Anita McBride travels to Ukraine to monitor elections

This fall was election season—not just for the United States, but for other countries as well. In late October, Anita McBride traveled to Ukraine to observe parliamentary elections with the International Republican Institute, a non-profit, non-partisan, pro-democracy organization.

Counting ballots with poll watchers in Lutsk, Ukraine.

Counting ballots with poll watchers in Lutsk, Ukraine.

Background: Why were observers necessary?

Ukrainian identity crisis

The elections took place during a period of political unrest and uncertainty, as the country struggles between two alternatives: maintaining its historical ties to Russia on one hand, and greater integration with Europe and the West on the other.

The 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union made Ukraine politically independent from Russia, but Russia remains a strong influence through both its cultural ties to ethnic Russians and also its role as the country’s dominant supplier of oil and natural gas.

Since independence, Ukrainians have worked toward building a stronger democracy and closer diplomatic relations with the West (the way former Soviet bloc country Poland has done). At the same time, a small portion of the population—particularly in the eastern region — favors closer ties with Russia.

Flashpoints: The Maidan and Russia’s occupation of Crimea

The tension between these two camps came to a head in 2013 after president Victor Yanukovich backed out of a treaty with the European Union (EU) and instead entered into talks with Russia about forming a customs union.

Outraged by Yanukovich’s sudden reversal, thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets to protest between November 2013 and February 2014. The largest demonstration was in a square in Kyiv known as the Maidan. Yanukovich’s pro-Russian government responded with a violent crackdown.

Ultimately,  parliament removed Yanukovich from power, “but not before he ordered the military to shoot protesters and even set fire to the square,” McBride said. During the Maidan, the government killed hundreds of Ukrainian citizens, and many are still missing. In Kyiv, there is a memorial to all the victims of the massacre, and all over the country are reminders of the violence in the Maidan. “In every town I visited, there were makeshift memorials to people who were missing or wounded,” McBride recalled. “The youngest person whose photo I saw was 16. The oldest was a 75-year-old woman.”

In retaliation for Yanukovich’s ouster, Russia invaded Ukraine in March 2014 and annexed Crimea.

Some of the protesters in the Maidan used tin shields and WW II-era helmets that were no match for government bullets.

Some of the protesters in the Maidan used tin shields and WW II-era helmets that were no match for government bullets.

A new president gets a fresh start

In May 2014, Ukraine’s newly-elected and western-leaning president Petro Poroshenko called for parliamentary elections as soon as possible in order to help consolidate his victory and lay the groundwork for reforms, including greater integration into Europe. The date set was October 26.

All eyes on the election

The October 2014 election presented a dilemma for Ukrainian authorities, who had had limited access to Russian-occupied parts of the country, where they had no way to set up polling stations. As a result, those living in these annexed areas did not have the opportunity to vote.  Ukrainian officials feared that the Russian government and the opposition bloc party would use this disruption as a pretext to discredit elections in the entire country.

There were 29 parties that fielded candidates for parliament. One of the parties that did not receive enough votes to qualify for seats in parliament was a fringe group called the Internet Party, whose leader is known for showing up in public dressed as Darth Vader.

In the end, 54 percent of the voting population turned up at the polls. Although the pro-Russian party received enough votes to seat members in parliament―which disappointed some voters―President Petroshenko’s party won the largest number of votes and was thus able to begin the hard work of forming a governing coalition.

Anita McBride stands in front of a poster for the Internet Party of Ukraine, whose leader dresses up like Darth Vader for public appearances.

Anita McBride stands in front of a poster for the Internet Party of Ukraine, whose leader dresses up like Darth Vader for public appearances.

Ukraine and the U.S.

The final outcome is hopeful news for the U.S. and Western allies, McBride said. “Americans have a great interest in thwarting Soviet-style influence and aggression into countries that have worked so hard to establish democratic institutions. Russian aggression is destabilizing to Eastern Europe and could be destabilizing for Western Europe. Since World War II, our foreign policy has been to support a strong Europe through alliances like NATO. An attack on one is an attack on all.”

In the midst of their own historic elections, Ukrainians still had time to follow the news on midterms in the United States. One aspect of our electoral system was particularly mystifying to Ukrainian voters. “The Ukrainians were surprised that there are people in the U.S. who are able to vote without presenting a photo ID.” McBride said. “That doesn’t make sense to them. They find it very ironic that we are coming to monitor their elections when we would allow our system to be called into question by not requiring people to show proof of their identity.”

“They are determined not to go backward.”

Despite threats of Russian intervention in the elections, McBride said she did not feel that she was in physical danger while at polling stations, partly because she was in the town of Lutsk in the northwest, far from the violence in the separatist areas to the east.

Recruitment poster for anti-Russian paramilitary group.

Recruitment poster in Lutsk for anti-Russian paramilitary group.

McBride said she felt inspired rather than fearful as she witnessed the fortitude and determination of the Ukrainian voters and poll workers, who were so deeply emotionally invested in the process. “They are determined not to go backward,” she said.

–Lisa Moscatiello