World Bulletin/News Desk
Ukraine's parliamentary election next month risks falling short of democratic standards and further damaging the former Soviet republic's ties with the West, a senior U.S. official warned on Saturday.
Just a day after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich said the Oct. 28 poll would help Ukraine seal a long-sought association agreement with the European Union, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Melia said it could receive a "failed" grade.
"Ukraine could find itself increasingly distant in all directions rather than integrated in all directions," Melia told a conference in the Black Sea resort of Yalta attended by senior Ukrainian officials including Prime Minister Mykola Azarov.
"The election is another important moment for national choices, national decision-making and I think that unless or until some significant steps are taken to improve things like the election environment you are not going to be able to move as closely as many of you want to Europe and the United States."
Analysts expect Yanukovich's Party of the Regions and its allies to retain a majority in parliament, even though the government has taken a hit since his election in February 2010 because of unpopular tax and pension reforms and little progress in improving the business climate.
EU officials on Friday expressed a similar dim view of Ukraine's democratic progress under Yanukovich, saying the case of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko remained a stumbling block to good relations
Yanukovich's key opponent, Tymoshenko, a former prime minister, was sentenced to seven years in prison last October on abuse-of-office charges and cannot stand in the election, although her party Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) is running.
Brussels and Washington have condemned Tymoshenko's trial as an example of selective justice and urged her release but Yanukovich has refused to intervene.
Speaking at the same conference on Friday, Yanukovich ignored the Tymoshenko case and said the October poll would help Ukraine's integration into the European mainstream, a top priority in his foreign affairs agenda.
But Melia made it clear that Tymoshenko's jailing would affect the West's judgment on the election as an exercise in democracy.
"I think with the political prosecution, politically directed prosecutions against certain opposition candidates, that has serious consequences on the quality of the election here," Melia said.
He said some Ukrainian media were biased against the opposition in their coverage while others, such as the TVi television station which has complained about tax police raids and steps reducing its audience, were under pressure.
"Some of the independent media like TVi are undergoing very specific, directed harassment," Melia said.
He also questioned the procedure used to appoint local election commissions.
"The way that election administration is organised, in a very strange way that election commissions are being selected by lottery and major political parties are not participating in the election commissions that administer the vote and count the votes, that is going to have consequences for the evaluation of this election process."
Melia urged the government to address these issues before the poll.
"It is time for choices to be made by Ukrainians. Good choices will work, bad choices will have consequences. There is a number of things that could be done yet," he said.
"I think if the international community, the international observers were to give a grade today on this election environment and whether it is going to mark a step towards Europe and the West, I think it failed that test today."
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Voting will continue until the last accredited voter on line had cast his/her ballot