What's at Stake in the Ukrainian Election?

This is a partial transcript of "Special Report With Brit Hume," Dec. 1, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

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BRIT HUME, HOST: So why should Americans care very much what happens in Ukraine? And how badly flawed was the election there?

For answers we turn to a man who was there during the election and has long experience as an expert in that part of the world. Steven Sestanovich has served in administrations of both parties, and from 1997 to 2001 was ambassador to those newly independent, former Soviet states.

Welcome. Nice to see you again.


HUME: So why should we care very much about what happens in Ukraine (search)?

SESTANOVICH: What is at issue is whether the post Soviet political systems are kind of run according to a dictatorial model. Even a mild one like that that Putin has tried to basically encourage the Ukrainians to adopt in this election campaign, or whether they end up becoming more like other European democracies.

The Putin goal seems to have the sort of post Soviet states (search) essentially be a separate area of Europe, where you don’t have democracies and you don’t have reformed economies and life goes on in a separate fashion.

HUME: Within the Soviet sphere or Russian sphere of influence?

SESTANOVICH: With some kind of Russian influence that he would like to reassert. Turns out these countries don’t really want that. And Georgians last year and the Ukrainians is this year saying we’d like more options. We’d like to be able to look West as well as East.

HUME: And you were there during the voting. It’s claimed it was terrible fraud. It was very lopsided by region.


HUME: The challenger — the opposition leader winning big in his favorite areas, which are more to the West, I guess. And the Kuchma-backed candidate winning to the east. Was there fraud on both sides or was it principally on one side?

SESTANOVICH: Well, it was principally on one side. You know, whenever you get 90-plus percent for one candidate, you sort of wonder what’s going on. But in the East there was massive, massive fraud. I mean a highly organized and sophisticated effort. One member of our delegation said he’d run for office 23 times in Chicago and he’d never seen anything like this.

HUME: What kinds of things are you talking about? And we saw some pictures of violence in the polling areas, but what did you see or your team saw?

SESTANOVICH: Well, one group saw in a small village that had 500 registered voters. The total number of votes cast there was 1,250. You know, that’s heavy turnout. They had 500 absentee ballots cast that according to Ukrainian law, you can cast anywhere outside your home district. You don’t mail it in.

So they had teams of buses going from village to village, everybody would pile out of the bus, go into the polling stations, vote, get back in the bus. Go to the next village. Vote again. They had — I mean this was very well organized so you couldn’t actually catch, you know, real ballot stuffing or ballot box stuffing (search). These were votes that were really cast by people who had certificates that allowed them to do it, not to do it as many times as has been alleged.

HUME: And was this fraud actually caught in the counting process? Or did the results just come in with no names attached?

SESTANOVICH: You know, there were 10,000 domestic observers there. There were about 1,000 foreign observers. People started noticing the buses just — this is one device that they used, by taking down license numbers. Actually saw them in village after village doing the same thing.

HUME: Is there any doubt in your mind that the opposition candidate won the election?

SESTANOVICH: I think it’s pretty clear he did.

HUME: So he ought to be president. Now, What about the scheme that has been worked out supposedly where they — you’ve got Kuchma and company actually backing a whole new election? Is that constitutional in Ukraine? I mean is that something.

SESTANOVICH: Well, this is all completely new territory for them. It isn’t a question of what’s constitutional. It’s a question of what is really legitimate and what people will accept. Kuchma recognizes that his candidate is now damaged goods and nobody will vote for him in a new round. If you have these two candidates facing each other, it is absolutely obvious what the result will be.

So Kuchma and his regime, his sort of cronies and corrupt types, are trying to look for a new candidate that they think can present himself with as new face and say, you know, I’m a healer, unifier, get past all the tumult of the past couple of weeks. That is their only chance for hanging on.

HUME: It doesn’t sound as if the protesters on the streets are going to accept that.

SESTANOVICH: Yes, I saw those people out there last week. And the regime has been assuming that after a few days in the cold, they’d go away. But they haven’t. The crowds have gotten bigger and they’re plainly not going to buy this.

HUME: Tell me one thing that’s being referred to what? As the Orange Rebellion or Orange Revolution or something. And they are all wearing orange. What is orange about?

SESTANOVICH: They have adopted this color. They’ve decided this was — you know, give you a warm, fuzzy feeling, especially in the fall. They decided that a lot of other colors had bad associations. Didn’t go — like red. And so they thought this would be somehow — they did a lot of very sophisticated focus group on it, I believe. And decided that would generate a lot of support. And they then outfitted everybody in these crowds in, you know, kind of tailored garbage bags with plastic with sleeves and hoods, and the logo on the front.

HUME: Sort of like the Deaniacs who had orange hats.

SESTANOVICH: They had an unbelievable level of preparation for these demonstrations. They knew weeks in advance that it was going to come to this. And they said to themselves, we have to be ready not only to catch the regime in the act, but we’ve got to be able to be out there on the streets for days and days and days.

HUME: Now, the Internet is now filled with conspiracy allegations, we’re going to have something more about this a little later, that indicate that this was Western and perhaps U.S.-backed. And that it was in the bag for this kind of outcome in terms of the response to the voting all the way. What about that idea? I mean they don’t appear to be without resources.

SESTANOVICH: No, they have a lot of resources, although they have generated an immense base, both of popular support and financial contributions domestically.

HUME: Oh, from domestic sources.

SESTANOVICH: Absolutely. You know, you’ve got the guy who is actually probably one of the indispensable figures in the Yushchenko campaign, is the guy who owns the Independent Television Channel. Who is a — he’s a rich man, but he’s decided that he’s going to keep a channel open that makes it possible for nongovernmental views to be aired nationally.

Now, there has been lots of support that’s come from lots of different countries, although the one country that has been most active in this campaign is, of course, Russia. They had an invasion of Russian political consultants, strategists, organizers, pop stars, Putin himself.

HUME: Last question.


HUME: What do you think is going to happen? This sounds like it is nowhere near over.

SESTANOVICH: Well, the regime is surprisingly intimidated by those crowds. And they sense that they are not going to be able to make it stick. But Kuchma is looking for every kind of gambit that he can. This idea of having only new candidates probably won’t wash in the streets.

HUME: Thanks, great to have you.


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