Voters selected a new president on election day Sunday in Ukraine to succeed government parliament ousted President Viktor Yanukovych.
As of this writing, sadly the election was held under the threat of an invasion of Russian tanks poised at the eastern Ukrainian border.
The recent unrest in Ukraine occurred, according to reports, after Yanukovych, sided with Russia due to a failing economy. This sudden move away from the European Union (EU) and the West and the freedoms they were enjoying since the country of some 46 million people opted to pull away from Russia in the late 1990s, caused angry protesters across Ukraine to demonstrate calling for President Yanukovych to resign. Under pressure he finally fled to Russia after the Ukrainian Parliament appointed an interim president.
I was in Ukraine in 2012 with some 60 other election officials from the United States as election observers to monitor and report findings on the parliamentary elections. It was peaceful then, at least on the surface. Can’t imaging how I would feel today seeing a masked soldier armed to the hilt standing inside the polling place watching voters vote. Talking about intimidation!
Requested by the Ukrainian government to monitor and observe the election, we joined over 550 short term observers (STOs) from some 56 countries, all members of the Organization of Security and Coordination in Europe (OSCE) and Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) who would be scattered across Ukraine to observe and report findings about the conduct of the election. We were deployed in teams of two throughout the country to monitor the opening of polling stations, voting, the counting of ballots and the tabulation of ballots. This year that number has increased to over 900, due to the current level of unrest across Ukraine.
I was partnered with Yolanda Bernotaite, an attorney from Lithuania. Since all selected observers are required to speak English, I was fortunate that my partner could speak Ukrainian and Russian, which proved to be invaluable as we traveled by car with our interpreter and driver to our assignment in Khmenlnytsky, a small town with a population of about 35,000 located about 60 kilometers southwest of Kiev. Unfortunately, since the unrest began, attempts to communicate with my friends have been unsuccessful.
Due to a temporary health issue I had to decline an invitation to return to the Ukraine for this early presidential election as an international election observer. However, my thoughts and prayers for their safety are with all the observer teams as they perform their observation duties during this election.
Hopefully democracy prevailed during this election and respect for human rights can be restored. Sunday’s election results could determine the future of Ukraine.
Hooper Penuel is the former Administrator of Elections for Rutherford County. He was selected to be an observer in Azerbaijan in 2010 and Ukraine in 2012.