The heart was the symbol of the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, a political party that had supported Yuliya Tymoshenko for president. What we would call a backwards R is part of Ukraine’s alphabet, and means “I” as far as I could tell. While I was there, I figured out some of the Cyrillic alphabet Ukraine uses, although I never learned how to speak any Ukrainian.
The next morning, we all met our observation team. Martin, an attorney from Germany, would be my fellow observer. Nadia was the translator assigned to us, and Sergei would be our driver. Nadia was a Ukrainian national. I don’t recall if Sergei was also, or if he was a Russian living in Ukraine. He didn’t share a lot about himself, but that may have been a language issue, as it was evident that he didn’t speak much English.
Our initial tasks involved going to the various polling stations and inquiring about the voter registration lists. One of the ways that election results can be manipulated, of course, is by eliminating voters who are likely to vote for your opponent.
This election was the parliamentary election, but it was proceeding under the shadow of the 2004 presidential election. In 2004, Viktor Yushchenko, the Our Ukraine candidate, ran against Viktor Yanukovich of the Party of the Regions and various other smaller party candidates. Yanukovich was supported by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.
Neither Yushchenko nor Yanukovich received a majority, so there was a runoff. During the campaign for the runoff, Yushchenko was poisoned with dioxin, resulting in facial disfigurement and other health issues, although he did survive. The runoff gave a close victory to Yanukovich, but Ukrainians believed that the election was corrupted. Huge demonstrations in the streets followed, and became known as the “Orange Revolution.”
The case went to the Ukraine Supreme Court, which ruled that there should be a new runoff election. This time Viktor Yushchenko prevailed and became president of Ukraine in 2004.
Two years later, the OSCE was enlisted to observe the parliamentary elections, and this was when I came to Ukraine. Viktor Yanukovich was running for parliament, still a Russian-favored candidate. Yulia Tymoshenko was also running for parliament. Victory in their respective races would position them for becoming prime minister, a position with considerable authority in the Ukrainian government.
Against this background, the OSCE was supervising the various teams of observers. Martin and I were sent to Svitlovods’k, a large town along the Dnieper River. The Dnieper River flows from Belarus, through central Ukraine, and empties into the Black Sea. Along the way, at three or four points, the Dnieper River becomes very wide, resembling a lake more than a river, at least on the map. Kyiv is along the Dnieper River in the north. Svitlovods’k is much smaller than Kyiv, and positioned at the southern end of one of the widest sections of the Dnieper River.
The place we stayed in Svitlovods’k was clean and comfortable, with the plain modern architecture. It was the first time that I ran into a European style bathroom – the shower and sink were in my room, the toilet (WC) was in the hall. It seemed to be a mid-century style. Older hotels and new hotels were arranged more traditionally.
Most of the polling places we visited were in schools or school-associated buildings, or in local government buildings. If you were unsure of who to vote for, there were printed summaries of the candidates’ backgrounds and political agendas posted on the walls.
One of the things that caught me off-guard was how interested the Ukrainians were in me, the American. I’m sure all of the American observers experienced this because there was nothing special about me. The women in the photo below were grumbling in an apologetic way about the problems they had – heat that didn’t work, occasional power outages, things like that. I commiserated, mentioning how occasionally these things would happen in America, too. The woman in the white jacket said, “We hear that everything in America is perfect.” I said that things were very good in America, but not perfect. I was trying to strike a truthful balance. Compared to Ukraine, America is very rich, of course, so I had to acknowledge that, but power outages and heat that doesn’t work are things that happen here, too.
In the photo above, notice that the ballots were different colors. Ukraine had their elections for all jurisdictions, national and local, at the same time. The national ballots were long because there were many parties on the national ballots. The local races were shorter. Thank heaven someone had made the decision to make the ballots different colors for the different jurisdictions!
One color represented the national parliamentary elections. This was the election that Martin and I were responsible for observing the counting of. As I remember, the next level of government was the “oblast,” roughly equivalent to our states. “Rayon” was like a county, and then came the cities or villages. The polls were open until into the evening, I think around nine o’clock, so that the people who worked all day were able to come and vote.
In the slow moments, I had a chance to talk with Andrei, who was a fireman, and Sergei, who was a policeman. They were the security for the polls. Sergei may have carried a weapon, but maybe not. I don’t remember. It was pretty low-key.
What I remember very clearly from our conversation is how they appreciated the equipment they had received from America. Apparently, fire departments in the U.S. that buy new equipment – fire engines, hoses, etc. – and police departments that get new equipment – kevlar vests especially – pass along the equipment that is being replaced to other countries with fewer resources, probably through Homeland Security or the State Department. Until that moment, I had never thought about what happened to used emergency services equipment. But that is what some of the Ukrainian services were using. I suspect it even included uniforms. And they both expressed Ukrainians’ gratitude for their equipment. I was touched, and grateful in turn that we were able to help.
After the polls closed, the workers in this polling place pushed together several desks to make a large work surface, and then emptied the boxes onto the now-large area. The first task was to separate the colors. One person in the group was the gatherer for a particular color – goldenrod, blue, white, and pink. The other workers simply scooped up a few ballots then handed their bunch of one color to the color’s gatherer. Everyone was careful to keep the ballots on top of the table where they were visible to all.
When this was done, the focus was on one color. Goldenrod, for example. One worker had all of the goldenrod ballots. Another worker would position a seat above and behind the first worker, in a place that would allow her to read the ballot while looking over the first worker’s shoulder, i.e. a second reader to help assure accuracy.
The first worker would read the name of the candidate marked on the ballot. One of the workers gathered around the table would raise her hand (they were all women) and the first worker would hand the ballot to her. The recipient was then in charge of collecting all of that candidate’s ballots as the names were read. The next name went to another worker, and so on. The nature of voting with so many candidates meant that there were some who got no votes or very few votes, but of course they were managed and counted, too.
No machinery was involved. It worked well, but it took a long time as they worked through each color of ballot. Luckily for Martin and me, the workers had tackled the parliamentary election ballots first, so we were able to leave around midnight.
The polling place was a mess when Martin and I returned in the morning. The clerical staff and the supervisor who would sign the results had been there all night. The counted ballots had been put in large envelopes and labeled. Martin and I were there to get a signed copy of “the protocol.” That’s what Martin called it. Since he had done this before, I assume that was what the document was called by the OSCE, the final results of the parliamentary election. I always had thought of protocol as describing a process, but apparently it’s also used to describe the result of the process.
I was surprised that Nadia and Sergei both had cellphones. This was 2006, and flip-phones (also called clamshell phones) had become common in the U.S. relatively recently, but they seemed to be everywhere in Ukraine already. There is an economic term, something like “leapfrogging,” that is used to describe this kind of phenomenon. An old technology (in this case telephone poles, wires, switchboards, and dial phones) was too expensive when it was new, and technology moved on to cell phones before Ukrainians could afford to catch up with the now-older technology. But cell phones were smaller and cheaper, cell towers didn’t require all the wires and poles to transmit electronic calls, and so Ukrainians were able to adopt cell phone technology more easily, making it ubiquitous contemporaneously with the United States.
I carried a passport from the U.S., and Martin carried a German passport. Nadia carried what she called her “internal passport.” Her “internal passport” carried demographic details of her birth, her school, her marriage, her divorce, and her place of employment. She was required to carry it with her, and had to produce it for review if a person of authority, like a policeman, requested it. I have to admit, I was a little uncomfortable with the idea that, if I lived in certain countries, I could be required to make such personal information available to any authority that requested it. As Americans, we enjoy an enormous level of personal freedom. We should never take that for granted.
People in Ukraine made a fuss over me wherever I went. It wasn’t personal, it was because I am an American. I think sometimes Martin was annoyed by this. If it was the other way around, I might be annoyed, too. At any rate, I realized that I was an “ambassador” of sorts for the U.S. and I tried to be conscious of this whenever anyone asked me questions or gave me comments about the U.S.
I forgot this lesson on our last night before returning to Kyiv, after we had turned in our election document. Martin and I invited Nadia and Sergei to dinner at a local restaurant. It was a small-scale celebration. As usual, Nadia translated the menu for us. I decided that I wanted a steak, medium rare, as a way of finishing off our time together. To give Nadia proper credit, she tried, as tactfully as she could, to steer me toward other choices on the menu. But, no, I was really in the mood for a steak. In due course, the waiters brought our dinners. I don’t know what exactly was on my plate, but it was most definitely NOT a steak. Not recognizably. The piece seemed to be made entirely of gristle. Martin looked at me, and I glanced at Martin. I knew immediately that I had been thoughtless – Ukrainians did not have beef commonly available, and the restaurant had probably come as close as they could to providing what I had asked for. So, I thanked them. And I tried to eat what I could of it, but that wasn’t much. I ate the vegetables and rice and bread that came with it, so I didn’t go hungry, but it was a lesson to me about being in a country that was not the United States. Listen to the people’s recommendations. They want you to enjoy yourself, so don’t ignore them.
We returned to Kyiv, where Martin and I parted ways from Sergei and Nadia, and rejoined our cohorts from the overall OSCE mission at a general celebration before everyone went home, or to wherever they were going.
I had changed my departure date, and would be on my own for the first time ever in a country I barely knew and a language I didn’t know, written in an alphabet I didn’t recognize. What I did know was that they were friendly!