Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Please, Canada, stand up for democracy in Ukraine

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I was born in 1991 in Kyiv, Ukraine, the same year we achieved independence. I don't remember the student Granite Revolution of 1990, I don't remember the proclaiming of independence, and I was too young to care about establishing the first constitution. But my life has been, and will always be, intertwined with my country's journey to democracy.

I grew up in an age of high expectations. We were a newly independent Ukraine, and I simply assumed that with each passing year life would get better, democracy would grow stronger.

Recently, I watched as the Supreme Court of Canada announced its decision on the contested election results in the riding of Etobicoke Centre. As an intern with the Canada-Ukraine Parliamentary Program, it was one of the many opportunities I have had to witness the workings of the Canadian government and judicial system. To many Canadians, the fact that the court was able to rule without political interference and that both sides accepted its decision without complaint may not seem remarkable. For me, it was an inspiring moment.

Canadian democracy may have its discontents but there are certain foundational beliefs -- such as the separation of judicial and political powers -- that are deeply embedded in Canadian culture. And those beliefs appear to me to be inviolable. I dream that one day my countrymen will come to share that bedrock democratic principle.

Leading up to the Oct. 28 election, I checked Ukrainian online media every half hour. Would these elections mark another tarnished moment in Ukrainian political life? Or would the process meet international election standards and give Ukraine a reason to stand tall among the democratic countries of the world?

As a Ukrainian citizen and an aspiring journalist, I can attest that the voting at the poll in the Embassy of Ukraine in Canada went smoothly. However, as I received information about the voting in Ukraine, and the flagrant abuse of the electoral process, I was struck with a bitter truth. My government is simply uninterested in public opinion and they unabashedly neglect basic democratic processes.

Numerous violations were confirmed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Ukrainian World Congress. The deputy chairman of the Central Election Commission, Zhanna Usenk-Chorna, declared the elections "the dirtiest in the history of Ukraine." Most importantly, the Central Election Commission denied the leaders of the opposition, Yulia Tymoshenko and Yurij Lutsenko, the opportunity to register as candidates.

Moreover, the media, owned and controlled by a few key players, did not grant equal media access to all candidates. There were also incidents of violence and intimidation of candidates and campaign workers, and reports of the use of invisible ink in certain polling stations. Finally, there have been reports of mass -- rather than individual -- casting of ballots.

If the voices of Ukrainians are silenced it will be a step backwards from the future we sought through independence in 1991. After decades of being afraid to speak out behind the Iron Curtain, it is almost unbearable to think that my country may be losing the democratic rights for which we fought so valiantly.

I came to Canada in search of a greater understanding of parliamentary democracy and now I find myself asking for much more. I ask you, Canadians, to urge your government to take concrete steps against Ukrainian government officials and Ukrainian businesses that are impeding the electoral process.

The Canadian government can and should lead an international effort to apply pressure to ensure that the judiciary remains independent. The Canadian government should impose sanctions on the officials responsible for the electoral violations. And Canada should refuse to issue visas to those officials and ban banking services by Canadian financial institutions for officials and businesses connected to the regime.

Even though Ukraine has a rich history and culture, the principle of one person, one vote is relatively new to our political institutions. Without a truly free election we cannot move forward. We cannot live up to the hopes and dreams our parents had when we gained our independence. Most of all, we cannot enjoy the basic freedoms of speech and association that are so admirably protected in Canada.

Individually, our voices are only a whisper. With your help, we can change the fate of my country.


Oleksandra Gaskevych, a student of journalism at University of Kyiv (Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv), is currently an intern with the Canada-Ukraine Parliamentary Program.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 12, 2012 A11

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