March 8, 2019

Ukraine’s elections and Washington


One of the main stories coming out of Ukraine this year will be elections, elections, elections. Presidential elections will be held on March 31, with a likely run-off between the top two vote-getters three weeks later, on April 21. Later this year, in October, Ukrainians will again go to the polls to elect a new Verkhovna Rada. These will be important national elections for charting additional necessary reforms that would enhance Ukraine’s independence and democracy, drawing Ukraine closer to the Euro-Atlantic community of democratic nations and further away from a hostile, autocratic Russia. And Russia’s ongoing aggression makes these elections all the more challenging.

The election campaign is in full swing – vibrant, boisterous, contentious and sometimes downright nasty. (This, of course, is not a uniquely Ukrainian phenomenon.) And it is highly competitive. Nobody knows who will win. This stands in stark contrast with Ukraine’s unfree neighbors Russia and Belarus.

Washington is paying close attention to Ukraine’s elections, as are our international partners – the European Union, Canada and international organizations such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). 

The U.S. has been keenly interested in Ukrainian elections for nearly three decades – monitoring, observing and encouraging elections that meet international democratic standards. The State Department, U.S. Embassy Kyiv and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) have all been involved, tracking not only the political environment but also the election process. 

Even prior to the demise of the Soviet Union, a handful of people – staffers, including myself, at the Helsinki Commission, other U.S. officials – as well as representatives of U.S. NGOs – observed elections and referenda in Ukraine in March 1990, March 1991 and, most notably, Ukraine’s historic, December 1, 1991, referendum on independence. Helsinki Commission reports on these votes leading up to the dissolution of the Soviet Union proved to be valuable, as they were the only public reports by a U.S. government agency (the majority of whose commissioners are members of the Senate and the House of Representatives) during that period of historic transition.

Following independence, concerted efforts to help Ukraine develop institutions to foster democratic elections grew rapidly. With permanent offices in Kyiv since the mid 1990s, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) have played a vital role in these endeavors, working with political parties and civil society to strengthen democracy, including credible elections. Others U.S. NGOs, such as the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), have been key in developing Ukraine’s election infrastructure, including cybersecurity assistance, often working with Ukraine’s Central Election Commission. The work of these and other organizations has been largely funded by the USAID and the State Department, through money appropriated by the U.S. Congress.

Capitol Hill has had a long-standing interest in Ukrainian elections. There have been many resolutions over the decades calling for democratic, fair and transparent elections. Sometimes these would convey concerns in advance of elections that looked as if they would be problematic, such as those in 2002, 2004 and 2012. There were also congratulatory resolutions for elections, especially those that demonstrated Ukraine’s progress toward meeting international standards. 

The Helsinki Commission in particular held congressional hearings or public briefings throughout the years, often featuring the testimony of IRI, NDI and IFES, and issued staff reports and press releases. Senate and House Helsinki commissioners or Helsinki Commission staff have participated in every OSCE Parliamentary Assembly delegation of the larger OSCE observation missions to Ukraine. 

NDI and IRI have also helped encourage Ukrainian elections that meet democratic standards by deploying numerous election missions. Both will be doing so again for the upcoming presidential elections. The Ukrainian Congress Committee of America (UCCA) has fielded election monitoring missions since independence and will have more than 50 observers on March 31. The Ukrainian World Congress (UWC) will also be deploying a mission, as it often has in the past.

The largest and most authoritative elections player in Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe and Eurasia is the 57-state OSCE, of which both the United States and Ukraine are members. The OSCE fields by far the largest election observation missions (with both long-term and short-term observers) and has become the gold-standard of international election observation worldwide – the OSCE issues pre-and post-election assessments and a comprehensive final report following each election. Official U.S. State Department post-elections statements almost always track with those of the OSCE, as do those of our international partners. Often the U.S. has provided the greatest number of observers to these missions of any OSCE country. For the March 31 elections, the OSCE mission will consist of 100 long-term and 750 short-term observers.

The OSCE has given generally favorable assessments of Ukraine’s elections as being in line with international democratic standards – even while criticizing shortcomings and making specific recommendations in its detailed reports on how to improve elections. Nonetheless, Ukraine’s elections, while generally reflecting the will of the people, have by no means been problem-free. The worst election in Ukraine’s history was the second round of the 2004 presidential election, which sparked the Orange Revolution and wide condemnation from the international community that led to a re-run that was free and fair. Among the better elections were the last, post-Maidan presidential and parliamentary ones of 2014, as well as the 2006 and 2007 parliamentary votes that followed the Orange Revolution.

One manifestation of interest in the current elections is the Transatlantic Task Force on Elections and Civil Society in Ukraine, which was formed by the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation’s Friends of Ukraine Network (FOUN) Democracy and Civil Society Task Force (which I co-chair along with Jonathan Katz of the German Marshall Fund), and the Reanimation Package of Reforms (RPR), Ukraine’s largest pro-reform NGO coalition. The Transatlantic Task Force has in recent months held four international video-conferences during which experts and government officials in Washington, Kyiv, Brussels and, most recently, Ottawa discussed various aspects of elections in Ukraine, including the political environment, electoral process, reforms, and cybersecurity threats and other malign interference by Moscow. 

As in the past, the United States and its democratic allies need to be attentive to the conduct and not just the outcome of the elections. Despite the perceptions of some, the United States does not – and should not – pick favorites. We need to support democratic principles, not individual candidates. Integrity of elections matters, so we should focus on encouraging elections that meet international democratic standards, even if we may not like the outcome. Irrespective of results, the U.S. will continue to engage with Ukraine, but if the quality of elections is wanting, it calls into question Ukraine’s commitment to democracy, affects relations with the West and plays into Putin’s hands. U.S. and international attention and observation helps to ensure that this is not the case and that all of Ukraine’s elections this year are free, fair, open and transparent. 

OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President George Tsereteli, speaking in Kyiv on February 28, said it best: “Holding a competitive, peaceful and well-administered presidential election is vital to advance the democratic development of Ukraine and promote stability and security in the OSCE region.”


Orest Deychakiwsky may be reached at