Ukrainian leader 'is using Stalinist tactics to rig poll'

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The Independent Online

Ukraine's main opposition movement, which is likely to make gains in parliamentary elections tomorrow, has accused supporters of President Leonid Kuchma of orchestrating polling violations in an effort to keep his grip on power.

The election, which is widely seen as a vote on Mr Kuchma's popularity after eight years as President, will be watched by the European Union to see whether the country is finally shedding its Soviet legacy.

But the signs are that the irregularities that have plagued previous elections are recurring – except that this time, they are being talked about openly.

The independent Voters Committee, which surveyed 930 cities and towns, said about a third of the 33,061 polling stations were not properly equipped or staffed. It estimated that up to 4 per cent of registered voters had died but had not been removed from the list – a figure that could affect the outcome of the poll.

The candidate who leads the pack in the challenge to the Communist Party, which dominates parliament, is the former prime minister Viktor Yushchenko. He claims that too many ballot papers have been printed and is worried that parties loyal to the increasingly authoritarian Mr Kuchma hold too much sway over the media and electoral committees.

"It seems to me that, as Stalin once said, the most important thing in the election is not who the electorate voted for, but who counts the votes," he said this week.

"It seems like they are using the formula from the great helmsman [Stalin] ... I fear that the authorities can falsify the election. And there is a lot of evidence for this."

As in other parts of the former Soviet bloc, opposition candidates have been involved in mysterious car accidents.

The former deputy prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who served under Mr Yushchenko and who is running on an anti-corruption ticket, was injured in a crash at the start of the campaign. Although police said there was no evidence the crash was anything but an accident, there was widespread suspicion that it was an assassination attempt.

Mr Yushchenko may suffer at the hands of voters from the perception that he is too close to the Americans, who have been accused of meddling in the campaign by calling for a free and fair poll. But his political skills have also been queried. His handling of economic reforms, which upset both left and right, led to his sacking in April last year.

Mr Yushchenko's Our Ukraine umbrella group of parties is predicted to win up to 28 per cent of the vote, while the Communists close to Mr Kuchma are predicted to win about 19 per cent.

Trailing behind is the United Social Democratic party, with about 8 per cent. Mrs Tymoshenko's bloc is expected to obtain only 7 per cent.

Mrs Tymoshenko has organised massive demonstrations aimed at toppling Mr Kuchma, who is accused of corruption and involvement in the murder of an investigative journalist, Georgi Gongadze. His headless corpse was found in a suburb of Kiev in November 2000.

Mr Kuchma denies the authenticity of a tape recording in which he appears to tell subordinates to "deal with" Mr Gongadze. He admits the private meetings were recorded, but says that the tapes have been edited.

This week, Alexander Zhyr, the head of the parliamentary commission investigating the President, said he would soon release other recordings in which Mr Kuchma is alleged to discuss a $100m (£70m) arms shipment to Iraq, which is under UN sanctions. Valery Malev, the head of the state arms export company, died in a car crash on 7 March.

The President, whose second term runs until November 2004, has denounced the allegations of Iraqi sanctions busting as a "propagandistic campaign" that deserves to be "flushed like filth into the sewer". Mr Zhyr, who is a member of Mr Yushchenko's bloc, insists that his work on the investigative commission is separate from the campaign for the election.