Guest Column: Why We Should Not Pre-Judge Elections in Ukraine

I was recently privileged to be part of a delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on a mission to Ukraine in advance of that country’s upcoming parliamentary elections, to be held on October 28th.

Although some choose to see Ukraine exclusively through the lens of the legal case of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, our PACE delegation tried to be fair and balanced, and we warned in our subsequent statement that the Tymoshenko case “should not be used to de-legitimize the elections before they have taken place.”

In my years with PACE, dealings with former Soviet states have taught me repeatedly that these nations, after decades of Soviet rule, are still evolving, still struggling to find their way to a more mature form of democracy. So using any single issue to threaten or pressure a former Soviet state is not usually effective. Engagement tends to be more effective.

Everyone from President Viktor Yanukovych to the Opposition agrees that Ukraine is still a young democracy, and needs further reforms. Our delegation issued a preliminary report, noting that these elections will be a litmus test for Ukraine’s commitment to democracy, calling for greater media pluralism, and calling for the cancellation of a draft law that would have criminalized defamation.

We did not try to pre-judge the elections, but to give Ukraine a chance to put its best foot forward.

We made an effort to engage, to praise, and where appropriate, to criticize Ukraine’s government and its opposition.

Positive results have followed our visit.

Kyiv’s Central Election Commission has liberalized the rules governing voters’ change of polling locations.

Furthermore, President Yanukovych announced that the draft law that would have criminalized libel was being withdrawn. “If we say on the one hand we are creating the right conditions for journalists and the media and then do the opposite, no-one will understand us,” he said, adding that “Ukraine should stick to European standards in all spheres.”

These are the fruits of engagement, and evidence that PACE has a subtle and important role to play among former Soviet states.

It was therefore surprising that one of my senior colleagues, who was on our delegation during our pre-electoral mission for PACE to Ukraine last month, gave a sharply worded interview to an Opposition-aligned Ukrainian weekly, calling the election commission a farce, saying he was “pessimistic” about prospects for a free and fair election, and again singling out the Tymoshenko case as the key to future relations between Ukraine and the European Union.

In other words, having issued a fair and balanced assessment of Ukraine’s prospects on September 22nd when we visited Kiev, one of our colleagues then reversed course three days later and issued an explicitly partisan interview which appears to side with the opposition and to pre-judge the outcome of an election that has not yet taken place.

The truth is that the picture is not so black and white. Ukraine has much to still do in the way of reforms, but it has undeniably seen progress in recent months. For example, Ukraine recently passed a sweeping electoral reform law based on the European model.

As several European statesmen have noted recently, that law was drafted with the advice of the Council of Europe and Venice Commission, and was voted through by more than 80 percent of the Parliament, including both Tymoshenko’s Opposition party and the Government parties.

Ukraine is trying, in its own way, to embrace European values and norms. In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly last week, President Yanukovych committed Ukraine to the European ideals of nuclear disarmament, environmental stewardship, the rule of law, and international collaboration on peacekeeping. He also reminded the world of Ukraine’s commitment to peacekeeping and its collaboration with NATO, UN peacekeeping forces, and other joint security bodies.

Ukraine stands as a geopolitical and commercial bridge between East and West, and can be a vibrant part of Europe.

Ukraine clearly wants to be part of a united Europe, and has spent the last two years working toward that goal. Where they fail, it is our duty to assist them. Where they succeed, it is our duty to praise them.

It is incumbent upon us to help them remain on the road to a modern, European democracy, rather than wasting our time and theirs threatening and reproaching them without end.

This is why I believe we should not pre-judge the upcoming elections in Ukraine.

Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu was the President of PACE from January 2010 to January 2012, and is a Member of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey and a founder of the governing Justice and Development Party. The opinions expressed herein are his own.

Image Copyright Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.