KIEV, Ukraine — When politician Tetiana Strokan swept into the newly renovated auditorium at public school No. 241, English teacher Yevhenia Shpilska was handing out the candidate's colorful campaign booklets at the door.
The 21-year-old teacher isn't a campaign worker. She doesn't even support Strokan's bid for the 216th District seat in parliament. When asked why she was handing out campaign materials, Shpilska rolled her blue eyes as though at higher-ups. "I was told," she said, then hesitantly amended: "Well, maybe 'asked' is the better word."
In the run-up to Ukraine's elections March 31, numerous government employees--from bureaucrats to street cleaners--are being "asked" and "told" to join certain political parties, work on certain election campaigns, put up selected candidates' posters and tear down those of competitors. Such election-related activities are not in their job descriptions and most often are illegal for state employees.
"Abuse of administrative resources is the main problem with these elections," said Igor Popov, head of the watchdog Committee of Voters of Ukraine. "It is a form of the corruption that pervades Ukrainian society. Between elections, public officials use their positions to enrich themselves. During elections, they use their positions to keep their positions--to either get elected or to do the bidding of their superiors in order to keep their jobs."
Echoing the prevailing view, Popov contends that the main abuser of government resources is the For United Ukraine bloc, the sole coalition or party to staunchly support President Leonid D. Kuchma, who in turn is widely believed to be behind much of the pulling of strings.
" 'Administrative resources' is a euphemism, invented to give illegal actions a neutral name," said Serhiy Teriokhin, the incumbent in District 216.
Candidate Accused of Abusing Position
Teriokhin is a candidate from the Our Ukraine bloc, which is led by former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko, a popular reformer ousted from his post last April by parliament. Teriokhin accuses his opponent, Strokan, of using her position as chief executive of the district to promote her campaign and interfering with his own, blocking him from renting public space and tearing down his outdoor ads and posters.
Strokan, a candidate from the Kiev mayor's Unity bloc, which has divided the Ukrainian capital's administrative resources with For United Ukraine, is technically on a leave of absence from her government position. But a reporter who called her campaign headquarters for comment was referred to another number--in the district's executive offices.
Igor Kolhatyn, the deputy chief executive of health and social services who also makes a point of telling reporters about Strokan's stumping schedule, vigorously denied Teriokhin's charges. "It's not our fault if he can't get people to come to his campaign stops."
Running for his third term in parliament, Teriokhin says with equal vigor that administrative abuses are the worst he has seen: "These elections are very cynical."
But the stakes in the elections are high, especially for one person who isn't running: the president. Mired in scandals, from last year's allegations of a role in the slaying of a prominent journalist to new reports of illegal weapons deals, many observers believe that Kuchma is battling to pack parliament with loyalists--or at least keep out avid opponents such as the former speaker of parliament, Oleksandr Moroz, and former Deputy Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Both lead anti-Kuchma parties that are hovering around the 4% of the national vote needed to win a portion of the 225 seats in the 450-member parliament, which are divided proportionately among parties.
"Kuchma needs guarantees of immunity after leaving office in 2004," said Yulia Mostova, political editor of the weekly Zerkalo Tyzhdnia. "The next parliament will decide if he gets it."
"The fact that the authorities must resort to such unlawful and uncivilized election tactics simply proves how deeply unpopular they are," Mostova said. She noted that Yushchenko's Our Ukraine bloc is far in the lead of the 33 parties and coalitions in the running, despite its chief opponents' use of administrative resources.
With support reaching as high as 33% in some polls, the Our Ukraine bloc is poised to capture at least 60 proportionally allocated seats. The bloc's number of seats could grow to 100 or more, potentially making it parliament's largest faction, depending on how many races Our Ukraine candidates such as Teriokhin win in the additional 225 "single mandate" districts, where the candidate with the most votes wins.
Unexpected Publicity for a Common Problem
The misuse of state funds, employees and facilities to help certain parties and candidates and hinder others is not uncommon in transitional democracies. What is unusual in Ukraine is the extent to which it has become one of the most publicly discussed issues in the election campaign.