I. In Focus This Week
‘Don’t go, just don’t go.’
‘You realize you just spent a week’s wages on that souvenir?’
By Paul Gronke
Those two quotations — the first from a concerned coworker before I left and the second from my translator at the end of the mission — reflect much of my experience as an election observer for the OSCE/ODHIR mission to Ukrainian presidential election on May 25, 2014.
The mission to Ukraine was my third time as an election observer for ODIHR. Previously, I’ve served as an observer for the Albanian parliamentary election in June 2013 and the Kyrgyz presidential election in October 2011.
While many of my friends and colleagues were intrigued by the trip to Kyrgyzstan, and a bit jealous of my mid summer trip to Albania, the Ukrainian mission — for obvious reasons — prompted the most interest and concern.
I’d like to regale you with tales of intrigue and excitement, but this is no year of living dangerously.
My mission to Ukraine was not very different from my previous two missions. I learned about the politics and culture of a new country, made new friends, ate some wonderful food, and felt a sense of reward for helping to promote democratic development in an important part of the world.
There were tensions in the East, and many of the more experienced hands were concerned about the long-term observers situated in the eastern oblasts of Donetsk, Kharkiv, and Luhansk, where there was still active armed conflict.
I was stationed in Kherson oblast. Kherson is located in the south of the country, abutting the Crimea to the east and the Black Sea to the south. The Dnieper River runs through the main city of Kherson, and the area’s long association with shipbuilding and seafaring meant that Russian speakers were nearly a majority in the region.
We had a special security briefing as a result.
Yet, my overwhelming impression in the city of Kherson, confirmed by the other teams in our oblast, was a sense of calm. The Ukrainian citizens I spoke to wanted the election to be over, hoped for a peaceful resolution in the east, and were primarily interested in jobs and economic growth.
The quote from my wonderful translator, who was helping me buy gifts for friends, is in some ways the most memorable.
I spent most of the mission complimenting him on the great coffee, fine food, friendly people, but most of all the low cost of Ukraine. It was not until that final day — when I spent $50 on a stunning, hand-painted Matryoshka (nesting doll) — that he turned to me and told me, without a bit of frustration or anger, that the monthly income in Kherson was about $200, and I’d just spent a week’s wages on a doll.
Ukraine, I learned later, has seen it’s agricultural output drop by 50 percent since the end of the Soviet Union. The currency has collapsed since the start of the conflict in the East. No wonder gourmet dinners were $10 and hand-sewn tablecloths were $30!
There was a palpable sense of pride in the election — it was free, fair, and resulted in a decisive winner (never discount the importance of a clear and legitimate outcome).
The election will hopefully provide stability to the country, but post-election, Ukraine needs peace, and it needs a growing economy.
I gave an interview about my experiences to our local public radio station, and the host closed with this question: “Paul, now you have observed elections in Kyrgyzstan, Albania, and Ukraine. How do you compare your experiences?”
“I met wonderful people and saw new and wonderful countries. Each country was proud to have held a free and fair election. But now each of these countries needs us—needs our investment and needs our tourist dollars. So the next time you think about visiting the Greek coast, think about traveling to Albania, just a few miles north. The next time you think about traveling to Poland, take a side trip down to Lviv, Ukraine. And the next time you’re visiting Turkmenistan, visit Kyrgyzstan as well.”
I don’t suspect any electionline readers have plans to visit Turkmenistan. But a visit to Ukraine or Albania will be well worth your time. And if you get a chance to go on an election observation mission, step up! You’ll probably see me in the same line!
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