By Sarah E. Mendelson, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Sarah Mendelson is senior adviser and director of the Human Rights Initiative at CSIS. She served, until early last month, as a deputy assistant administrator at USAID. The views expressed are her own.
If you knew nothing about Donetsk, Luhansk or Slovyansk before this spring, you likely now associate them with mayhem and lawlessness. Since Russian troops began amassing on the border of Ukraine and local separatists, supplemented by foreign fighters, have brought death and destruction, journalists and human rights organizations have zeroed in almost exclusively on those parts of Ukraine.
Less examined and less talked about is the rest of the country, with its more subtle, and, I would argue, more important and unfinished story line.
As thousands of international election observers descended on Kiev last month and then fanned out across the country, briefings tended to focus on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s motivations, or harrowing accounts of the security situation in “Eastern Ukraine,” and what to do in case of kidnapping. “No adventures in election observation” my husband worried over the phone. “And no going to the east!”
Security precautions were, of course, important given Russia’s occupation of Crimea and the violence in the east. But if the narrative from November through February was about the Euromaidan, the narrative since March has been largely about Putin, chaos and violence.
There is so much more to Ukraine than that.
Not all of Ukraine – not even all of eastern Ukraine – is engulfed in a “reign of terror.” Just next to Donetsk, in Dnepropetrovsk, where I was (as it turned out) deployed to observe elections by the National Democratic Institute, I found a peaceful, pleasant, Russian speaking town, with tree-lined streets, cafes, and out-door markets selling trinkets to tourists. Well-governed and calm, this region is filled with an intriguing population we all need to know more about: patriotic Ukrainians who are ethnic Russians looking to and identifying with the West, not the East.
The Friday night before elections, sensing that the city was no more or less dangerous than say Dupont Circle, I checked into my hotel and immediately went out in search of blini. I found delicious ones as well as fashionable young Ukrainians enjoying the good weather. Stopping in the supermarket at midnight to buy bottles of water, I saw young people getting supplies for a night of festivities – just like young people anywhere.
If elections in this part of eastern Ukraine were a good deal calmer than what we had feared, they were also a stark contrast to the many Russian elections I have observed in the last twenty years. In each polling station our team visited, after presenting our credentials, precinct election commissioners warmly greeted us, thanking us profusely for witnessing their historic day. Absent was the anti-American sentiment or suspicion about foreigners in polling stations that have marked many of the Russian elections I have observed. These people (most of the commissioners were women) were full of pride, chatting happily with me in Russian and grateful for the international guests along with the large mass of domestic election monitors.
These Ukrainians had much to be proud of: in a matter of weeks, despite negative predictions, Ukrainians had organized a national election even as a hostile foreign power systematically tried to foil it. In fact, this was the first election in Ukraine, we were told many times, that occurred without the use of “administrative means,” a familiar term from Russia, where, for example, employees had to sign a petition for a certain candidate before they could receive their salary, or where travelers had to sign an endorsement before they could purchase a train ticket. In May in Ukraine, domestic monitors and international observers witnessed people showing up on “e-day,” calmly, many standing in long lines, and making their own choice for whom to vote.
Now with the election over, turning the ideas behind the Euromaidan into reality is the challenge. If the Orange revolution in 2004 was about getting rid of Leonid Kuchma, Euromaidan 2014 was something more. As one young activist in Kiev explained, this was a “human rights revolution” for dignity, transparency, and accountability. The desire for open government had shaped this movement. In just a few weeks, despite all the chaos in the east, this young woman had been part of a group that had helped get five important pieces of legislation passed on issues such as budget transparency and freedom of information. Implementing the legislation will turn this movement into a government.
Ukrainians, and friends of Ukraine, need to stay as focused on these governance challenges as the security situation in Donetsk, Luhansk and Slovyansk. What happens in the rest of Ukraine will actually determine Ukraine’s future much more than the thugs in the East.