Ukraine Dispatch: All Quiet on the Svitlovodsk Front

TCC Board Member and Past President Pamela Barrus (second from left) at a polling station in Ukraine
Pamela Barrus (second from left) at a polling station during the Ukraine elections

Below is a report from former TCC President Pamela Barrus, who served as an election observer for OSCE in Ukraine:

May 28, 2104

As an international election observer, one’s duties consist of nosing around voting precincts, looking for irregularities, intimidation, corruption, and the like, and then breathing down the necks of those counting the ballots at the end of the day. You must follow the ballots to the district election commission and then watch them tabulate the protocols of some 200+ voting precincts. All the while, you fill out forms with data and fax these to analysts back in Kiev. You can count on a good 36 hours with little to no sleep.

Certainly it would be far more exciting to write about armed and masked separatists at checkpoints, hulking men screaming in Russian blockading the entrance to the voting precincts, and helicopters being shot out of the sky right in front of me, but that simply never happened in Svitlovodsk.

Here everybody speaks Russian and Ukrainian, and sometimes a mixture of both. Generally, they all hate Putin and feel Ukraine is for Ukraine. They want a future.

It’s election day! My partner, interpreter, driver, and I set off for our observations. Almost every voting precinct we walk into, the chairwoman (sometimes it’s a guy) look at us a little cautiously, but after a few minutes, we’re all fast friends and they can’t do enough. They hold your hand and thank you over and over for being there with tears in their eyes; they hug you when you leave. The people at one precinct we come back to at the end to watch the count are so happy we chose them, they rush to bring us hot tea and biscuits. The policeman who was standing guard there all day and night will come take us sightseeing and bring us small presents on our last day in town. Everybody at some precincts we visit is dressed in traditional Ukrainian outfits. I’m hugged some more. This goes on for the first 12 hours.

And finally it’s the count. There’s a strict procedure to follow, and then comes the part that is the most dramatic: the tables are pushed together, the seals of the boxes are broken, and nearly a 1000 ballots are poured out. One heroic woman reads each and every ballot out loud: Poroshenko, Poroshenko, Poroshenko, Poroshenko, Tymoshenko, Poroshenko, Poroshenko, Poroshenko, and then there was one ballot where someone wrote across all 23 candidates names: “They should be punished for losing Crimea!” Poroshenko, Poroshenko, Poroshenko…

At midnight they finish, and now we follow the car with the ballots to the District Election Commission where some 200+ precincts wait all night and all the next day to be processed and tabulated. Old Soviet style buses bring the chairpeople in from the more far flung precincts. They sleep in the grass outside the “DEC.” My partner and I are relieved for a few hours by the “B” team.

Early next morning it’s still chaos with people waiting to get in. Women come up to tell me animals are treated better; an ambulance takes someone away. If the DEC officials determine the precinct protocols aren’t correct, the chairpeople have to go back to wherever they’re from and recount. I have to watch if unauthorized people try to enter or if bedlam breaks out and write this up in the forms. Around 1pm I leave my partner and wander off into town looking for ice cream or something. A man approaches me and asks my nationality. “America! Ukraine! Friends forever!” He pumps my hand up and down. Back at the DEC I continue watching the human drama of protocols being accepted and look of utter joy that washes over the chairpeople’s faces if all is in order. One woman makes the sign of the cross. By 3pm just about everybody has now collapsed. We are told to come back the next morning. People hug us some more.

I return to my shockingly pink bridal suite and fall into a coma. And then there are farewell dinners in Svitlovodsk, and Kirovohrad, and just when I’ve finally learned how to pronounce those names, back to Kyiv we go.

People here are generally thrilled with the outcome of the election. And the OSCE is happy about how Ukraine carried it out despite the problems in the east. Optimism is in the air. Selfishly I was sort of hoping the election would go to a second round so I could fly back over and do it all again.

Time to leave for another debriefing and party, and then the bus to the airport leaves at 2:45am. Aargh!!

Pamela Barrus

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