them. There are a few Yanukovich supporters who pop up with their flags; I’ve seen them, and sometimes they have been bussed and trained in from the east of Ukraine amidst fears that there’d be some sort of clash, but there haven’t been, and in fact, many of the people who were brought over by Mr. Yanukovich have ended up staying and joining the ranks of the pro Yushchenko supporters. So, I think that there are going to be less Yanukovich supporters coming to Kiev because of the counter productive things Mr. Yanukovich’s groups.

AMY GOODMAN: And how is the local media covering this? Who controls the media?

ASKOLD KRUSHELNYCKY: Well, there’s been a tremendous shift. One of the complaints or the major complaints of the opposition backed by the U.S., by the E.U., by international election monitors, was that the, most of the press and the electronic media, T.V. And radio, were controlled directly or indirectly by the government and they backed Mr. Yanukovich, the government candidate’s bid for the presidency whilst either ignoring Mr. Yushchenko, or just doing negative black propaganda type pieces on him. But over the past few weeks, journalists and these state-controlled media have just voiced their disgust for what they were being made to do and many went on strike or resigned from their media and since last Sunday, since November 21st, many of these people have now gone back to work in T.V. Channels which are now broadcasting for the first time in years both sides of the question, giving both sides and giving something approaching a balanced view of the news. So that’s already regarded as a big victory by the opposition.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your assessment on the ground of who is behind both sides, In terms of the major powers, this conflict?

ASKOLD KRUSHELNYCKY: Well, I heard what some of the Yanukovich people are saying, that America is pulling the strings. That’s just ridiculous. It’s old, reminiscent of cold war Soviet-style rhetoric. This is a government that has been imposing, in a very anti-democratic and sometimes brutal authoritarian way, its views on people who have now said enough is enough, we’re fed up. These are Ukrainian people who are saying this. Nobody is pulling their strings and this isn’t a proxy war for them between east and west, Moscow and Washington. This is about Ukrainian people saying, finally, we want our place, we want the right to choose our own leaders in a democratic way, leaders who will serve us and not the other way round.

AMY GOODMAN: Well I want to thank you very much Askold Krushelnycky for joining us, a reporter for the London Independent, He’s reporting from Kiev. We go to break now. When we come back, we’ll be joined by New School professor Nina Khruscheva. We will also speak with Ian Trainer with the London Guardian; his latest piece is called “U.S. Campaign Behind the Turmoil in Kiev.” And we’ll go to investigative reporter Bob Perry here in the United States, who makes a comparison about the way the media is covering the election conflict in Ukraine versus here in the United States. Stay with us.

AMY GOODMAN: As we continue on Ukraine and the politics of the election. Will there be a re-run of these elections? Will they have elections again? -The Supreme Court making their decision in these hours. I’m joined in the studio by Nina Kruscheva, she is a professor of international affairs at New School University, granddaughter of the former Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. Also on the telephone with us, Ian Traynor reporter with the London Guardian and Bob Perry who will join us in a few minutes to compare the coverage of the elections, Ukraine and the United States. Professor Khruscheva thanks for being with us. Your assessment and also your response to the Independent reporter Askold Krushelnycky?

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: There are a couple of things that the reporter said that I kind of question. The first one is that the only demonstration that we have is the opposition demonstration and Yanukovich’s supporters are not really there. I’m not on the ground, so probably he does know better, however, I would like to offer another option to look at this. What we do know is that Yushchenko’s supporters were driven from western parts of Ukraine into Kiev, so it’s not exactly that just Kiev rose up and went and after Yuschenko they actually did produce those initial resources and forces, while Yanukovich actually didn’t do that and by the time he was doing it it’s already too late. Another thing that the reporter mentioned is that they, it’s just the will of the Ukrainian people and the money, the western money or western support has nothing to do with it. I quite frankly doubt that and, I don’t know, maybe Ian Trainer will comment on that more because you know Richard Luger has been speaking out. We do know that the whole set of international observers, American observers, Washington observers, were in the Ukraine. Exit polls were run not by the Ukrainians, but by the west. And all those things have to be funded one way or another. So I’m pretty certain that those forces were involved so I wouldn’t look at the Yushchenko side through such rosy glasses. I mean I’m sure they have the right to, I mean they obviously have the right to be there and in fact I do hope that Yuschenko will win eventually, however, we shouldn’t disregard that there are a lot of questionable things going on there.

AMY GOODMAN: Ian Traynor, you have written a piece for the London Guardian called “U.S. Campaign Behind the Turmoil in Kiev.” What evidence do you have?

IAN TRAYNOR Well, there’s lots of evidence. I would suggest that the headline itself is perhaps slightly, slightly exaggerating the phenomenon. I mean, I would stress that as Askold was saying a minute ago, the events in Kiev and more broadly in the Ukraine are first and foremost a matter for the Ukrainians and indeed I think what we are witnessing is some kind of unfinished business from the anticommunist revolutions of 1989-1991 happening with a delayed effect in Ukraine. Having said that, Ukraine is an extremely strategically placed country. And there’s no argument and no doubt that on the one hand the Kremlin and Moscow has been intervening heavily, and on the other hand what we now have in many of these kind of borderline countries that, where fair elections are few and far between, we have quite an interesting sophisticated streamlined American campaign that basically helps democracy activists on the ground to take back elections that they have won from regimes that are widely believed and widely seen to be rigging them or stealing them. And this is no longer just a simple vague money or aid or support for N.G.O.'s or democracy activists, it's a result-oriented, very specifically organized campaign. We can see the same part in several different countries in the same region in the past four years, every year in fact for the past four years. In Europe itself apart from other parts of the world such as Latin America, this organization was extremely successful in bringing down Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade and the shock troops of that campaign was a young movement of student activists called Otpor, now these people in Belgrade—

AMY GOODMAN: Otpor which means resistance.

IAN TRAYNOR Have since been active in Georgia in Ukraine and in Belarus operating in tandem with American N.G.O.’s funded by the American government. Personally I find it as an interesting and probably benign exercise in trying to prevent a discredited political establishment steal elections.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned Otpor which means resistance in Serbia. Can you talk then about Georgia and what happened last year? What was the parallel group and specifically where was the money coming from?

IAN TRAYNOR The money is distributed via the U.S. Aid and the U.S. State Department, mainly to American N.G.O.'s such as the Democratic Parties, National Democratic Institute, Republican party's International Republican Institute, freedom house organization, George Soro’s various institutes that have been working in the region from Russia to the Balkans over the past 10 years. Also highly active in Georgia, we had a young leader, dynamic young leader, American educated, Mikhail Saakashvili who’s now of course the president, he came from inside the Shevardnadze regime originally. Most of the people who are taking over such as Yuschenko former prime minister under Kuchma in Ukraine tend to be disaffected members of the previous elite. And they break away and then you have parallel elements such as the student movement in Georgia known as Kamada. And they’re very, very effective in using web sites, stickers, slogans, branding, marketing, to get their message across. Now what this does in some of these rather authoritarian societies, they use satire irony, jokes, street pranks and the like. And what it does is make people less afraid. I mean if many of these regimes traditionally operate on the basis of fear or certain forms of fear, the students are out on the streets every day basically puncturing that fear and mobilizing public opposition to incumbents.

AMY GOODMAN: So you write, you have OTPOR, meaning resistance in Serbia. The catchy single word branding is important, in Georgia, parallel student movement KHMARA. In Belarus it was ZUBR, in Ukraine, PORA, which means high time. You go through all of these in all cases you are talking about U.S. backing?

IAN TRAYNOR Absolutely. It started in Europe, it started in Belgrade with OTPOR. 10 months after that, Michael Kozak, he was then the U.S. ambassador in Minsk in Belarus, tried to organize a similar thing using ZUBR, the student movement there, and also basically selecting the opposition candidate to President Lukashenka, a very authoritarian perhaps the last authoritarian leader in Europe. The same kind of organization of exit polls on the night of an election. Election monitoring, vote tabulation, getting the exit polls outside first ahead of rather slow the state television machinery, winning the propaganda war. Now that’s not exactly what happened there. It failed in Belarus basically because Lukashenka won the election. These campaigns, it has to be said, are not about either rigging or stealing the elections. They about trying to ensure a level playing field and that fair elections do indeed take place. In the case of Belarus for example, Lukashenka was widely seen to have won the election and therefore there were minimal protests and no backlash. You throw in the towel, you lost. What’s different about Belgrade is that Milosevich lost the election and then tried to stay in power. Shevardnadze did exactly the same in Tblissi. And now we are at the point in Ukraine where we are probably going to have a rerun of the election but had this organization not existed in Kiev, in all likelihood, Yanukovych would now be the president of Ukraine.

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Ian Traynor with the London Guardian who looks at the pattern of U.S.-backed resistance in various Eastern European countries. Also joining us in our studio is Professor Nina Khrushcheva. Can you give us a very quick geography lesson on what the Ukraine looks like and where the power bases for Yushchenko as well as the current — who they say won, where that is.

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Ukraine, Yushchenko is from the northern part of the country. It’s not exactly the west of the country, it’s the north of the country, but nonetheless, it’s considered to be sort of less soviet in many ways. His background, he’s from a teacher’s family, so he’s well educated and he’s, his base is western Ukraine, closer to the west, the part of the Ukraine that, in fact, was attached to the Soviet Union only in 1939. They have different religious beliefs, different cultural beliefs. They have never considered themselves exactly part of the Soviet Union. Those, a lot of forces from there in fact were fighting as partisans on the side of the Nazis during the Second World War. This is all not to put them down, but you have to understand that for those people, nationalist Ukraine, strong Ukraine as Ukrainian own entity was much more important than siding with, I mean was even—was even strong enough and they were willing to side with the Nazis in that fight. So this is the Yushchenko support. The Yanukovych support is from the eastern Ukraine. In fact, Kiev could be considered sort of slightly east in Ukraine it is an urban — it’s very, very wonderful city, beautiful city, urban city. And in fact, I was there this summer and I was there this fall and people who I was talking to there and it’s not that I was talking to particular government officials, they were not exactly pro-Yushchenko. So I am in fact heartened to hear that in fact a lot of Kievans then turned against Yanukovych and went into Yushchenko. I would not disregard the propaganda and the manipulation of the west even for the best of purposes. Nonetheless, I do believe that it caused the momentum and a lot people left. Yanukovych is — his base is the eastern Ukraine as I already said, a vast region, the region where the most mining operations are going on. In fact, my grandfather worked as a miner in those regions and liked them very, very much, but he was a Soviet leader so what do you want?

AMY GOODMAN: Nikita Khrushchev.

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Nikita Khrushchev. And so this is the base for Yanukovych and the reason I am yet again very cautious about Yushchenko’s claims is because this is really — that part of Ukraine is very important for Ukraine. It’s an industrial part. They can’t really stop their services because the minute they stop their services, Ukraine will come to the halt altogether. It’s not some financial ministry. It is actually — they produce the energy, they do produce a lot of things that the Ukraine needs to function.

AMY GOODMAN: This idea of there being a referendum and that they would get autonomy if Yushchenko won?

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, that has been brought up for the last two days, think it has been going on. And as you correctly mentioned, Yanukovych himself is very much against, I mean he’s not against, but’s not supporting this kind of referendum. On the other hand, I do understand that this people that work there, they work really, really hard to, and it’s not easy profession, obviously. And all of a sudden what they see is in Kiev we don’t want Ukraine the way we want Ukraine. We don’t want our men, they don’t want our men, so they get very disheartened and get very angry. This is what you actually end up having when you start a revolution that is not exactly the revolution for the whole country.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened to Yushchenko’s face? We have been seeing these before and after pictures just a few months ago. A very young-looking, smooth-skinned Yushchenko and then this summer something happened and the pictures now are a very mottled face. What happened to him?

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: I don’t really know. It has been not reported much. What was reported a lot, and that’s what I was actually witnessing, not first hand, but when I was in Kiev, there was a lot of talk about that this summer and this fall when then Yushchenko was meeting with various, you know, pro- Yanukovych officials and I think the KGB, whatever the name of the KGB today in Ukraine is, and apparently he was poisoned and he was flown into Vienna to the hospital and then there was a lot of debate whether he, indeed was poisoned by the Russian supporters of Yanukovych or he was just — just got food poisoning altogether. So it’s still very unclear and it could be that it was the result of this poisoning and, you know, the last three months or four months. But I cannot really comment more on that.

AMY GOODMAN: We are also joined on the phone by Robert Parry who is an investigative reporter, has a new book out, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq. Bob Parry, welcome to Democracy Now!. It’s good to have you back.

ROBERT PARRY: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about comparison of the media’s coverage of the protests against the Ukrainian elections versus here?

ROBERT PARRY: Well one of the striking things was that immediately after the Ukraine election, the Washington Post and other major news organizations in the U.S. began demanding that the official results be thrown out because of questions about their legitimacy. The Post cited in a lead editorial the fact that exit polls had shown the opposition candidate prevailing while the official results came in the opposite way. The Post also noted, there had been complaints from voters about harassment and that there had been efforts apparently to bully the vote in certain directions toward the government. And this became the basis for the Post saying that the U.S. should demand and President Bush should demand the unvarnished truth about the Ukraine and that there should be steps taken to vacate the official results. Ironically, of course, some of the similar, some similar facts existed for the U.S. election on November 2. The exit polls had shown John Kerry winning. There were complaints especially in Ohio about efforts to hold down the minority votes and to put the votes into the—put the important electoral votes into George Bush’s camp. His own political supporters controlled the apparatus in both Ohio and Florida, two of the key states. So while some of the same factual situations existed, the Post and the Times and other major news organizations essentially ridiculed American citizen who were saying, what about this? Can’t we check and see how the real results might measure up against the official results? How do you explain the six states that Kerry was supposed to have taken according to the exit polls that fell into Bush’s column? Even a Republican pollster Richard Morris had said that that was virtually inconceivable. So, there was this disparity between the Post having a very strong commitment to democracy in the Ukraine and having more of a commitment toward national unity, if you will, in the United States. In a piece I did for consortiumnews.com, I also noted that in 2000 — after the 2000 election remember that Washington Post, New York Times and other major news organizations did their own recount of the Florida vote and they discovered, by the fall of 2001, based on their recount, that no matter what kind of chad was used, Al Gore won Florida. In effect, he not only won the popular vote nationwide, he won Florida and therefore should have been president. But the results came out after September 11 and so the major papers, the Washington Post and New York Times essentially buried their own findings and tried to by eliminating certain votes still create the image that George Bush was legitimate winner of Florida. So instead of the unvarnished truth being the primary concern for the Washington Post and New York Times and others, the idea of national unity at a time of crisis became the preeminent concern. So you have a double standard in fact. In the Ukraine, the U.S. press corps seems to be much more concerned about having a pure and precise democratic process, where in the U.S., there’s less of a commitment, it seems.

AMY GOODMAN: You also talk about the Democratic Party, itself, specifically talking about the fraudulent Ukrainian elections.

ROBERT PARRY: Right. The Democratic Party, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs spoke out very strongly against the Ukrainian results, whereas the Democratic Party in the United States effectively accepted without much dissent and without much concern, even, the questionable results in some of the states in the United States. So you have much more in the U.S. a — the Democratic base being quite upset, represented often through the internet, as people are speaking out and some of the concerns are perhaps better founded than others, but the major — the role of the major institutions in the U.S. including the Democratic Party, has been seen essentially not to press for clear and full answers to some of those questions.

AMY GOODMAN: Bob Parry, thank you for joining us. He wrote many of the Iran contra stories in the 80’s for Newsweek and Associated Press, his new book is called Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq. His reports at consortiumnews.com. I also want to thank Nina Khrushcheva for joining us, New School University professor, talking about what is happening in the Ukraine, as well as Ian Traynor, reporter for the London Guardian. We will continue to look at the country and also the fact that though it produces little oil and natural gas itself, it is a major transit route for Russian petroleum and gas, which makes it particularly high stakes, who wins this election in Ukraine, Yanukovych or Yushchenko.

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