Victor Ashe Writes about his Experience Observing Ukraine’s Elections

Election process in Ukraine similar to that in Knox County
Knoxville News-Sentinel
By Ambassador Victor Ashe

A little more than two weeks ago, I flew into Kiev, Ukraine, to participate as co-chair of a delegation of election observers sponsored by the International Republican Institute. More than 1,000 observers went to Ukraine, sponsored by numerous international organizations, to report on the validity of parliamentary elections held in the country following its presidential election a few months ago, when Piotr Poroshenko was elected.

Ukraine has been under constant attack from an insurgency and military infiltrations from Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Putin, who openly cherishes the days of Josef Stalin and the former Soviet Union, has never accepted the full independence of Ukraine following the collapse of the U.S.S.R. He is determined to prevent Ukraine from joining the European Union or NATO.

Since the start of 2014, Russia has annexed Crimea and carved out two areas in eastern Ukraine known as Donetsk and Luhansk for occupation. This area is now in a cease-fire situation, but has been strongly fought over. More than 3,000 people have been killed in the area this year, including the victims of the Malaysian airliner shot down a few months ago.

Prior to election, our delegation met with representatives of the U.S. Embassy and the Ukrainian election authority to educate ourselves on the nation and the issues.

For the Oct. 26 election, the IRI observer team was granted credentials to visit any polling places throughout the country under Ukrainian control. Elections were not held in the occupied portions of Ukraine or Crimea, which accounts for 10 percent of the population. Our team went all over Ukraine, including areas near Donetsk that had been liberated from the Russian insurgents.

My co-chair, Ivetia Radicova, former prime minister of Slovakia, and I visited more than 16 polling places in the Kiev region on election day. In all honesty, the election was similar to one in Knox County. They were held at schools in the gym, senior citizen centers or public buildings. There was a steady stream of voters who presented identification and then were given paper ballots. They took their ballots and marked them behind a curtain. Then the voters placed their ballots in see-through containers that could be observed the entire day. When the polls closed, the ballots were counted by hand in front of representatives of various parties.

The major difference between our elections and this one was that there was no heat and it was 34 degrees. Due to the refusal of Russia to sell gas at reasonable prices, gas is rationed in public buildings.

We did not observe any interference or inappropriate activity election day. Voter turnout exceeded what we had last week in Tennessee, and the result was a clear victory for parties favoring closer ties to Europe. Ukrainians did not let their current difficulties deter them from voting for their parliament, the Rada. For the first time in Ukrainian history, no Communist serves in the Rada, where a party must receive 5 percent of the vote to win seats.

The new Rada will include veteran political leaders as well as journalists who have become politicians and youth leaders who led many of the street demonstrations. Their challenge will be to work to produce reform, which has bypassed Ukraine to date. This is probably their last realistic chance to achieve what their neighbor Poland did two decades ago.

The future for Ukraine remains uncertain, with continued occupation of parts of eastern Ukraine likely to continue as well as access to Russia being used as a bargaining chip. Much depends on how extensively the United States, along with its Western allies, continues to back Ukraine.

Many Ukrainians resent the failure of the United States to provide defensive weapons to their military. To date, our help has been meals, blankets and other non-lethal items. The Russian-backed insurgents are better armed. If Ukraine is to overcome this challenge to its territorial integrity, then it must have the arms to fight.

Afterwards, my wife, Joan, joined me in Poland, where we attended the formal opening of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, located on the site of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw. This museum salutes and commemorates the nine centuries of Jewish life in Poland before the Holocaust. It is extraordinary.

All too often in our viewing of Nazi death camps and the horrors of the Holocaust, we forget the incredibly positive contributions made by Polish Jews during the centuries Poland was home. More than 3.3 million Jews were living in Poland at the start of World War II, and 3 million were murdered over the next six years. If you ever visit Poland, visiting this museum, along with the Warsaw Uprising Museum, should be on any short list of sites to see.

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