Bob Schaffer, a former United States congressman from Colorado, recently returned to the U.S. from Ukraine, where he was an election observer. On Monday he talked to NRO about the election there and the “Orange Revolution” currently in the Kiev air.
National Review Online: How did you come about going over to Ukraine as an election observer?
Bob Schaffer: My mother is Ukrainian. She immigrated to the U.S. from Canada as a child. In Congress, I was co-chairman of the Congressional Ukrainian Caucus which became one of the largest international caucuses in the House. I have made several official visits to Ukraine since 1997. The US/Ukraine Foundation invited me to be part of its delegation which it selected through a partnership with the Association of Former Members of Congress. The Former Members sent five delegations to Ukraine throughout the entire election process. Our purpose was to observe election-day activities for Ukraine’s run-off election on November 21st.
NRO: Did you yourself witness vote fraud?
Schaffer: Former Michigan Congressman Dennis Hertel (D) and I were deployed to the city of Brezyn, a city of about 40,000 located about an hour-and-a-half northeast of the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. We did not witness any episodes of fraud on election day. There were some irregularities, however, similar to those that occurred throughout Ukraine. For example, Ukraine allows prisoners to vote. We observed voting at several sites including the city’s medium-security prison. Voting inmates cast their ballots in clear Plexiglas voting boxes under observation of their captors. A mobile ballot box was taken to the cells of inmates held in solitary confinement. All 40 solitary inmates at Brezyn cast their votes for candidate Viktor Yanukovich, current prime minister of the same government that placed these inmates in solitary confinement–implausible. We received various reports of foul play in Brezyn. Examples: Inmates being offered tea and cigarettes to vote for Yanukovich; buses of people from other regions of Ukraine being transported from polling station to polling station, and; people using false documentation to vote. However, we did not directly observe any of this. The Ukrainian voting process is low-tech using paper ballots, hand counting, mobile ballot boxes for the infirm or confined, and transportation of ballots by car to central counting stations for regional ballot tallies. There are many hands touching ballots after a voter drops his ballot into the (clear) ballot box. There is no guarantee of ballot secrecy for anyone, which makes the whole system vulnerable to intimidation and bribery. Vote counting and ballot collecting does not occur in the light of day. There are too many occasions when observers and opposing parties lose contact with the ballots. Furthermore, in several oblasts (similar to U.S. states) observers were denied access to polling stations and the opposition party was denied participation in local polling committees. In these areas, Yanukovich “won” overwhelmingly.
NRO: Do you have any confidence that the supreme-court proceedings will be fair?
Schaffer: No. The supreme-court proceedings would only be remarkable if the supreme court surprises everyone by agreeing with the opposition and international observers that the election was fraudulent. Ukrainian courts, despite the government’s claims, are not independent jurisdictions like in the United States.
NRO: Do you believe it is possible that Yanukovich won? Could you envision him fairly winning in a new election?
Schaffer: It is unlikely Yanukovich won. If he did, his government made it impossible to determine. The incumbent government has the highest duty and responsibility to guarantee fair, transparent, and free elections. This would have worked to Yanukovich’s advantage if he indeed truly did enjoy the popular support of Ukrainian voters. The high incidence of voting irregularities consistently reported from throughout Ukraine is overwhelming. Moreover, the vast majority of reported episodes were to the advantage of Yanukovich. Also, violations occurred throughout the election process, not just on election day. I do not believe he would fairly win any nationwide election in Ukraine.
NRO: You were among the demonstrators, is revolution in their air?
Schaffer: Absolutely! The revolution has been dubbed “The Orange Revolution,” orange being the campaign color of Viktor Yushchenko. The demonstrators say they are tired of living under a corrupt government and in a corrupt society. They are totally convinced Yushchenko won the election and that the will of the people has been thwarted by the government and by Moscow. They intend to stand their ground until their victory is recognized in Ukraine and throughout the world.
NRO: What most impressed you about the protesters?
Schaffer: One cannot help being impressed by the protesters. They have begun each day of the protest in Kiev in prayer and all activities are accomplished with a collective sense of respect, kindness, and an intention to conduct a peaceful revolution. The demonstrators have refrained from taunting or challenging armed police or the military. In fact, the objective of the demonstrators is to win the affection of the armed agents of the government. This is being accomplished with remarkable frequency. In fact, most of the Kiev police have now pledged their support for the people and even have expressed their intentions to protect the people from any possible conflict with military (including Russian) personnel. Kievians are opening up their small apartments and homes to out-of-town protesters. I met a guy who told me he was hosting seven strangers in his two-bedroom apartment. The demonstration is very well organized. There is a clear understanding among the crowds that they are unarmed, yet they are prepared to do whatever it takes to remain in the streets even die as martyrs in the democracy movement if need be. Finally, the media has dramatically understated the magnitude of the demonstration as in the “tens of thousands.” In the late afternoons and early evenings, the crowd is easily over one million. That many people simply can’t fit in Independence Square. At its peak, the demonstration spills in to the streets for several blocks in all directions.
NRO: What most scared you about the situation there?
Schaffer: There is a very large military presence in and around Kiev. Tanks and artillery were being offloaded from railcars as early as last Monday (11/22). Though there is growing division among the Ukrainian military ranks as to loyalty in this revolution the possibility of violence looms over the entire situation.
NRO: Do Ukrainians commonly believe that Yushchenko was poisoned by…Yanukovich/Russia?
Schaffer: Few people doubt Yushchenko was poisoned. Ukraine is a rough place for anyone who challenges the governing authorities. The recent history of Ukraine is replete with dead journalists, beaten journalists, news agencies being shut down, and politicians being injured or killed. Most are killed in mysterious auto accidents. Ukrainian Journalist Heorhiy Gongadze’s headless corpse was found partially buried on the outskirts of town and was the most noted journalist murder. His body had been dipped in acid to remove evidence and hasten decomposition. Yushchenko’s popularity among the people is a clear threat to the government. Most Ukrainians expect assassination attempts. I’ve known Yushchenko for many years and could barely recognize him when I saw him this time. Not until he spoke and I recognized his voice did I believe I was looking at the same man his face being so disfigured by the poisoning. No common virus could have done such a thing. In fact, his medical analysis indicates he had been simultaneously exposed to as many as five unlikely viruses. Who would have done this? While several parties have clear motivation it will likely never be proven who the culprit is.
NRO: When did you arrive back in the U.S.? How closely have you been able to keep in touch with sources on the ground since you got back?
Schaffer: I returned about 2:30 A.M. Thanksgiving Day–and with plenty for which to be thankful. I have been maintaining contact with a wide network of journalists, activists, and friends since returning. Based upon the sporadic success of e-mail transmissions, I have some reason to believe e-mail traffic in and out of Ukraine is somewhat impaired perhaps monitored and sanitized.
NRO: Do you have any predictions as to how this will all play out?
Schaffer: The Western media tends to place a lot of emphasis on “official” institutions in Ukraine such as its supreme court, the central election commission, and the parliament. In reality, the people of Ukraine now control their destiny, in my opinion. The demonstrators will persevere and succeed, or grow tired, cold and fade. Based upon the many conversations and interviews I conducted with demonstrators, I’m betting the crowds stand their ground for as long as it takes. If Ukraine’s election had been conducted during a more temperate time of year, the Orange Revolution would have been successfully accomplished within days. The winter conditions are working to the government’s advantage. Pressure from foreign governments and independent pro-democracy groups is critical right now. As long as the opposition believes the world will stand with Ukraine’s democrat reformers they will have the leverage and the courage to establish a legitimate republic under the leadership of Viktor Yushchenko. However, the Russians have a lot at stake, too, and the power of Moscow pride should never be underestimated.