Witnessing history in Ukraine

Ukraine’s Central Election Commission, the official governing body of the electoral process in the former Soviet-bloc country, announced Jan. 10 that Western-leaning presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko was the winner of the recent presidential election. Yushchenko had won a hard fought battle against Kremlin-favoured Viktor Yanukovich.

Left: Roman Koniuk examines ballot boxes in polling station

Yanukovich immediately vowed to appeal the decision to the Ukrainian supreme court. The court will rule on his appeal shortly and so the battle continues. For Roman Koniuk, a professor of physics in York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering, the election story strikes a very personal note. Koniuk was one of 900 people from Canada who joined an international delegation of 12,500 observers to travel to Kiev (Kyiv), Ukraine, and act as observers in a global effort to ensure the fairness of the elections. (The name Kiev is the Russian transliteration of the Ukrainian city’s name. Konuik prefers the Ukrainian transliteration which is Kyiv and is pronounced “cave”.)

The final official tally of the Dec. 26 election, a rerun of the Nov. 21 vote that was annulled due to allegations of massive electoral fraud and vote rigging, saw Yushchenko secure 51.99 per cent of the vote, compared to Yanukovich’s 44.2 per cent.

The Canadian government sent 500 observers under the leadership of John Turner, a former prime minister. Koniuk was selected to be one of 400 additional observers sent by the Ukrainian Canadian Congress. “The Ukrainian-Canadian community worked with the government and conducted a parallel fundraising effort to send observers to Ukraine,” he says. “I left for Kyiv on Dec. 19 and returned on Dec. 31.

tent city day

Above: Tent city in Kiev (Kyiv), Ukraine

“Once we got to Kyiv, the entire group fanned out over all of Ukraine. I was posted in Zaporizhia, which is located south of Kyiv. When we arrived, we formed teams made up of two observers, a local journalist and a driver. Each team was responsible for a dozen or so polling stations. We were given a camera and a cell phone so as to provide on-the-spot coverage of possible evidence of fraud. If we encountered any problems or irregularities, we were instructed to record them and to report them to our group leaders on election day. My team visited all 14 of our assigned polling stations.

“On the whole,” says Koniuk, “the elections were very well run. We caught some tiny problems and two fairly major infractions. Each polling station has several stationary ballot boxes and one that travels to people who are too old or sick to come to the polling station. The travelling ballot boxes were those that were stuffed with false ballots in the previous election and it seems to have happened to a much lesser extent in this election.”

New regulations that were developed after the Nov. 21 vote necessitated that full documentation be presented for each vote placed into the travelling ballot boxes. “Typically, we found that there were six or seven ballots in them, but the problem arose when two of the boxes had 60 and 70 ballots and there was no supporting documentation,” says Koniuk. “Because I am not a resident, I could not write up an ‘act’, which is a legally notarized document, but I could suggest that an act be written up. In fact, an act was created and I was told that those suspect votes would not be counted.”


Above: Tent city residents hoping for victory

Part of Koniuk’s responsibility during the election was to witness the opening and closing of two polling stations. He observed the arduous and intense process of vote counting. Each ballot was carefully inspected, considered and either accepted or rejected. Members of teams from both sides crammed the tiny rooms and watched the process intently. 

tent city at nightLeft: Koniuk in downtown Kiev (Kyiv),  following the victory of Viktor Yushchenko

Prior to the election, Koniuk spent some time talking to the people of the much publicized tent city protest that took root in downtown Kiev (Kyiv) following the fraud of the November election. “Talking to the people in tent city was one of the most moving experiences of my life,” says Koniuk. “Many were in their 20s, young people who had given up their studies, left their families and jobs, to ensure that the world paid attention to what was going on.

“I spoke to a man who used to work restoring churches. One day, the authorities came and took away his passport and told him ‘You are nothing now.’ He was presented with a tax bill which exceeded the value of his business. He lost his business, could not find work elsewhere and was unable to travel without his passport. He travelled to the tent city and joined the protest, but as a result, he told me that he faced a 15-year jail term. It was particularly striking to me because so few people [in North America] realize that even though Ukraine got its independence in 1991, there is still a strong Soviet-style political structure that is very repressive.”

Koniuk hopes that president-elect Viktor Yushchenko will live long enough to impose reforms that will bring the country into the community of western democracies. “The people in tent city told me that he has but a few years to live following the dioxin poisoning. It is very sad that he is so ill, but there is a feeling that the people have won and reforms will happen. The world knows what went on.”

A professor of theoretical physics at York since 1982, Koniuk studied at Oxford University in England and earned his PhD from the University of Toronto. His parents escaped from Ukraine during the Second World War and ended up in a displaced persons camp in Germany in the late 1940s. They eventually travelled to Canada where they settled and started a family. Koniuk said his fluency in Ukrainian was one of the factors that allowed him to travel to the election. He also paid his own plane fare.

“My trip whetted my appetite to go back,” he says. “Kyiv is a well-kept secret and a beautiful city. Despite Moscow’s imposition of Russian culture, Kyiv has maintained its Ukrainian traditions and culture.”