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Washington Examiner: IRI Election Observer on Ukraine's Long Road to Democracy

April 19, 2019

Ukraine's long road to democracy

Washington Examiner 

By Peter Roskam 

About five years ago, I found myself on the second floor of a rural school in northern Ukraine, about an hour from the Russian border. It was May 2014, and I was serving as an accredited election observer with the International Republican Institute, tasked with monitoring the Ukrainian presidential election.

It was a difficult time in Ukraine. The country had just been convulsed by the Revolution of Dignity, in which the Ukrainian people reclaimed their democracy from the corrupt, undemocratic Russian puppet, Viktor Yanukovych. They were repaid with the invasion of their sovereign territory by Russia.

I was assigned to the city of Chernihiv. At one polling station, I watched two elderly women labor up the steps to the second floor where the voting booths were located. Their headscarves and mismatched clothing seemed like costumes in a period film.

As I watched them shuffle across the floor and cast their ballots, it struck me that they looked to be about my mother’s age and so were probably born around the 1930s. According to former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst, Ukraine at that time was arguably “the worst place on earth,” decimated by the man-made famine imposed by the Soviet Union, known as the Holodomor, and Stalin’s reign of terror.

How incredible to have started your life in such terrible circumstances, to live through Nazi occupation, Soviet subjugation, the Chernobyl disaster, the collapse of communism and the painful adjustment to post-Soviet life, and the resurgence of Russian aggression. Yet here, they had the opportunity to participate in a genuine democratic election after a life of unending tyranny and strife. I was moved by the fortitude of the Ukrainian people in seeking a better, more democratic future for themselves despite the heavy weight of history and the daunting challenges they faced.

On March 31, 2019, I once again had the privilege of serving as an IRI election monitor for Ukraine’s presidential election — this time in Odessa. I was impressed by how far the country has come in consolidating its democracy in just five years despite tremendous challenges. During that time, Ukrainians have seen Crimea annexed by the Russian Federation, have lost thousands at the hands of Russia in the ongoing war in the Donbass region, and have suffered economically.

In spite of these obstacles, Ukrainian democracy is growing stronger by the day, as was evident in the conduct of this credible and peaceful election. As the Ukrainian people head back to the polls this Sunday to select their next president in their run-off election, it’s clear that they deserve not just our admiration but our continued support as they continue their democratic journey.

Elections, of course, are just one part of democracy and can have no real meaning if they are not underpinned by the rule of law and government accountability. Ukraine has come a long way in putting these structures into place, including reforms to address systemic corruption, and has strengthened the state’s ability to guard against Russian interference by breaking Ukraine’s dependence on Russian energy — all while holding the line against further Russian incursions into Ukrainian territory.

Ukraine still has a long way to go in combating corruption and strengthening the rule of law. While the U.S. and the broader international community has an interest in supporting Ukraine in these efforts, it is ultimately the Ukrainian people alone who will determine the fate of their country. We must remain committed to assisting them in this struggle. Ukraine is at the front line of the fight against Russian aggression, and the victory of democracy there is not only a strategic win for the U.S., but a powerful example to people worldwide that authoritarian bullying can be resisted and that democratic reform is possible in even the most difficult circumstances.

Continued military assistance is vital to holding the line against Russia in eastern Ukraine, as is robust diplomatic support from the U.S. and the fiscal discipline requirements introduced by the International Monetary Fund. Practical advice and assistance on the mechanics of building a strong democracy are also vital to helping Ukraine, as carried out by bodies including the U.S. House Democracy Partnership, the National Endowment for Democracy, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the International Republican Institute, and the National Democratic Institute.

As I left a polling station in Odessa last week, I had a moment of déjà vu, watching in admiration as another babushka hobbled up the steps, determined to cast her vote. It was an honor to be a small part in the international effort to make sure that her vote counted. As the country heads to the polls to cast their final vote in the presidential run-off this weekend, let us recommit to standing alongside this important partner in the fight for freedom and democracy.

Peter J. Roskam served in Congress from 2007-2019 and was the chairman of the U.S. House Democracy Partnership. He is on the board of the National Endowment for Democracy.