Democracy in Ukraine
Prof. has 'experience of lifetime' as observer of Ukrainian election
By Lawrence McMahen
A trace of tears well up just briefly in her eyes. “I felt that I could do something for my country. You felt in the presence of history, and I couldn’t pass by without contributing to it.”
As the result of a necessary family-related visit to Ukraine in mid-November, U of S Assistant Professor of Languages & Linguistics Ludmilla Voitkovska found herself playing an important role over the past two months at a key point in her native country’s history.
Voitkovska became an international observer watching the corrupt Nov. 21 second round of presidential elections, which led to weeks of popular protests in the streets of the capital, Kyiv. Then she was one of Canada’s 500 observers for the final Dec. 26 election that saw the power of the democratic ‘Orange Revolution’ sweep Viktor Yushchenko to victory over former President Viktor Yanukovych.
Through it all, Voitkovska experienced the sights and sounds of the Ukrainian people struggling to create a free and fair electoral system, away from the grip of an oligarchy that she says has been running Ukraine since its 1991 independence from the Soviet Union.
She saw the tent city of protesters in Kyiv, the thousands of people massed in Independence Square, and the people in towns across the country who, with the silent support of 12,000 international observers, ran a free election in late December.
Voitkovska, then a young English professor, left the oppressive academic climate of Ukraine in 1991 as it was about to officially leave the Soviet orbit. She taught as a sessional lecturer in English at St. Thomas More College and for the past five years she has led the Russian and Ukrainian programs in the U of S Department of Languages & Linguistics.
Finding herself in Ukraine in the lead-up to the Nov. 21 second round of presidential voting, she joined with friends at a Kyiv television station to become a news-media observer of the election.
“There was tension and the expectation of massive fraud throughout the country.”
Voitkovska says most people were misinformed, lacked accurate news, and were effectively “brainwashed” by the ruling oligarchy and elements like the church, which was overtly pro-Yanukovych.
When the obviously corrupt Nov. 21 election took place, people flocked to Independence Square in Kyiv, and the Orange Revolution took full flight.
“This revolution became possible because of cell-phones,” Voitkovska says. “In the absence of a free media, people were connecting instantly by cell-phone” – sharing information about the corrupt election and arranging to come to Kyiv.
After nearly two weeks of mass demonstrations and political maneuvring, the Ukraine supreme court order the new, Dec. 26 presidential election just as she was returning to Saskatoon.
When the Canadian government announced it would send a 500-member election observing team, headed by former Prime Minister John Turner, Voitkovska and 4,000 others immediately applied. She was selected.
The well-run Canadian observation mission received training in Ottawa Dec. 20 and 21, and flew in two chartered jets to Kyiv on Dec. 22, where more days of training awaited. The sessions included legal, logistical, communications and safety issues involved in being an observer.
Voitkovska says she was confident the elections would be fair when she heard that the Ukraine parliament made changes for the Dec. 26 to avoid the problems of the earlier round, but the observers were prepared to note any irregularities.
She says a proper election was needed. With its large size and central position in Europe, Ukraine’s stable future is important geopolitically. “If the third round was fraudulent, the country would become a complete mess,” she says.
Prior to election day, the Canadian mission was split into groups of 20 and sent to various regions of Ukraine.
“I went to Chernihiv region, north of Kyiv. We received more training in the regions and had meetings with lawyers and representatives of the Ukrainian Committee of Voters.”
Voitkovska says the Canadians were then broken down further, into teams of two – which they would stay in for their work on election day.
The observation job lasted nearly 24 hours, with the initial check at the polling stations to ensure they had received the ballots, to check the list of voters, and to see if the poll workers had any questions.
“Things seemed to be in order. On voting day, we were up at 5:00 a.m. and at one polling station at 7:15 a.m. and oversaw the sealing of the ballot box. We then toured all eight polling stations in our territory.”
Voitkovska says they were then instructed by their team leader to go to a polling station for absentee ballots – “which was one of the major vehicles of fraud in the Nov. 21 election”.
As Canadian mission leader Turner reported to the federal government on Dec. 27, the election went very well.
“The overall impression drawn by our observers is one of fairness,” Turner said. He added the voter turnout was 77 per cent, and “we observed Ukrainian electors voting freely, without hindrance from officials or partisan election workers.”
Voitkovska says she heard Canadian election workers saying they wished elections back home went as smoothly.
She agrees with Turner that the Canadian observers were generally welcomed by election workers and voters – and in fact their presence may well have prevented people inclined to intimidate voters from doing so.
After the election, Voitkovska travelled to Kyiv’s Independence Square and viewed Yushchenko on jumbo screens delivering a speech to the crowd of thousands.
Her participation in the mission “was the experience of a lifetime. I was very happy I got to see this – and also very sad, because had it happened earlier, I would not have had to leave my country.”
“I do not want young people to ever be held by the same force that held me.”
Voitkovska says it is ironic that now that Ukraine is taking on more importance in the world, the Ukrainian- and Russian-language programs she runs in the Department of Languages & Linguistics is under threat. She is not tenure-track faculty, and her five-year appointment expires in June, after which she thinks she will be without a position. Department funding is being cut, and she fears U of S students won’t have the opportunity to study these important world languages.