Volume 74, Number 33 | December 22 - 28, 2004

Ukrainians train, hopefully not in vain, as monitors

By Justin Rocket Silverman

Wanted: Men and women in good health to travel in politically turbulent nation of Ukraine for purpose of election monitoring. Participants will be responsible for their own airfare, as well as personal housing and food costs. Ground transportation deep into the anti-Western regions of Ukraine provided free of charge. Average temperatures are well below freezing. Some Ukrainian language ability is helpful, but not required.

Villager photo by Anna Sawaryn
A poster in the East Village urging those with Ukrainian citizenship to vote at the Urkainian Consulate on 49th St. between First and Second Aves. on Dec. 26. “The fate of Ukraine is in your hands,” its headline says.
Any travel agency that tried to lure tourists with an advertisement like this wouldn’t be in business long. But when that agency is the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America and the tourists it wants to recruit are passionate about the future of Ukrainian independence, the trip ends up being oversubscribed.

As of last week, the U.C.C.A.’s national headquarters on Second Ave. in the East Village had received more than 600 applications to serve as international election monitors in the Ukrainian presidential election scheduled for Dec. 26.

About 400 Americans will actually fly to Kiev in the coming days as part of a U.C.C.A. delegation. Most of the volunteers are going because they are outraged at reports of widespread irregularities in the Nov. 21 elections, said U.C.C.A.’s executive director, Tamara Gallo Olexy. Seventy of the election monitors are from New York City, home to one of the largest Ukrainian ethnic communities in North America.

“Two of our observers testified before the Ukrainian Supreme Court and were an important part of the ruling that made this next election possible,” said Olexy. “This time around we are sending many more election monitors to ensure there is no repeat of Nov. 21.”

In addition to U.C.C.A. volunteers, the upcoming election will be closely watched by representatives of foreign governments and the international press corps. More than 8,000 election monitors from around the world have already registered to monitor the upcoming election. With so many eyes on Ukraine, Olexy said, it is unlikely that foreign poll monitors will be in any danger. But that didn’t stop the U.C.C.A. from including basic safety precautions as part of its election monitor-training course in the East Village.

“My parents and grandparents sacrificed so much so that I could have this life in New York,” said 35-year-old Walter Zinych, an East Village resident. “I owe it to them to deal with whatever risks there might be in order to safeguard free and democratic elections in Ukraine.”

Zinych will board a plane this week for the 10-hour flight to Kiev. He said that most of the seats on the plane are booked by U.C.C.A. election monitors like himself. The group will spend a few days in Kiev, making sure equipment like cameras and video recorders are in good working order and visiting with student protesters who have been living for weeks in a tent city outside the presidential offices. The protesters are credited with forcing the results of the Nov. 21 election to be annulled and paving the way for a new election the day after Christmas.

“This is the first time I’ve been away from my family for the holidays,” said Zinych. “But this is my chance to give people an opportunity to have a fair election.”

After preparations in Kiev are finished, Zinych and about 20 other U.C.C.A. monitors will drive to Odessa, a large port city on the Black Sea. As election monitors, Zinych and his colleagues will not have the right to intervene if they witness unscrupulous activity like ballot box tampering or voter intimidation. Instead, they will document the violations and report them back to the U.C.C.A.

Zinych stressed that he and other monitors are going to help ensure a fair election and are not traveling for the purpose of promoting the popular opposition candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, against the current prime minister, Viktor Yanukovich, who has received obvious backing and support from Moscow.

Yushchenko and his supporters have captured the sympathy of the world with their ongoing “Orange Revolution,” and orange flags and banners can be seen displayed throughout the East Village. Yanukovich’s supporters are accused of stealing the election from Yushchenko, who is being predicted as the winner in the new election this month. But even international sympathy and the watchful eyes of election monitors may not be enough to bring Yushchenko to power.

“Ukraine has been under Russian control for most of the last 300 to 400 years,” said Zinych. “Although we all expect Yushchenko to win, we are not sure that the corrupt government currently in power will give it up so easily.”

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