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First Person: Faces of Ukraine
Monday, November 19, 2018

By Rachel Bauman,
Policy Advisor

In the ongoing war in Donbas, now entering its fifth year, most of the people on the front lines—in some cases, literally—of Ukraine’s struggle for democracy and sovereignty go unnoticed. Minorities like Roma also often have special challenges that must be comprehensively addressed in Ukraine as well as Europe more broadly.  To meet some of these Ukrainians and hear their stories firsthand, I, along with my colleagues Mark Toner and Alex Tiersky and Dr. Cory Welt of the Congressional Research Service, traveled to Ukraine to gain a more nuanced understanding of war, politics, and everyday life in Ukraine.

We were up before dawn for our first working day in Ukraine to make our way from the Kiev train station to Kramatorsk, a small industrial city in Donetsk Oblast that was briefly occupied by Russian-led forces in the early days of Russia’s war against Ukraine.  Kramatorsk and its surrounding regions are home to many internally displaced persons (IDPs) forced out of their homes by frequent shelling along the contact line separating Ukrainian government-controlled areas and Russian-occupied territories. 

Our first meeting that day vividly illustrated the destruction this senseless war has unleashed on the lives of average Ukrainians.  Together with representatives of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which receives generous support from the U.S. Government, and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, we heard stories of struggle, tragedy, and resilience from some recipients of this aid.

One man told us that the cash-based assistance he received helped him make vital repairs to his car and house and buy clothing and food for his six children.  Two sisters expressed their gratitude for the small business grant they received, which allowed them to start anew when they realized they could not return to their home in Horlivka.  A tearful single mother recounted her struggle to subsist after her house was destroyed.  Another woman described the terrible nights spent in her basement seeking shelter from shelling.  All of them talked about the difficulties they faced—from long lines in harsh weather conditions to landmines and shelling—when trying to visit their families and homes on the other side of the contact line. 

Despite these traumatic and life-altering circumstances, the support of the United States and international and local religious programs have enabled these IDPs to start a new life in another part of Ukraine.

Our meeting with IDPs in Kramatorsk, Donetsk Oblast, along with U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch

We learned more about the conditions of IDPs in Kramatorsk from city representatives.  The group expressed their concerns about the high rent and limited housing opportunities in Kramatorsk that make it hard for IDPs to live there permanently. 

Of the 70,000 IDPs registered in Kramatorsk (a city of originally 120,000), only 50 percent live in the city. The other half are registered for benefits but continue to live in their homes along the line of contact or in the occupied zones. Those who live on the Russian-controlled side of the contact line must endure the arduous task of monthly travel to the other side to collect their benefits, including pensions.

Crossing the line has become so dangerous and stressful that some of the IDPs we met earlier said that, although they had friends and family on the other side of the contact line, they have stopped trying to cross it. We were as impressed by the resiliency of these displaced people and the NGOs that have sprung up to help them with their legal and humanitarian needs as we were struck by the bleak outlook so many of them have for a peaceful, prosperous future.

I also visited a small town about two hours from Kyiv with a sizeable Romani population to hear from the people themselves what it is like to live as a minority group in rural Ukraine. 

The brisk weather and overcast sky mirrored the gloominess and poverty of the town compared to Kyiv.  Since we arrived early, a Romani woman invited us into the small house where she lived with her partner and nine children.  She explained that she was having difficulty securing government benefits for her children, who were already living in poverty.  She watched over the house and children, and her partner had a chronic disease which rendered him unable to work, so they survived thanks to the charity of several religious organizations and the government payments they received. 

I heard similar stories about troubled relations with the regional and national governments from other members of the Roma community.  We met in the town library, a small, worn-down Soviet relic with no indoor plumbing that also serves as a local government office.  A portrait of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and the Ukrainian trident adorned the wall behind the desk in the room. 

A group of local Roma, some with small children, came in and sat down, speaking among themselves in Russian and Ukrainian.  A colleague from the U.S. Embassy and I introduced ourselves and began to ask questions about life for Roma in the town. 

Everyone in the room insisted that they had no problems with their non-Romani neighbors, but noted that unemployment was a persistent problem; most adults in the group were illiterate or had only an elementary-level education.  Women generally tended to the children and the home, and the men foraged for mushrooms and berries or picked through trash for scrap metal and empty bottles. 

They said that all their school-age children, in spite of their difficult circumstances, were enrolled in the local school.  Some mothers complained of discriminatory treatment toward Roma children in schools but emphasized that this meant slightly preferential treatment for non-Roma children rather than outright abuse.  They vehemently denied experiencing any incidents of nationalist violence in their isolated village, like those that have occurred in and around larger cities like Lviv and Kyiv.

One of the Romani women that we met with invited us into her home, which she shares with her partner and nine children

The group became visibly agitated when discussing their relationship with the government and their attempts to receive social services.  To receive these services, they need to file a declaration of income; since their incomes are typically irregular, government officials will write in a higher income than exists in reality, affecting their social payments. 

Those who are illiterate are easily taken advantage of by regional officials (“they laugh at us,” one woman said), and often must sign documents they don’t understand.  Demands of some government officials for bribes also impede equitable access to social services for those who cannot afford to pay, one person mentioned. 

There were mixed responses about healthcare access.  One man said that he had been denied hospitalization three times, but most others claimed they had no problems, and all the women who were mothers had given birth in the nearest hospital. 

The village library where we met with members of the Romani community

This group of Roma has a great advocate in the form of Valentyna Zolotarenko, who accompanied us on our visit.  She lives in Kyiv and serves as a liaison between Roma communities and the national government, representing their interests with care, understanding, and firmness. 

Local government has also done a good job of ensuring that members of the Romani community have citizenship papers and proper documentation.  A local official who is particularly invested in the community told us upon departing of her personal concern for Roma in her town. 

“I imagine how it would be if I were the one being treated this way,” she told us in Russian.  “I cannot simply do nothing—these people are people just like you and me.”

Throughout our trip, we met numerous such people who are invested in the fight for Ukraine’s future, whether through civic activism, politics, or business.  We saw victims of a cruel and unnecessary conflict instigated and perpetuated by Russia, but we also saw courage, resilience, and a sense among civil society that there could be no turning back on human rights and other reforms.  It was an honor to witness the good work that Ukrainian NGOs, many supported with U.S. assistance, are doing to make a clear difference in the lives of others.

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    In 1990, OSCE participating States pledged to hold free and fair elections and to invite foreign observers to observe its elections. Elections observation has since been recognized as one of the most transparent and methodical ways to encourage States’ commitment to democratic standards and has become a core element of the OSCE’s efforts to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. In 2020 alone, the OSCE has been invited to observe elections in nearly 20 OSCE participating States (Azerbaijan, Croatia, Georgia, Iceland, Ireland, Kyrgyzstan, Lithuania, Moldova, Monogolia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and the United States).* History of OSCE Election Observation All OSCE participating States have committed to holding democratic elections that meet the same basic standards: universal access, equality, fairness, freedom, transparency, accountability, and privacy in voter submission. Because violations of these commitments can endanger stability in the OSCE region, as well as within an individual country, OSCE nations also agreed to open their elections to observers from other participating countries. To encourage compliance and confidence in the results of the observation missions, countries agreed to observe elections together under the OSCE umbrella. Since the 1990s, OSCE election observers have been present at more than 300 elections throughout the OSCE region. While some OSCE countries benefit from foreign observation more than others – especially those that formerly had one-party communist systems and little experience with democracy – the OSCE also observes elections in more established and stable democracies, such as the United States, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Even these countries can benefit from consideration of the objective conclusions of those with an outside, comparative perspective.  Perhaps more important, observation across the OSCE region removes any sense of stigmatization associated with the repeated hosting of election observation missions as well as any argument against hosting by those political leaders in some countries who continue to resist holding even reasonably free and fair elections. As one of the original 35 members of the OSCE, the United States has participated actively in OSCE election observation missions, both by providing observers for foreign elections as well as by inviting the OSCE to observe every general and midterm election since 2002. Election Observation Methodology ODIHR's election monitoring methodology takes account of the situation before, during, and after an election. All aspects of the electoral process are considered, to include a review of the legal framework; the performance of elections officials; the conduct of campaigns; the media environment and equitable media access; the complaints and appeals process; voting, counting, and tabulation; and the announcement of results.  Recently, ODIHR has further expanded its methodology to explore the participation of women and national minorities. Election Observers OSCE election observation missions often are undertaken jointly by the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA). A typical election observation mission comprises around 12 core team members, as well as several dozen long-term observers and several hundred short-term observers. The missions, which combine strong technical expertise and sound political judgement, include ODIHR officials, professional analysts, parliamentarians, and others on loan from OSCE member countries. To ensure that no single country’s point of view is overrepresented, the OSCE limits the number of observers from any one country. No matter where they are from, observers commit to an election observation code of conduct, which limits their role to observing and reporting. Observers have no authority to instruct, assist, or interfere in the voting, counting, tabulation, or other aspects of the electoral process. Election Observation, Reporting, and Recommendations Ahead of the elections, observers receive briefings from the host government, political parties, civil society, and media representatives. Long-term observers also follow pre-election activities including candidate and voter registration, political campaigns, and media coverage. On Election Day, two-person teams of short-term observers fan out across the country to observe the conduct of the election, including opening of polling stations; checking whether ballot boxes are empty and properly sealed; the counting of ballots; the handling of spoiled or unused ballots; and the transmission of polling station results. Observers monitor how voters are processed, the accuracy of voter registries, and whether voters are able to vote in secret and in an environment that is free from intimidation. After the elections, long-term observers note how electoral complaints and appeals are handled. The OSCE election observation mission publishes preliminary findings immediately after the elections, with a final comprehensive report issued a few weeks later. The final report includes in-depth analysis of the election’s political context and legislative framework; election administration; voter and candidate registration; the election campaign; the media; participation of women and national minorities; and the voting, counting, and tabulation processes. Impact The OSCE methodology represents the global standard for quality election observation. By analyzing election-related laws and systems, as well as the effectiveness of their implementation, election observation missions help document whether elections in OSCE countries are free and fair for voters and candidates alike.  Its expertise has been shared with other regional organizations, and the OSCE has contributed to observation efforts outside the OSCE region. The Helsinki Commission Contribution The U.S. Helsinki Commission was the first to propose concrete commitments regarding free and fair elections more than a year before they were adopted by the OSCE in June 1990. By that time, Commissioners and staff had already observed the conduct of the first multi-party elections in seven East and Central European countries transitioning from one-party communist states to functioning democracies. As the OSCE developed its institutional capacities in the mid-1990s, the Commission joined the efforts of an increasing number of observer teams from across the OSCE region, which evolved into the well-planned, professional election observation missions of today.  Commissioners and staff have observed well over 100 elections since 1990. More broadly speaking, the United States support OSCE observation efforts, to include deployment of civilian, parliamentary, and diplomatic observers abroad, but also supporting OSCE’s observation of domestic elections, with a focus on countries where resistance to democratic change remains the strongest. Learn More Elections: OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Election Observation: OSCE Parliamentary Assembly * Following Needs Assessment Missions designed to assess the situation and determine the scale of a potential observation activity in a particular country, election observation was deemed unnecessary in some cases.

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