As Ukrainians vote in the presidential election on Sunday, monitors from 18 different countries will watch them cast their ballots. But international ambassadors and watchdog organizations are expressing concerns as far-right groups have also been given the green light to conduct election monitoring.
Ukraine’s Central Election Commission has registered 139 Ukrainian civil society organizations, as well as 18 international organizations and 18 foreign countries as official observers of the March 31 vote. These include citizens of countries as close as Poland and as far away as Japan, with the majority being sent via the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
While a number of Ukrainian civil society organizations focusing on human rights, democracy, and anti-corruption initiatives will be keeping watch, other organizations are drawing suspicion for ties to political parties or far-right nationalist groups.
By comparison, only 10 Ukrainian civil society organizations were authorized as official observers in the 2014 presidential election.
In an interim report, the OSCE ODIHR points out that “Nearly all ODIHR interlocutors expressed concerns about the affiliation of many of these NGOs to particular candidates and doubted their intention to conduct election observation activities impartially.”
In a report on Ukraine’s human rights considerations heading into the presidential election, Human Rights Watch notes that far-right nationalist groups – “some of which openly took part in attacks on minority communities” – have been officially authorized as election monitors.
What’s more, international watchdog organization Freedom House says that “the increasing visibility and activity of right-wing extremist forces in Ukraine is a cause for concern.”
Nevertheless, paramilitary groups have been able to register as election observers.
“The only requirement for organizations seeking official registration is that they describe elections and election observation as an area of activity in their charters,” Freedom House explains. “The All-Ukrainian Union of Fighters and Volunteers of the Antiterrorist Operation was denied observer status on January 22 because its charter did not specify election activity; however, the group updated its charter, and it was registered on January 29.”
Ukraine’s National Druzhyna militia being officially granted observer status is cited by watchdog organizations as particularly worrisome.
According to Freedom House, the commander of the paramilitary group has even pledged to use violence in the face of electoral violations, “People ask me, will we use force at the polls? I’ll tell you like it is: If in the interest of justice we need to kick someone in the face, we’ll do it without hesitation.”
According to Ukraine’s Central Election Commission, 363 members of the National Druzhyna militia will be serving as official election observers for various constituencies.
“By serving as election observers or helping the police to protect ‘Ukrainian order,’ these groups could be attempting to normalize both their ideology and their use of violence,” Freedom House writes.
RFE/RL reports that on March 15 the G7 Ambassadors’ Support Group for Ukraine penned a letter to the country’s Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov, urging him “to act against violent political extremist groups who might threaten to disrupt the upcoming vote and usurp the role of the Ukrainian National Police.”
On Twitter, the G7 Ambassadors’ Support Group for Ukraine also expressed that they “support those Ukrainian institutions safeguarding the electoral process within the rule of law.”
“We share the desire of ordinary Ukrainians, that the upcoming elections should be free, fair, transparent, peaceful and reflect the will of the Ukrainian electorate,” the G7 Group tweeted.
Observers From Russia – an “Aggressor State” – Blocked
Meanwhile, Russian attempts to send short-term observers as part of the OSCE mission have been thwarted due to the ongoing war in Ukraine’s Donbas region. A bill passed in Ukrainian parliament on February 7 effectively banned Russian citizens from observing elections in Ukraine, citing Russia as an “aggressor state.”
Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir – Director of the OSCE ODIHR – expressed regret over Ukraine’s decision to block Russian citizens from taking part in the ODIHR election observation mission.
The decision to ban Russian observers “is without precedent and contravenes commitments made by all participating States to invite observers from any other OSCE participating States that may wish to observe election proceedings to the extent permitted by law,” Gísladóttir wrote in a letter to Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker also opposed the decision. “Ukraine needs ODIHR monitors to prove it adheres to democratic standards. Otherwise [it] allows people to question [the] election,” Volker wrote on Twitter. “OK if Russian monitors are part – but under ODIHR authority. No games.”
Ukraine needs ODIHR monitors to prove it adhers to democratic standards. Otherwise allows people to question election. OK if Russian monitors are part -- but under ODIHR authority. No games. 🇺🇦 needs to have confidence in its own democratic institutions.— Kurt Volker (@SpecRepUkraine) February 7, 2019
Ukraine “needs to have confidence in its own democratic institutions,” he tweeted.
Similarly, Freedom House is calling on the Ukrainian authorities to control paramilitary groups and protect voters.
“Rather than providing tacit approval of violent right-wing extremists by supporting their activities with public funds or allowing their participation in the electoral process, the government should take decisive steps to rein them in,” Freedom House writes. “Credible threats of violence need to be taken more seriously and recognized for the danger they pose to democracy.”
/Written by Eilish Hart