As her lip began to quiver, she looked me straight in the eye and delivered a simple, direct plea through my interpreter: “…please help stop the war; help save my country.”
This 60 year old woman from northwestern Ukraine has a son who is part of the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO), as Ukrainians call the war with Russian-backed separatists in the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine, that has claimed over 3,700 lives so far.
As head of the polling station in a hospital in a town some 1000 km away from the conflict zone, her reason for volunteering her time for the October 26th early Parliamentary elections in this country were simple – elect a government that will put a stop to the conflict. Save lives. Bring her son home.
Standing on the Maidan — the central square in the capital Kyiv where the Orange Revolution of 2004 and the Euromaidan protests of 2013/14 took place, the major precursors to these watershed elections — two young Eastern Ukranians differed sharply on what the polls were about.
For a twenty-four year old new media worker it was about “taking forward the Euromaidan, and gaining integration with Europe.”
Her friend, a twenty year old university student, disagreed firmly. To her, the elections were about “…ending corruption, and getting a better life with a good government.”
They smile awkwardly at one another, happy that they can have this disagreement.
With 99.9% of ballots counted and processed, the election returned a strong majority for pro-European parties, principally the Blocs led by the young, hawkish incumbent Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, and tough-minded, candy magnate President Petro Poroshenko.
The 450 seat Verkhovna Rada will be populated half by members directly elected in ridings across the country, and half from the party lists put forward by the six parties who gained more than five per cent of the vote.
While the Opposition Bloc, composed mainly of loyalists to fugitive former President Yanukovych, will still hold a rump of seats, the results are a profound rejection of the corruption and iron-fisted rule of Yanukovych.
Coalition talks have already begun behind closed doors, between the four parties who favour integration with Europe, including that of former Orange Revolution-era Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Aspirational and working tensions between the two strong personalities of Yatsenyuk and Poroshenko notwithstanding, most observers believe that a coalition will be formed within the coming few weeks.
But before the agreements are made and hands shaken a new test is already facing the new pro-European government in this emerging democracy.
On November 2nd, the separatist rebels held “elections” of their own in the contested Donbass region in the East. To place the cat firmly among the pigeons, the Russian administration has publicly said they recognize the legitimacy of this militia-led vote. This from a government that has been accused of sending arms and people to back the separatists’ cause.
The escalation of tensions in the ATO/Donbass region has been swift and already tragic.
Even as they weave together a coalition government to implement the clear will of the Ukranian people expressed through the October 26th polls, the government is facing the unstitching of yet more fabric in the cloth of its country through bogus regional elections and military force.
It is a country on the precipice and front lines of a much-feared new Cold War.
The area which makes up today’s Ukraine has been through, and overcome, a lot in the last 1000 years. Her people have survived everything from the wrath of the grandson of Genghis Khan, and the premeditated genocide of the Holodomor.
Today, politicians with similar aims (if competing ambitions) and coming from vastly different backgrounds must now sit down and hammer out a way forward to deliver on the will of the people.
At the same time, the people of the country must do the same in the community and cultural centres.
In the bustling capital Kyiv, the young and European-educated snap selfies on their mobiles and drink coffee from mobile coffee stands. Meanwhile, along rural roads that haven’t seen a maintenance crew in my lifetime, hunched-over octogenarians work to head-off the frost in their subsistence gardens enshrouded grinding poverty.
Their economic circumstances could hardly be more different. Yet they must arrive at a common understanding and appreciation of life in and within a functioning democracy. Something which, in their experience of it, can comparatively only be measured in months.
No matter their priority, whether ending the conflict in the east, deepening ties with Europe, bringing corrupt former politicians to justice, or ensuring stable gas supplies to heat homes in the long, cold winters, there is plenty that people want the new administration to do.
The one thing the diverse Ukrainians I met agree on is that now the voting is done – they want them to get on with doing it.
As our best hope of stopping a new Cold War – so should we.
But more than that, as citizens of the world — and particularly Canada — our connections with Ukraine are deep, and our motivations should not be based solely on our own security and comfort.
Canada is home to the largest diaspora of Ukrainians in the world. Some of us know a lot of Ukranian-Canadians, some of us maybe not.
In my case, as a young child leaving Northern Ireland to avoid “the Troubles”, my family’s first home in Canada was in rural Manitoba.
This is where I had my first encounter with Ukrainian-Canadians and Ukrainian culture.
Not to be trite, but impressions at a young age are often the most enduring. And in the category of indelible memories, I know that in the small town of Shoal Lake where we lived, and farmed, for a few years is where I developed my love of Pierogies/Varenyky.
I hold vague memories of a Babushka who used to babysit my siblings and I. I recall names of classmates that are unmistakably Ukrainian.
And yesterday my mother told me a story about just what kind of life the first Ukrainian-Canadian settlers had.
It’s hard not to be awed at the doggedness, determination and pure willpower they showed to pursue and achieve a better life in Canada, some 120 years ago.
But it would be a mistake to think that the task ahead of the Ukrainian people today — building a functioning democracy while enshrouded in often deep-seated and grinding poverty, in the face of Russian aggression — is any less worthy of our admiration and support.
Continue reading Dispatches from the frontier of a New Cold War*