Kyiv, Ukraine: Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s so-called ‘Chocolate King,’ was the clear winner of the presidential elections that took place here on Sunday, 25 May. The Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – the flagship international election monitoring organisation – declared the elections free, fair, and in line with international standards in all of Ukraine, with the exception of the separatist controlled districts of Luhansk and Donetsk.
Russia did not send official observers to participate in the OSCE mission. OSCE representatives bemoaned Russian non-participation when the election observation results were announced at a press conference following the Sunday elections, because Russian participation would have been a foundation for building dialogue and repairing the strained relationship between the two countries. At the press conference, João Soares, the Special Coordinator appointed to lead the short-term OSCE observer mission, proudly announced that during his short time in Odessa he had encountered Russian opposition members of the Duma who were there to observe the elections in an unofficial capacity. ‘So you see, there were at least two Russian observers in Ukraine,’ Soares quipped.
What Soares, and other high level officials who dropped in on the elections, missed was that there were actually not just two unofficial Russian election observers in Ukraine, but more than 200 Russian civil society observers, working officially in nine regions across Ukraine. They were brought in by Russian civil society activists from Golos, previously known as GOLOS – the independent civil society election monitoring watchdog that was effectively shut down in Russia, in 2013, under the country’s ‘foreign agent’ law. Golos (now written without the capital letters to distinguish it from its banned predecessor) remains active in Russia albeit in a greatly reduced capacity – it no longer calls itself an NGO or association but rather a movement of independent citizens.
‘Some [of the observers] tried four times to get in: by car, train, bus… even through the Belarus border.’
Golos had intended to bring in over 800 civil society observers – a mix of students, journalists, and other professionals – but according to Roman Udot, the Golos coordinator of the election observation mission, most of them were turned away at the border. ‘Some [of the observers] tried four times to get in: by car, train, bus… even through the Belarus border. One observer got held up at Kyiv airport, and we spent all night trying to get him out. In the end, only 200 got through the cracks. Most of them used their own funds to come,’ said Udot.
Once they got in, Golos observers spread out across the country, making it to the most western regions – the heartland of Ukriane. In Lviv, the supposed epicentre of Ukrainian ultranationalism, the two Golos observers I spoke with said that they were treated ‘like honoured guests.’ Misha, a Russian observer from Moscow, spent two days in Lviv. ‘I kept insisting on speaking Ukrainian,’ he said when we met upon his return to Kyiv, ‘but people kept offering to answer in Russian to make it easier for me. I was really looking forward to practicing my Ukrainian.’
In everyday life, beyond the propaganda, Ukrainians and Russians can find common ground.
Misha’s experience, while anecdotal, goes against the oft-presented image of a linguistically divided Ukraine in which the Bandera-loving nationalists in the west of the country despise Russians and Russian speakers. In everyday life, beyond the propaganda, Ukrainians and Russians can find common ground. For foreign policy strategists, the lesson to be learned from the Golos observers’ experiences is that Ukraine’s future lies in facilitating an open dialogue between Ukrainians and Russians, who share more in common than recent events would lead us to believe.