This week there were two extremely important presidential elections. The first (Bush v Kerry) overshadowed another important election — the Ukrainian presidential election (Yanukovich v Yushchenko).
On late night on Sunday, Oct 31, I was at a polling station in a town near Tiachiv, in western Ukraine near the border with Romania and Hungary. Me and my partner are with the OSCE (Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe) and we are international election observers. Thus far … no problems, no issues. It has been a long day and we’ve been to a bunch of polling stations and experienced wonderful people.
Then … someone at the polling station motions for us to come over. They get a call that there are 50 strong men blocking the entrance to the county election headquarters. My translator relays the info to us. We quickly work the phones … I find he mobile number of the county election chairman and give him a call. He confirms … no one can enter or exit the territorial election commission headquarters — he’s boxed in and asks us for help.
We hop in our car and hightail it to Tiachiv — a 15 minute drive but get there under 10 minutes because we have Yuri — the best driver in all of western Ukraine. And sure enough — 50 thug-like men, all dressed in black and all big — are blocking the entrance. The police, inside and outside, have resigned to the fact that they are no longer in control.
I walk quickly, my translator hurrying behind me. I greet the men and they huddle around me. Intimidation. I ask who is in charge and big guy — at least three times my size — steps forward. He tells me his name is Ivor but refuses to tell me his last name. Then the others start poking me and ask to see my documents. I smile. I show them my documents and try to shake a few more hands. Most of these men are big, but they don’t look like they really want to be there. I imagine they would rather be home watching soccer.
Then they poke me some more and ask to see my bag. One of them asks if I have a bomb in my bag. Of course, I have no bomb … but I do have a big bag of potato chips which I produce for effect, Johnny Cochran style. If it doesn’t fit you must acquit…
I smile and ask them all if they want some chips. This breaks the ice and they all laugh. I’m a good guy now. We all smile and few minutes later, with the help of another contact in the town (and a former student of my translator) who we met the day before, we are able to enter the commission headquarters and soon precinct results were flowing in a little faster.
We arrived in Kiev on the Tuesday before elections … it was a beautiful day and a beautiful city. As one of 650 short-term observers with the OSCE (Organization of Security and Cooperation of Europe), we packed ourselves in two hotels. The observers represented dozens of European countries and we bond quickly. I met most of the Americans in the flight from Frankfurt to Kiev — people from a wide range of backgrounds. And unlike my mission last year to Georgia, I was not the youngest person in the group. The age ranged from a few people in their twenties to people in their seventies — and everywhere in between. Though most of the US delegates were from DC, many were from places all around the country.
Most of the American observers spoke Russian — though a few, like me, had little to no language ability.
The Europeans were generally more experienced in election monitoring — many had observed dozens of elections all around the world. Luckily for me, a unilingual American, all OSCE business is done in English and it is a requirement that all election observers must be absolutely fluent in English.
When we arrive in Kiev, I finally find out where in Ukraine I will be assigned: Uzhgorod. It is a choice assignment. Uzhgorod is the very Western-most tip of Ukraine and borders Slovakia and is 20 minutes from Hungary. I will be assigned to the Tiachiv region which borders Romania. We’ll be in the midst of the rolling Carpathian mountains. My guidebook says “untamed landscapes and dramatic scenery make the Carpathians a chosen destination for nature-lovers.”
One of my colleagues is not so lucky. She is assigned to a town that my guidebook says “there are 500,000 people living in this city and after you visit you’ll wonder why.” It is a mystery how the assignments to the different regions are made, but I am not complaining.
I meet my deployment team — we are three Germans, a Swede, a Czech, an Irishman, a Hungarian, and two Americans (including myself and someone from the US Embassy in Ukraine). The delegation is headed by a Dutchman and a Canadian.
We’re a diverse bunch. The Irishman is a character. He’s a former army officer who’s incredibly gregarious and has a big smile. He now runs logistics for a big Irish relief agency and over the last five years has been deployed in Kosovo, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, and others. He likes to poke fun at my because I am an American and we have a good time trading barbs and downing beers.
My colleague from Sweden works in the Swedish foreign ministry and used to be a TV journalist there. He specializes in the former Soviet Union and speaks fluent Russia.
My partner is a German woman from the German Ministry of Environmental Affairs. She is originally a biologist and sent many years working in and around South Africa. She has never been an election monitor before and she does not speak Ukrainian or Russian either — so we will have a lot learning to do together.
We take a propeller flight (about 100 minutes) from Kiev to Uzhgorod that was surprisingly comfortable — even serving sandwiches and drinks. We stay at a huge hotel in the middle of town — probably had 450 rooms with only 50 people staying there as the tourist season ended over a month ago. The service was great — like everywhere in Ukraine. (in fact, one of the differences between Ukraine and Georgia was the service. Generally food was served quickly … and with a smile. People were very helpful … always going out of their way to be of service.)
The next day we head to Tiachiv
My translator is Edith – she is an English teacher in the local high school. She is Hungarian by background and speaks Hungarian, Ukrainian, Russian, and English fluently. She actually did not learn Ukrainian until in 1982 when she was 25. Her two boys, 15 and 13, love computers and the Internet. Her husband, who she married just one month after meeting him twenty years ago (“it was love at first site” she told me) works full time in Moscow because he cannot find an engineering job in Ukraine. He is only able to come home once every three months and takes a 2-day train ride to save cost.
Our driver is Yuri — 24 years old and has a great stereo system in his car. He is saving money so he can go to law school (both his parents are local lawyers).
We stay at a local hotel — almost like a bed and breakfast. The rooms where clean and well-kept and service was again friendly. In Tiachiv we meet with local election officials and visit the polling places ahead of election day. There is very little evidence of any campaigning anywhere in Ukraine even though the election is hotly contested. We ask questions about what is happening on the round and we look around for ourselves. Since both our driver and interpreter are from the area, we have little trouble getting around.
Election Day — October 31, 2004
I’m at polling station #89 — the hustle and bustle of hundreds of Ukrainians exercising their democratic right. A dog enters the polling station … it is a skinny white dog with black spots .. I think it wants to vote.
Everyone has hats and coats … it is chilly .. Everyone is in good cheer.
A nice woman just sat down next to me — she is an English teacher in the town of Rachiv and we talk. She mentions that her husband is a businessman and owns two of the local hotels and asks why I am not staying there. I mention that we are staying in Tiachiv but I’m impressed at her capitalist instincts as she is trying to get more sales.
I notice there is a disc ball hanging from the ceiling … we must be in some sort of dance hall … my kind of place.
We head to a poling station in a small church and now we are in a basketball gym in a remote village. Flowers are everywhere — on the polling booths, hanging from the basketball hoops, and on the windows. It is 11:15 am and it is already the fifth polling place we visited.
The ballot boxes are clear so as to prevent fraud. I watch an old man who’s job it is to tally everyone who votes. You can tell he takes his job really seriously.
Little kids come to vote with their parents. Many take the ballots from their daddy or mommy and place it into the ballot box. Kids are learning democracy from an early age. And they start early.
We are invited by the chair of the polling station — a nice old lady, a pensioner and former schoolteacher — for lunch. She is sweet but absolutely insistent. We cannot refuse. First she toasts us with some champagne that is really sweet. She shoves salami sandwiches at us and I gladly eat. One the way out she gives me a big hug and bigger kiss — a truly wonderful grandmother.
We went to the school where my translator works as an English teacher. We waited outside while she voted and then afterwards went inside and observed, By 3pm 1800 of the 3100 precinct voters had already cast their ballots — and the polls do not close until 8pm.
We soon follow a mobile ballot box around to the homes of people too sick to go to the polls. Most of these are very old people who grew up under Stalin — but they still want to practice their democratic right even though many are frail.
We are at our last polling station and reading to watch the count there. It is 7:59 pm and a man comes rushing in … eager to cast his ballot before the polls close. All the polling commission claps their ends and everyone erupts with laughter. The last person in polling station #25 votes.