Of votes and hopes

Ukraine.jpgJenny Hilton reports on her first hand observations of Ukraine’s recent elections

Of necessity, what follows is a personal account of the recent Ukrainian elections.

I have monitored six previous elections in the country but the latest has attracted more publicity because of the pro-Russian demonstrators in the Eastern oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk. Having previously monitored an election in Dnieperprotensk on the borders of the troubled region, on this occasion I volunteered for the Black Sea port city of Odessa.  That was before the tragic events of 2 May when 48 people died in the burnt out Trade Union building (the causes of which are still being investigated) and tensions were still running high.

A large number of international observers were present for the elections, and from many different organisations.  The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) deployed 1000 observers, of whom 100 were long-term and had been in the country for over two months. There were allegedly another 2000 international observers from other organisations, most notably from North America – and including Madeleine Albright. Short-term observers like myself included parliamentarians from the Council of Europe, the EU Parliament, the NATO Assembly and the OSCE itself.  There were five representatives of the UK Parliament, which made a change as I have, rather disgracefully, often been the only one.  

We arrived in Kiev, a city I know well, on Thursday 22 May, where I had time in the afternoon to walk down to Maidan Nezalezhnosti – also known as Freedom Square – which had been the centre of the anti-government rioting.  Instead of a busy intersection of traffic-filled roads (think Trafalgar Square), this had become an untidy encampment of shabby khaki tents and barricades of black rubber tyres. (Later in Odessa, I saw brightly painted tyres in children’s’ playgrounds and as plant containers on housing estates). However, amongst the tents there were stalls selling bric-a-brac, street musicians and couples strolling in the warm sunshine, and memorials to those who had been killed in the fighting.

I then walked up to the esplanade in front of the blue and gold of St. Michael’s Church, which had been used as an impromptu hospital during the riots. There were yet more khaki tents, this time with red cross symbols, in front of the church. I was relieved to see at the other end of the street, that my favourite church, St. Sophia – with its Byzantine mosaics, green domes and golden pinnacles – was intact.

The following day we had briefings from representatives of the candidates and the media, and on both security and the situation in the East of the country. The most impressive was Poroshenko’s spokesman. He was the only one to make a clear distinction, in fluent English, between the role of the President (National Security and the fight against corruption) and the role of the government. Yulia Timoshenko’s main unrealistic policy seemed to be to join NATO and recover the Crimea. 

On the Saturday I flew down to Odessa with 16 other parliamentarians. I was paired with Marie Norden – a cheerful Swedish MP with whom I have worked before. Contrary to our expectations, Odessa seemed very relaxed. A beautiful city of wide boulevards lined with great plane trees and acacias, it was laid out on a grid pattern by the Duc de Richelieu for Catherine the Great; and rivals St. Petersburg with its palatial mansions (now grand hotels) painted in pastel shades, caryatids supporting enormous balconies, and a vast baroque opera house in white marble. We walked to the famous Odessa steps (and cravenly took the funicular up and down). There were bands playing, kids roller-skating, pony rides and ice cream sellers; as well as more sinister young men with eagles and fan-tail pigeons wanting money for photographs.

Election-day itself passed without incident. We were fortunate in having a charming interpreter, Alina, and a helpful driver, Victor. We spent the morning at polling stations in Odessa itself and in the afternoon headed out into the flat countryside and the extensive green fields of grain. At all the polling stations we were warmly welcomed and plied with tea and coffee. Then at the final village, where we observed the count, we were given – somewhat to our embarrassment – a whole dish of meat stew and pasta.

Odessa sees itself as a warm and friendly city used to welcoming cruise ships and tourists and is undoubtedly deeply shocked by the events of 2 May. Wild rumours still circulate about how the fighting started but there were no obvious tension on the streets or between different factions. The elections were well conducted and we saw no signs of intimidation or harassment; and similar impressions applied throughout those parts of the country where elections were held.

Ukraine is changing. The interim government has passed some welcome laws. The President will no longer appoint all the regional Governors. The government’s TV station is to be hived off and become an independent public interest channel.  A new procurement law has been passed which should prevent the mock auction of, for example, retro-viral drugs (Ukraine has the second worst incidence of HIV infections in Europe) which saw 1.4bn Euros pass into private hands. In future, citizens will be able to tape-record discussions with officials to reduce the incidence of demands for bribery. It is to be hoped that the new President, the chocolate baron, will continue this welcome trend. There is undoubtedly a great thirst among ordinary Ukrainian citizens for a new social order and an end to corruption.

Baroness Jenny Hilton is a backbench Labour Peer

Published 18th June 2014

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