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FIRST PERSON: UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS
Monday, July 29, 2019

By Alex Tiersky,
Senior Policy Advisor, Global Security and Political-Military Affairs

 

“Why aren’t you doing your job?!”

An unexpectedly tense early morning on July 21, 2019—Election Day in Ukraine: the polling station was more than 30 minutes late in opening. The shouted reprimand came from a voter, an older man who was one of several Kyiv residents who had been present and seeking to vote at this school in the center of the Ukrainian capital since well before 8:00 a.m., when the polls for the national parliamentary elections were supposed to open. His indignation was directed at the beleaguered leadership of the local polling station, who struggled to organize their work and follow the extensive procedures required to meet Ukrainian law and international best practices.

***

As an official election observer representing the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, I was at the polling station to observe the extent to which those best practices were followed. With my capable interpreter Natalya beside me, and in partnership with my experienced observation team partner Latvian MP Aleksandrs Kiršteins, I had arrived days earlier on the invitation of the Ukrainian government for a series of preparatory briefings. On Election Day, we would follow a prescribed plan of observation as part of a larger team of more than 800 international observers spread across Ukraine (with the exception of illegally occupied Crimea, and the Donbas region under the occupation of Russian-controlled forces, where holding a free and fair election would be impossible).

***

The disorganized polling station was the first stop of the day for our team. While this was my first time serving as an election observer, I didn’t need the extensive and detailed procedural checklist and questionnaire provided by the OSCE to know that something was seriously amiss. My Latvian colleague confirmed, based on his extensive observation experience, that the situation was extremely unusual.

The key problem seemed to be that the leadership of the team responsible for proper running of the polling station (the chair and the secretary, among others), recently had been replaced and the newcomers had little experience with their assigned duties. It was clear that they had done precious little preparation to be able to effectively direct the work of their team on Election Day. We had been warned during the extensive pre-election briefings provided by the OSCE that many local election officials across Ukraine had been replaced. The experts were concerned that this loss of institutional memory had the potential to hamper the operations of local electoral bodies—a warning that, in our case, proved prescient.

At 8:45 a.m., a full 45 minutes after its scheduled opening time and to the relief of several increasingly agitated voters and local observers, the polling station finally began to process votes. Judging that tensions at the school building had de-escalated and the situation had achieved some normalcy, we dutifully finalized our observation—promptly reporting our findings to the OSCE election experts compiling statistics from other teams deployed across the country—and moved on to observe voting procedures at several other polling stations. Before leaving, given the challenges at the polling station, we resolved to return in the evening to observe closing procedures and the counting of the vote.

***

We spent much of the rest of the day visiting several polling stations in the west of Kyiv. Contrary to our first observation, all the other polling stations we visited were extremely well-organized, with experienced and well-functioning teams of officials ensuring an orderly and transparent voting process. The civic pride demonstrated by the election officials and voters in properly exercising their democratic choice was evident in each location we visited. We witnessed voters of all ages casting their ballots in serene conditions, which we learned from other observation teams was largely the norm across Ukraine that day.

***

As the afternoon turned to evening, it was time to return to our initial polling station to assess closing procedures and the start of the counting of ballots. With the station closing as planned at 8 p.m. on the dot, we were quietly hopeful that the morning’s problems had been resolved.

Our optimism quickly proved misguided. The election officials were even more poorly directed by their leadership than they had been in the early hours of the day. After two hours of inconclusive progress toward beginning a count of actual ballots, the procedures ground to a halt in a cloud of remonstrations among several hard-working poll workers and local observers on one hand, and the polling station’s leadership on the other. In what I understood to be an extremely unusual development, the majority of the poll workers essentially sidelined their grievously underperforming leadership on the spot in order to better organize themselves. At this point, we needed to return to our home base to report on our observation, leaving behind several other international and local observers to witness what surely would be a long and challenging night of tabulation of ballots.

***

As we returned to the hotel, I reflected on the day’s remarkable events. It struck me how counterintuitive some might find it that we had been allowed to witness the poor performance by the leadership of this particular polling station. After all, who wants to air their dirty laundry in front of international observers taking careful note of every discrepancy?

It was then, for the first time, that I truly understood the key purpose of our election observation mission. OSCE participating States like Ukraine make the choice to invite international observation missions to their elections precisely because only in providing full transparency can a fair judgment on the electoral process be made.

In other words, our observation and reporting of the procedural imperfections we witnessed only underlined the relatively excellent performance witnessed by observation teams in the vast majority of other polling stations across Ukraine. Only through the full transparency provided by impartial external observers using a standardized methodology can the people of Ukraine be sure that their electoral process, to the maximum extent possible, allows for the full and fair expression of their democratic choice.

I feel honored to have been able to play even a very small part in this extremely consequential democratic process, and to help an OSCE participating State hold itself accountable to its commitment to the rule of law. I am already looking forward to the next opportunity to serve as an election observer.

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Through the Support for the Sovereignty, Integrity, Democracy, and Economic Stability of Ukraine Act of 2014 and administrative actions, the United States has provided Ukraine with a $1 billion loan guarantee and over $50 million in additional political and economic assistance. The United States also helped Ukraine secure a $17 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund and an 11 billion Euro aid package from the European Union. We appreciate your work in helping to provide this assistance. However, the crucial political and economic reform goals this previously approved aid is designed to help meet will not be possible if the government of Ukraine is unable to defeat the separatists, deter foreign aggression, and maintain law and order over all areas of the country. The bipartisan Support for the Sovereignty, Integrity, Democracy, and Economic Stability of Ukraine Act of 2014 authorized $100 million to enhance security cooperation and assistance efforts with Ukraine and other countries in Central and Eastern Europe. We are concerned, however, that the level of military support the United States has provided to date is insufficient to providing the Ukrainian military with the capabilities it needs to secure its borders and deter future aggression. The Ukrainian military needs more sophisticated equipment to succeed in its mission and preserve the great strides Ukraine has made since the Maidan uprising. We believe that a variety of non-lethal systems such as advanced communications equipment, night-vision goggles, navigation equipment, and body armor as well as defensive military weapons would provide Ukrainian forces with the capabilities they need to restore order and discourage further foreign interference. We understand that both the Departments of State and Defense continue to coordinate with, assess needed capabilities of, and field requests from the Ukrainian security forces.  We would like to better understand what steps have been taken to provide assistance to the Ukrainian military and immediate plans to expand that support.  Specifically, what military capabilities has the government of Ukraine requested? Of these capabilities, what has your administration authorized to be provided to Ukraine, and what specific capabilities have been delivered to date?  Additionally, what is your overall strategy to carry out the requirements set forth in Sec. 7(c) of the Support for the Sovereignty, Integrity, Democracy, and Economic Stability of Ukraine Act of 2014? The people of Ukraine have chosen a more democratic, transparent, and inclusive future for their country and the United States has pledged to support them in their hour of need. Honoring this commitment means providing the assistance necessary to help Ukraine develop the full range of economic, political, and military tools it needs to fulfill this hopeful vision. We urge you to support more robust assistance to Ukraine.

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission Calls for Investigation, Accountability for Terrorist Act in Ukraine Separatist Region

    WASHINGTON—In response to the downing of Malaysian Airlines MH17 in territory controlled by separatists in Ukraine, members of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) today called for unfettered access to the crash site for international investigators in order to establish responsibility for the killings in order to hold those parties accountable. “The downing of Malaysian Air flight 17 is an unspeakable tragedy. It did not have to happen and those responsible must be held accountable,” said Senator Ben Cardin (MD), Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission. “As we mourn for those lost and share our heartfelt prayers with the victims' families, I encourage international efforts to establish what happened and who was responsible.  In particular, I welcome the efforts and courage of the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission team which has made its way to the crash site. I am extremely disappointed to learn that they were forced to depart after a mere 75 minutes due to aggression by the Moscow-sponsored separatists.  "This heinous crime is a direct consequence of Russia’s unjustified aggression in Ukraine which began with the annexation of Crimea nearly five months ago and has continued in two regions in eastern Ukraine, in violation of OSCE and other international norms. It is a direct result of Putin’s destabilization of Ukraine. The top three leaders of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic are all Russian citizens and two of them are Russian intelligence operatives," continued Chairman Cardin. “Russia has continued to sponsor these terrorists with heavy weapons, equipment and men continuing to flow across the Russian border into Ukraine. If Russian involvement is confirmed, serious consideration needs to be given to designating the Donetsk People’s Republic a Foreign Terrorist Organization and the Russian Federation a State Sponsor of Terrorism.” Co-Chairman of the Commission, Representative Chris Smith (NJ-04), stated that “Our hearts go out to the family and friends of the 298 innocent victims, including 80 children, who perished, likely at the hands of Russian operatives. I urge the President to vigorously work for full access for identification and removal of victims’ remains, and international investigation. The entire area should be treated as a crime scene – as the plane appears to have been shot down by a surface-to-air missile launched from a separatist-controlled area. This follows a pattern of actions where the rebels have shot down Ukrainian military planes and helicopters, most recently a Ukrainian military cargo plane earlier this week, for which they took credit.” “I am profoundly saddened and outraged at the senseless loss of innocent civilians on Malaysian Airlines Flight 17,” said Commissioner Representative Michael Burgess (TX-26). “I am extremely disturbed by the lack of access for international observers and first responders and by reports of looting and of people contaminating the crash site.  Not only must we be able to conduct a proper investigation, but the remains of the victims must be treated properly and with the utmost respect. I am also troubled by reports that there may be other efforts by the separatists and Russian authorities to cover up what really happened.”

  • Commission to Hold Hearing with OSCE Human Rights Appointees

    WASHINGTON—Today the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) announced the following hearing: Anti-Semitism, Racism and Discrimination in the OSCE Region Tuesday, July 22, 2014 10:00 a.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Following an escalation of anti-Semitic hate crimes a decade ago, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) intensified efforts to combat prejudice and discrimination throughout Eurasia and North America. Since 2004, three Personal Representatives have been appointed annually by the OSCE Chair-in-Office (currently Switzerland) to address anti-Semitism; racism, xenophobia, and discrimination including against Christians and members of other religions; and intolerance and discrimination against Muslims. In an official joint visit to the United States, the Personal Representatives will address progress and ongoing challenges in the OSCE region a decade after the creation of their positions. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Rabbi Andrew Baker, Personal Representative on Combating Anti-Semitism Professor Talip Küçukcan, Personal Representative on Combating Intolerance and Discrimination against Muslims Alexey Avtonomov, Personal Representative on Combating Racism, Xenophobia and Discrimination, also focusing on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians and Members of Other Religions

  • Chairman Cardin Floor Statement on 2014 OSCE PA Annual Session

    On July 9, 2014, Senator Ben Cardin, Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, and Senator Roger Wicker, Ranking Member of the Commission, held a colloquy on the Senate floor with Senator Tom Harkin to discuss the outcome of the U.S. delegation’s participation at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) annual session from June 28-July 2 that successfully advanced priority security and human rights initiatives. Key among the U.S. initiatives was a resolution introduced by Chairman Ben Cardin condemning Russia’s violation of international commitments by annexing Crimea and directly supporting separatist conflict in Ukraine. To watch the colloquy, click here.

  • Cardin, Smith Advance Security and Human Rights during Annual Meeting of European Parliamentarians

    WASHINGTON - A bipartisan 8-member Congressional delegation led by Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), Chairman of the Commission on Security in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission), visited Georgia, Azerbaijan and Moldova. In Baku, Azerbaijan, Representative Chris Smith (NJ-04), Co-Chairman of the Commission, headed the U.S. delegation to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) from June 28-July 2 that successfully advanced priority security and human rights initiatives. Key among the U.S. initiatives was a resolution introduced by Chairman Ben Cardin condemning Russia’s violation of international commitments by annexing Crimea and directly supporting separatist conflict in Ukraine. Upon passage of the resolution by a 3 to 1 margin, Cardin stated: “Russia is a member of this organization, but is violating its core principles. We must speak up in the strongest possible way and hold Russia accountable for its destabilizing actions and that is what we did here.” Co-Chairman Smith received overwhelming support for his resolution on efforts to combat child sex trafficking. As the Assembly’s Special Representative on Human Trafficking, Smith’s initiative pressed for the formation of a notification system among countries regarding the travel of persons convicted of sex crimes against children, as well as increased cooperation between law enforcement agencies and with the travel industry to prevent child sex tourism. “This resolution provides a tool to mitigate the horrific abuse of children by sexual tourism,” said Smith. “These predators thrive on secrecy, and so the goal is advance notification of sex offender travel so that children can be protected.” In addition to Chairman Cardin and Co-Chairman Smith, the delegation included Commission Ranking Member Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS), Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Commissioner Representative Robert Aderholt(R-AL), Commissioner Representative Phil Gingrey (R-GA), Representative David Schweikert (R-AZ) and Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA). The U.S. delegation fielded two of the 18 resolutions considered at the annual session, as well as a total of 19 amendments to several of these resolutions. In an initiative related to Chairman Cardin’s Ukraine resolution, Senator Wicker introduced language adopted by the Assembly recognizing the importance of the OSCE’s military observation missions, including the inspections in Ukraine.  Senator Wicker also participated in a dialogue with fellow parliamentarians on OSCE engagement with partner country Afghanistan. Senator Tom Harkin successfully offered amendments calling for access and equal opportunity for persons with disabilities, including calling for the ratification and implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by all OSCE participating States. Commissioner Representative Robert Aderholt achieved passage of language supporting the integration of Western Balkan countries into the EU and NATO, and, in a separate initiative, highlighted the plight of “disappeared” political prisoners in Turkmenistan and called on that government to finally come clean on the fate of these individuals, one of whom was a former OSCE ambassador. An initiative by Rep. David Schweikert encouraged increased outreach by the OSCE to Mediterranean Partner countries, while Rep. Phil Gingrey brokered an agreement calling for concrete steps to promote clean and affordable energy. Finally, Rep. Smith and Senator Cardin joined an initiative with the Canadian delegation to respond more vigorously to acts of anti-Semitism throughout the participating States. On July 2 the meeting concluded with the adoption of the Baku Declaration, containing broad policy recommendations for the OSCE and its 57 participating States in the fields of political affairs and military security, trade, the environment and human rights. While in Azerbaijan, the delegation also held bilateral meetings with the Government of Azerbaijan, including meeting with President Ilham Aliyev as well as representatives of civil society fighting for media freedom, rule of law and disability rights in Azerbaijan. Bilateral meetings in Georgia and Moldova In addition to attending the OSCE PA’s Annual Session in Azerbaijan, Chairman Cardin led the delegation to stops in Tbilisi, Georgia, and Chisinau, Moldova, for bilateral meetings to discuss expanded ties with the United States as well as regional security in the wake of the crisis in Ukraine. In Georgia the delegation met with the President, Prime Minister, and the leadership of the United National Movement opposition party offering U.S. support and encouraging further democratic reforms, particularly in building a robust and independent judiciary free from corruption and untainted by politically-motivated prosecutions. In Moldova, the delegation met with the Prime Minister and key political leaders across the spectrum on the day the national parliament ratified an historic agreement with the European Union. The delegation also held consultations with the leadership of the OSCE Mission to Moldova, representatives of civil society, and the U.S. Embassy.

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