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Thursday, November 25, 2004


Disturbing parallels

Anne Applebaum, the author of Gulag: A History, writes in The Sydney Morning Herald:

Before the election, the Government mobilised groups of thugs to harass voters. On the day of the election, police prevented thousands of opposition activists from voting. Nevertheless, when the votes were counted, it was clear the opposition had won by a large margin. As a result, the ruling party decided to falsify the result, and declared victory. Immediately, the Russians sent their fraternal congratulations.

No, that was not a description of the presidential election that took place last Sunday in Ukraine. It was a description of the referendum in Soviet-occupied Poland in June 1946.

But although that infamous Polish election took place nearly 60 years ago, there are good reasons why it sounds so much like last weekend in Ukraine. According to the Committee of Civic Voters, a volunteer group with branches all over Ukraine, the techniques haven't changed much in 60 years. In the Sumy region, they record, a member of the electoral commission was beaten up by unidentified thugs. At one polling station, "criminals" disrupted the voting and destroyed the ballot boxes. In Cherkassy, a polling station inspector was found dead. More "criminals" broke polling station windows and destroyed ballot boxes. In the Zaporozhye region and in Kharkov, observers saw buses transporting voters from one polling station to the next.

There was, in other words, not much that was subtle about the disruption of the election - no arguments about hanging chads or "secret software" here - and not much that was surprising about the result.

It can't be a coincidence that if the Ukrainian election is settled in Moscow's favour, it will mark the third such dubious vote in Russia's "sphere of influence" in the past two months, following the polls in Belarus and the separatist province of Abkhazia.

All of these places may seem obscure and far away. But so did the events 60 years ago in Poland, at least until it became clear they were part of a pattern: 1946 was also the year Winston Churchill gave his celebrated speech describing the "iron curtain" that had descended across Europe.

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