Inside the revolution: the Ukraine story

Inside the revolution: the Ukraine story

John Aristotle Phillips

It is not every day you get to work with genuine revolutionaries. But in the 2004 Ukrainian presidential election, our firm got that chance.

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This past year, Aristotle International stepped into the maelstrom of a budding revolution that sought to inaugurate a viable democracy where only the illusory image of one actually existed. The remarkable achievements of the pro-reform national opposition bloc known as Nasha Ukraina (“Our Ukraine”) and Viktor Yushchenko in overturning the fraudulent elections conducted on Nov. 21, 2004, have been well covered. What is less known is the small supporting role that our team of our political, communications and technical specialists played.

Our Ukraine hired Aristotle to provide political consulting services. From the outset our primary challenge was to apply western-style campaign capability to offset the overwhelming advantage that Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma had. He sought to impose his chosen successor on the country and thus perpetuate autocratic control.

We knew going in that this was not a match of equals and that our client was at best an energetic underdog. State control of nearly all national media outlets and even billboard space in most jurisdictions outside the capital, Kiev, gave graphic testimony to the absurd unevenness of this contest. Would 48 million Ukrainians actually take their fate in their own hands for the first time by casting ballots that would determine the outcome? Or would the Soviet-era impulses of the Moscow-backed regime and its candidate, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, reassert the grim status quo via an elaborate electoral hoax?

Yulia Tymoshenko, Yushchenko’s chief coalition partner, conceived a brilliant campaign to mobilize her long-suffering countrymen, helping to bring democracy to Ukraine through a series of organized street protests against the initial, illegitimate election results.

Igor Kyrylenko, our Ukrainian technologist and data specialist, exulted in the opportunity to bring his considerable skills to bear on the democracy project for his home country. Backstopping the entire Kiev field operation was a team of systems engineers and troubleshooters eight time zones away, in our Capitol Hill offices.

We were also responsible for getting media to report on the systemic fraud in order to lay the groundwork for the international community to reject the results.

Knowing that there was a good chance the government security forces might come after us once they knew what we were doing, we did not relay any information in Ukrainian, which would have violated regulations. Instead we transmitted information from across the country directly to foreign news outlets in real time. Specifically, we adapted techniques perfected in prior American and European campaigns over the past two decades.

We built and staffed a western-style presidential campaign “war room,” to direct how information would be relayed to international media outlets. We also designed and deployed a complete voter turnout system. That involved collecting and analyzing data about voter participation in each region and at 250 pre-selected bellwether-voting locales;

In addition we hired 235 temporary (Ukrainian) employees to watch the polls. We also tracked the fluctuations in the eastern zones of the pro-government “ghost” voters, who suddenly appeared late in the day to offset the legitimate votes for Yushchenko.

And we hired a camera crew to document first-hand evidence of voter intimidation and ballot destruction, along with movements of troops and other actions meant to suppress free elections.

Finally, we designed and launched Internet fund-raising for Our Ukraine, which sought financial support from around the world.

Fighting the System

As our work began, we had premonitions of trouble ahead. But nothing prepared us for the scope and scale that ensued. Nor were we prepared for the sight of fleets of buses escorted by Interior Ministry guards, transporting government-aligned workers from one polling place to another to cast serial “absentee ballots”.

We tracked turnout in suspect precincts that exceeded 100 percent of registered voters. By charting the activity in real time against the corresponding level of participation in the Oct. 31 preliminary election, we showed the absurd variances in voter turnout. We found conspicuous spikes in ballots cast in areas under the pro-Russian candidate’s control in the final hour or two of the election.

The Central Election Commission (CEC) dragged its feet in releasing the complete tallies of voter participation by district. Reports of troops coming into the city and the appearance of pro-government thugs in threatening numbers in several areas raised the fear that violent confrontation was imminent. By the time darkness fell on election day, the crowd of pro-Yushchenko supporters in the square had tripled in size, patriotic music rang out from the big stage, and soon we heard the confident voices of Yushchenko and Tymoshenko.

They encouraged the crowds to be patient but courageous. They invoked the long history of Ukrainian yearning for true freedom and preparing them for the long spell of protests that would be necessary to reverse the momentum of the government’s illegitimate maneuvers.

Standing alongside these Ukrainian patriots in the cold as they launched their revolution before our eyes, we could feel the quickening pulse of a new democracy and were grateful for the invitation that had brought us there.

Their persistence, courage and patriotism paid off. On Dec. 26, the CEC declared Yushchenko winner of the runoff election, by a margin of 52 percent to 44 percent.

We will not forget the young people that put themselves in front of the buses of phony “absentee voters,” daring the drivers to take responsibility for their deaths. Or old men in World War II uniforms wearing the medals they had earned fighting the Nazis, tottering around Independence Square, encouraging everyone to stay the course until justice prevailed.

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We also recall the thousands of damaged ballots being carefully cleaned and counted by opposition poll watchers, which came after an attack in which a vial of acid had been inserted in the ballot box and timed to explode just before counting, destroying hundreds of pro-reform ballots. Or the reassuring journalism of the fearless English language weekly, the Kyiv Post, which proved to be a capable watchdog over official corruption.

The example of Our Ukraine, led by Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, should inspire not just those of us who witnessed their bold patriotism, but also freedom seekers everywhere with the courage to act when democracy is threatened. And although we are at most a tiny footnote in the big story of Ukraine’s democratic revolution, we were humbled and honored to be involved.

John Aristotle Phillips is the CEO of Aristotle International, with offices in Washington, London, San Francisco, Toronto and Atlanta. The bipartisan company supplies strategic and public affairs technology to elected officials, political parties and Fortune 1000 companies worldwide.

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