Tuesday, November 02, 2004


So the plane?

Well, I'm sure this will come as a shock to all parties, but it may be that I was a touch melodramatic. I nearly fainted when I saw the propellers, but the truth is, it was a cinch. I mean, this was no luxury liner—I have great photos of us unloading our own luggage on the tarmac in Luhansk—but, it was pretty unexciting.

Out of the 600 international observers deployed to Ukraine, our Luhansk region had a measly 18 souls. We were divided into pairs and given our beat - mine was an area centered around the town of Antratsit—named for Anthracite, or coal. Which is what the air was filled with. Delightful! It's in the far eastern part of Ukraine, which is solid Russian-speaking territory. That was a relief—while my Russian is fairly shoddy, my Ukrainian is, well, I use shoddy Russian for Ukrainian.

At about 6pm on election day, we'd been going for about 12 hours, and had another 7 to go. My Slovak partner, our translator and driver and I all decided to stop for a coffee in a restaurant. We were happily refueling when my OSCE armband caught the attention of some carousing Ukrainians nearby. They stumbled our way and invited themselves, and their bottle of vodka, to join us. "It is Russky traditsii," they insisted, pushing the bottle toward us, "You must drink before you vote!" Cuts the pain, I guess.

We declined, citing our official status as observers. The pair eventually ended a soliliquy on the brotherhood of nations and set off to traverse the 200 meters to the polling station. After we finished our coffee, we too left for the polling station to resuming our by now expert observing. As usual, we introduced ourselves to the precinct chairperson, asked a few questions, and settled in to take stock of the proceedings.

A local journalist and her cameraman came into the polling station and made a beeline for us. She asked if we would offer our opinion on the conduct of the elections thus far, and if we had any suggestions for improvement. Although I am something of a fame whore, I figured that Antratsit local news was not my ticket to Hollywood glory, and anyway, the OSCE had trained us well for this eventuality. Sorry, we told her, the OSCE hive mind would issue its collective opinion on Monday, and we weren't at liberty to offer our individual opinions. She kept trying, but we were firm. She settled for instructing her cameraman to train his lens on us, sitting there, trying not to look at the camera, staring dumbly at ballot boxes.

As if on cue, there's a crashing sort of disaster sound to our right and we see our friends from the restaurant once again. They're heading straight for us with a delightedly sloppy gait. "It is Russky traditsii and this time you cannot say no!" announces our friend, pulling something from behind his back. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the journalist tap her cameraman on the shoulder, and he wheels the camera around just in time to catch a heartwarming scene for their viewers at home: two OSCE observers in a polling station, receiving beer and condoms from a resident voter.

This—this wasn't covered in our briefing.


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