Ten years ago, I was sitting comfortably in a century old wooden theatre seat. Purposely milled to give its resident the perfect experience of the stage’s music, dance and art. This seat, along with all others in the glittering opera house, served its function while I took in a masterful performance. The opera was La Traviata and the venue was the Lviv National Opera in Ukraine.
Next to me was my Election Observation Mission partner, Cassie. We were thrilled to be there. We had travelled by air, train and many dirt roads over the past week. We had spent several days with a translator and a driver touring rundown and poorly heated schools and community halls as they transformed into Drohobych district’s rural polling stations. On Election Day, we had stayed awake for more than 24 hours observing villages’ voting, counting and ballot returns.
As we closed our reports and headed out for the show, we agreed that we had seen a people, inexperienced but determined to grow this newborn democracy –and grateful for the help. One elderly man even stopped me upon seeing my sweater’s Canadian patch, “Hey Canada! I carry your bags onto train. Thank you for helping us, our democracy.”
A year and a half later, I was back in Kyiv, with a thousand others sitting in a large theatre. These seats were not comfortable and the people on stage were speaking about the political climate preceding and following Ukraine’s recent Maidan Revolution.
For three months, tens of thousands descended on Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) to protest government corruption, brutality and integration with Russia. After Vladimir Putin’s administration successfully urged deadly violence against the protests, Ukraine’s government fell and a new election called. We were there to observe if voting was free and fair throughout the country, including in the new conflict zones close to the border with Russia.
“But not Crimea,” said a mission official on stage. Russia had just invaded and annexed the Ukrainian province in response to the revolution.
If the briefings didn’t instil that the mission’s stakes were high, my walk through the Maidan did. To ensure the election process, citizens continued to hold their barricades of old tires and hand made signs, many waiting less for the voting results and more for the Election Observers’ reports. As I walked through the mazes of tires, food tents, porta-pots, helmets and a young woman playing a piano, it was clear that Ukrainians’ did not take democracy for granted.
Once in the western city of Khmelnytski, my team had a necessary stop before we could start our observations. It explained the small sandbag bunkers with armed men we saw springing up at crossroads on the highway from Kyiv. We were to meet with the local commander of this new paramilitary getting ready “to keep the Russians out.”
The irises were blooming and on a restaurant patio, a big man with blonde hair slicked and tied into a ponytail waited for us. Our Ukrainian translator and driver explained that we were independent election observers, there to watch, not interfere, with the voting.
He listened. When the driver, a new father, said “Canada,” the commander turned his eyes to me. “You from?” he asked through a thick accent. “Canada,” I said. “OK,” he replied. He was assured and let us know he trusted us to do our jobs.
Like before, Ukrainians wanted it all to work. Men beamed with pride as they built voting booths. Elderly women in babushkas came out of the booths smiling, as though to say “I know how important my vote is.” Children holding their parents’ hands asked to put the ballots in the box. And when it came time to count the votes, things were a bit chaotic, but transparent.
The people I met on those missions remain determined for their democracy to work. But now they are fleeing for their lives and learning to fire weapons because their fears have come to reality. And instead of opening after the pandemic, the spectacular Lviv National Opera has suspended all performances while locals move to protect UNESCO World Heritage sites from war.
As for me and my children with Ukrainian heritage, we’re lighting a candle every night in prayer for peace, safety and democracy.
Michelle Mungall is a former MLA for Nelson-Creston.