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Ukrainian-Americans Travel to Observe Election


On December 26th, Ukrainians will try, yet again, to elect a new president, when they turn out for a second run-off election between Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich and opposition leader Viktor Yushenko. Ukraine's Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that the first run-off election had been marred by fraud. Much of the evidence the judges considered was gathered by international election observers -- many of whom are professionals who travel the world monitoring elections. But some of the people who will be there on the 26th to observe the election are average American citizens, the children and grandchildren of Ukrainian immigrants.

It's a Tuesday evening at the New York City headquarters for the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America. An expert on election monitoring addresses a crowd of about 100 people. Let them see your documentation, which will be a passport and your ID card which says you're an international observer, he tells them. They have gathered here for a four-hour training session on how to monitor the upcoming presidential election. Most have never observed an election before, and many are like Martha Brodylo, an environmental consultant whose parents emigrated from Ukraine. " I guess I want to make sure that we have a free and fair election for my family back in Ukraine," she says.

Ms. Brodylo has found a sponsor to pay for her airfare, and the U.S. State Department has agreed to purchase her visa. But she is probably going to have to pay the hotel bill herself. She is also taking a full week of leave without pay from her employer, so she can spend time in Ukraine training for the upcoming election. "All of our people are paying their own way," says Tamara Gallo Oxley, executive director of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America: in-country travel, hotels, airfare. We are doing a fundraiser within the Ukrainian community, to maybe defray some costs. But these people, they want to help out."

The UCCA has been sending election observers to Ukraine since 1994. This year, the group sent nearly 300 people to monitor the original election, as well as the run-off that was declared null and void by the Ukrainian Supreme Court. But now, thanks to all the media coverage the political situation in Ukraine has received, Ms. Olexy says her organization is sending more than 600 volunteers - most of them Ukrainian-Americans. "The changes that have happened over the last few months in Ukraine have activated a lot of the younger generations that maybe previous to this weren't interested in what's going in Ukraine, but have been interested in human rights and freedom of choice and freedom of speech," she says. "So this whole 'orange revolution' as they call it in Ukraine has really activated a lot of the younger people [here in America]."

Orange is the color of the scarf worn by opposition leader Viktor Yushenko. It is also the background color of the UCCA's website - which begs the question of whether these observers are going to be impartial. Tamara Gallo Olexy insists they are. "The orange color has become a color of democracy and free and fair elections," she says. "Obviously we don't support one candidate over another, and the most important thing that all of our observers learn is that they're neutral observers. They cannot show any sort of allegiance to one candidate. They're there just to observe the election and be pro-active if they see violations."

Most of the UCCA volunteers have at least a conversational knowledge of the Ukrainian language, because they grew up speaking it with their parents or grandparents. The UCCA has provided English translations of the election laws to volunteers who are a little less adept at reading the language. But Tamara Gallo Olexy says the real language challenge will not be Ukrainian. It will be Russian, which is spoken by many of the people living in eastern Ukraine. That is why the 600 volunteers will be teaming up with dozens of local observers, as well as the more than one thousand observers being sent over by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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