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Kyiv Post

22 May 2014

By Joao Soares

2014-VISIT-Kiyv-Soares visits Maidan Square 27-03-2014Joao Soares visits Maidan Square in Kiev 27 March 2014.Joao Soares is the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly's special representative for the South Caucasus, chairman of the sub-committee on rules of procedure and member of the ad hoc committee on transparency and reform. OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Didier Burkhalter has designated Mr. Soares as Special Co-ordinator of the OSCE's short-term observation mission for Ukraine's 2014 presidential election.

KYIV – Last week I traveled to Odesa. The city was still in shock. Just days before, on May 2, there had been shooting on the streets, a fire had been set to the Trade Unions House, where dozens of people had taken refuge, and at least 46 lives were senselessly sacrificed. But while the tragedy cast its shadow over my trip, I was there to talk about elections – and the formidable challenge that Ukraine faces in holding a presidential election, especially in violence-hit areas like this one.

What brought me to Odesa was my mandate with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which has drawn upon all of its reserves to help monitor and defuse the national crisis. That includes preparing for one of the largest election-monitoring efforts in OSCE history. I serve as Special Co-ordinator, appointed by OSCE Chairman-in-Office Didier Burkhalter to lead the more than 1,000 short-term observers who will disperse across the country on May 25 and to deliver our statement the next day.

My trip to Odesa was not my first pre-election visit to Ukraine, nor my highest-level one – I had met with Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk just days before and with President Oleksandr Turchynov in March. But of all my trips, and despite the somber backdrop, this one inspired the most optimism. I traveled to the city against the advice of security experts and managed to meet with the city's acting mayor, members of a local district election commission, representatives of several presidential candidates, and average Ukrainian citizens. Overall, what I saw was a city hit by its greatest turmoil in recent memory, but where earnest and determined efforts to organize for the election continued. That gives me hope that despite unprecedented hurdles, the vote on May 25 will help to stabilize, rebuild, and reform Ukraine and support much-needed national dialogue.

Many wonder how Ukraine will manage to accomplish this: Russia has seized Crimea, two oblasts have held referendums, albeit illegitimate, calling for secession, and violence continues to this day. Those are the facts. Clearly, this is not the context for "just another election." What is key, then, is how the average Ukrainian responds. More than any administrative challenges that could affect the vote, the country's citizens will need to show their courage and determination to make this a success. That means realizing the importance of the moment and showing up en masse at polling stations. A large turnout in all regions for this election will make a solid statement about Ukraine's future.

For their part, officials have an obligation to encourage voting by continuing with technical preparations and by providing the best security possible on election day. We all know of the difficulties and extraordinary circumstances, and the preparedness of the election administration is mixed. But officials must be as undeterred as the voters, working until the last minute to set the best stage possible for a democratic election, including in the East. Citizens and authorities alike must have the vision to see that the best response to violence and division is a peaceful expression of will at the ballot box.

For Ukraine's citizens to invest themselves in this election, many will not only have to overcome their concerns about security, but also their disillusionment. Trust in state institutions in Ukraine has been painfully lacking in recent years, corruption has been high, and now, amid existential challenges to the country, some may feel that their vote will have little practical effect. I urge Ukrainians to fight that tendency as much as they can. One of the best ways to do so is through engagement and education. Understandably, the campaign for this election has been low-key, or nearly invisible at times, and media outlets have devoted much of their coverage to what's happening in the East. One thing the average Ukrainian can do is make sure to watch the candidates debate. Learn as much as you can about who's running. Make your choice as informed as possible. We must not forget that it was the Ukrainian people's distrust of the state and anger at corruption and rights violations that fuelled the fire of Maidan. Now they must make the most of their opportunity to vote for change.

Observers from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, OSCE's Organization for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and our parliamentary partners are determined to do our part, noting shortcomings and successes and holding the election up against the highest standards. We owe this to the people of Ukraine. Of course, we will also face our own special challenges. In response to a dynamic security situation, we're taking reasonable precautions and liaising closely with the police, local officials, and our parliamentarians' embassies. Roadblocks may delay our travel around the country and deployment plans are more complex. But we'll be there in polling stations, as we always have been, to support the Ukrainian people as they vote. We intend to observe in Donetsk Oblast as well. Whatever the difficulties, this election is as an opportunity for all communities and political forces in the country to engage in dialogue and shape its future direction.

It comes not a moment too soon, but with courage, it must be seized.