Finding Ukraine

Rich Galen
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Posted: May 29, 2014 12:01 AM
Finding Ukraine

I was in Ukraine over the weekend as part of the Official Observer mission courtesy of the International Republican Institute.

My two-person team was assigned to Kharkiv which is the province just north of the two provinces that have been under siege by the separatists. It is adjacent to the Russian border. The city is about 25 miles from the border.

Like Sarah Palin's porch, we could see Russia from the rooftop bar of our hotel.

There was no violence - at least none that we saw - in Kharkiv, but there was plenty of tension. Our hotel was right on the main square. When we got there on Saturday, the road blocks were about a block away.

On Sunday, election day, another set of checkpoints were set up a further block away creating a no-go zone of, maybe, a half square mile given the size of the plaza.

We got to about 10 or 11 voting locations. At most of them we saw at least one person who was modestly out of place. Hair a little too short. In a little too good physical condition. Standing a little to straight.

We determined that the Ukraine security services might have put at least one person at each polling place in Kharkiv province with instructions to call out the militia if anyone started trouble.

The poll workers were well-trained to the point that by actual measurement it took only between 30 and 45 seconds for someone to hand over their PICTURE ID, be checked against the poll list, sign the voting ledger, and be handed their long paper ballot (there were 21 candidates for President) so they could go into a voting booth and mark their choice.

As to the voters, we saw people who appeared to be happy to be voting. Many moms brought their kids and, like moms and kids everywhere, they let the children push the paper ballot into the clear plastic ballot box.

When my travel partner, Chris Holzen the former Ukraine country manager for the IRI, saw that for the first time, he turned to me and said, "We win."

This election had been needed because about six months ago the previous president, Viktor Yanukovych had veered from an expected economic deal with the European Union to making a deal with Russia's Vladimir Putin.

Yanukovych is from the eastern provinces, and the population of rest of the country, actively anti-Russian were horrified that he would sell them out.

That led to the street riots in the capitol of Kiev, leading to armed conflict, ending with Yanukovitch taking a powder into Russia.

The BBC wrote that on February 20, "Kiev sees its worst day of violence for almost 70 years. At least 88 people are killed in 48 hours. Video shows uniformed snipers firing at protesters holding makeshift shields."

A temporary government has been in place since and it was in that weakened state that Putin began pressuring Ukraine saying there was not a "legitimate" government in place.

The winner of the election was a 48 year old billionaire named Petro Poroshenko. It was unclear, going into election day, whether Poroshenko would be able to clear the 50-percent-plus-one hurdle thus avoiding a potentially strained three-week run-off.

He did, getting about 53 percent of the vote.

Will Ukraine's problems now end? No way to tell. But with a freely elected President taking over he will have command of the Ukraine armed forces that the temporary government did not have the moral, or legal, authority to utilize.

As one of the Central- and Eastern European oligarchs, will he appoint his pals to high government positions who will run Ukraine for their personal benefit?

No way to tell, but the population is fervently hoping his history of being able to deal with the West as well as with Putin will pay dividends not to a small group of his friends, but to the people of Ukraine.

The riots of the Kiev square are still in sharp detail among those who were there. One young man, at the final dinner on Saturday night, stood up and recounted what it looked like when people packed the square when news of the treaty with Russia became known.

"We went out looking for Europe," he said. "Instead, we found Ukraine."