U.S. officials Thursday expressed deep disappointment over the conduct of Ukraine's presidential election campaign. The State Department warned that the Bush administration would re-examine its relationship with Ukrainian authorities who engaged in election fraud.
U.S. concerns about the Ukrainian election campaign have been expressed by American diplomats in Kiev and by a procession of high-level U.S. visitors.
But Thursday's U.S. statement volunteered to reporters here was the most forceful to date, and the first to state publicly that bilateral relations could be harmed if the election is indeed tainted by fraud.
Ukrainians go to the polls October 31 in the first round of voting to select a successor to outgoing President Leonid Kuchma.
Though there are more than 20 candidates, the race is largely a contest between Prime Minister Viktor Yakunovich, a protégé of Mr. Kuchma, and former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko, leader of the anti-Kuchma opposition.
The campaign has been marred by, among other things, charges of bias by the state-run Ukrainian news media, alleged violence against political activists, and allegations of an attempt to poison opposition candidate Yushchenko, the leader in most opinion polls.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States is "deeply disappointed" that the campaign to date has fallen short of international standards.
He said disruption of opposition rallies, muzzling of independent media, the misuse of government resources and other serious violations all cast doubt on the Kiev government's commitment to its democratic obligations.
Urging an immediate end to violations, Mr. Boucher said the United States is ready to work with any candidate who wins in a free and fair contest.
However, he said if the election fails to meet democratic standards, the United States would, as he put it, "need to re-examine our relationship" with those who engage in election fraud and manipulation.
The Bush administration has had mixed relations with the Kuchma government, criticizing it on some human rights issues, but warmly welcoming its contribution of 1600 troops to the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.
Questioned at a news briefing, Mr. Boucher said Ukraine's role in Iraq is good for all those involved but that it does not "exonerate" the country's leadership from its responsibility to uphold democracy.
"We think that standing up for one's security obligations in terms of participating in these coalitions to fight terrorism or defend freedom for others is very important, and deserves credit and appreciation," he said. "At the same time, it should go hand-in-hand with efforts to expand freedom domestically, as well."
The comments coincided with criticism of the election campaign at an OSCE meeting in Warsaw by acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy and Human Rights Affairs Michael Kozak. He said the United States has "huge concerns" about the electoral process in Ukraine, including a "tremendous imbalance" in coverage of candidates by the state media.
Spokesman Boucher said U.S. officials are speaking out now, in advance of the voting, to draw attention to the problems and possibly prompt remedial action.
He also said they want to make prospective observers of the elections aware of U.S. concerns.
The OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, is sending in about 600 observers and there will be several thousand domestic election monitors.
If, as expected, no one contestant in the October 31 polling gets an outright majority, there will be a second round of voting November 21.