In October of 2012 I was assigned as an international observer to watch several rural polls in Ukrainian parliamentary elections. I had few expectations; I had never been in Ukraine, or for that matter been an observer.
It was clear in listening to speakers and talking to others that the elections themselves were a foregone conclusion – the government had the money and controls the media. As one Ukrainian told me, “What does it matter who I vote for?” Along with an MP from Sweden, a driver and an interpreter we set out from Kiev to polling booths two hours away in rural countryside.
This countryside left a deep and unexpected impression.
I saw no machinery, no crops, no work. This is true farm country – flat, rich soil, the breadbasket of Europe, with some of the best agricultural land on earth, yet it was mostly fallow. The countryside was grey. I was in disbelief.
When a country has been living under communist dictatorship for generations, and its main contribution was to feed Russians, only now is Ukraine emerging into the 21st century.
I saw no new public works, no investment. I asked, is there no market here for good used farm equipment from the Canadian Prairies? They said, fine, you bring the equipment over – then what? There is no system to grow and export wheat for hard currency. There is no infrastructure to market Ukrainian grain to China or India.
We travelled from one polling station to another till 8 o’clock at night. One poll was in a disco – well, a Russian disco. It had a hardwood floor with a disco ball suspended in the middle of the room.
At another poll I met a village policeman casually smoking by the front door. Every polling station had a police officer on duty; this one asked me to speak to his sister on the phone. She was a professor at the University of Kiev, fluent in English. We talked hockey.
I saw few young people in the villages. Most of the voters appeared over 65. They came to vote on foot or bicycle, or riding in farm trucks. I saw a 90-year old woman hobbling with a cane and stick, working her way down the road to the polling station.
There was poverty. No one appeared starving or homeless, but judging from their clothes, not much had moved since the 1970s. Ukraine has 45 million people but their population is actually shrinking. The life expectancy for a Ukrainian man is 63. In Canada it is 79.
Ukraine has only been free of outright foreign domination since 1991. This is after being ruled by successive invaders for centuries. Every village I saw, no matter how small, had memorials to war dead. It was sobering to see a village that had only 200 voters, with a memorial listing 500 dead.
I did not find Ukrainians belligerent or suspicious. People I met had a strength and dignity that was a great inspiration to me.
I do not feel sorry for these people. These are not weaklings. Ukrainians strike me as strong people who could not see any worse than Soviet rule or the Second World War. They survived that; they’ll survive this.
(Editor’s note: the author is a British Columbia Liberal senator, and former Vancouver mayor)