Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Pearl of the Black Sea

Erik was unexpectedly invited to take a quick trip to Ukraine to participate in election observation for the Committee for Open Democracy. He was deployed to Odesa, a city he last visited as an observer in 2002. The city is quite beautiful, as its nickname "Pearl of the Black Sea" suggests. Its most famous landmark is the Potemkin Steps, featured in the cinema classic "Battleship Potemkin." For those unfamiliar with the film, the steps are featured in a seminal film moment: tsarist forces chase protesters down the stairs, slowly and systematically gunning them down. Its key moment - when a baby carriage is released by a dying mother and cascades down the steps - was famously reproduced in The Untouchables.
The local elections were seen as a test of the new president's commitment to democratic practices. As a reminder, the current president's failure to win the 2004 election through fraudulent means led to the Orange Revolution. He attained the presidency legitimately in 2010 and the local elections were the first contests to be held since he took office.

Elections in Odesa, especially for the post of mayor, were contentious. As Erik arrived, the Committee for Open Democracy issued a press release about its decision to concentrate resources on Odesa because of its especially problematic election administration. This announcement prompted a response by the Odesa governor, complaining about foreign interference. Erik's election day observation was long and exhausting, stretching well into the following day. During the process he encountered many hardworking election officials trying to do the right thing, but also gross violations of appropriate practices. After spending all night in a polling station with particularly egregious practices, and catching a couple of hours of daytime sleep, he participated in a press conference about the election, met a local colleague, and then had a group dinner with other observers. The next day he packed up, took a walk, then headed home. Some pictures and comments follow.

This lovely courtyard near Erik's hotel was designed by Faberge.

At the top of the Potemkin Steps is a statue honoring the founder of Odesa pictured above in the morning and below at night.

The Opera House, pictured from the side above, is a duplicate of the L'viv Opera House that we gazed upon every day when we lived in Ukraine in 2007.
Nearby the Potemkin Steps is a local landmark - the Mother-in-Law's Bridge. Supposedly newly married couples place a lock on the bridge to demonstrate the strength of their union. It was ostensibly built by a Soviet-era official who wanted to ease his mother-in-law's journey to his family's home.

Another nearby landmark is the Wall House, or Witch House. The building appears to be flat, but the design is an optical illusion (above at night, below during the day).

As in many Ukrainian cities, people stroll in the evening. Odesa is brightly lit and is a wonderful place for a visit and a nice walk.

The election featured some competent and well-run polling stations, but also some of the worst that Erik has visited in his election observation experience. It is really unfortunate that citizens in Odesa cannot be confident in the validity of the election process that just occurred.