Saturday, December 25, 2010

We Wish You a Merry Christmas...

... and a Happy New Year! We have experienced some great adventures in 2010 and hope for more in 2011.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Moldova Adventure

One of Erik's personal goals has been to visit all fifteen states that emerged from the ruins of the Soviet Union (only real ones-not fake countries. We're looking at you South Ossetia). With his trip to Moldova for election observation, he has made it to ten.

He arrived in Chisinau on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, greeted by steel grey skies that quickly sprinkled cold rain. Erik settled in his hotel, located on the outskirts of the city, and established contact with the parents of a graduate student at KU. Alexandru and Ionna met Erik at the hotel, and graciously treated him to a lovely dinner at a Gagauz-Bulgarian restaurant. The Gagauz are a minority group in Moldova who speak a Turkic language. The cuisine featured various marinated or pickled items, dried and fresh meats, and an especially tasty hot sauce. Some aspects of the meal reminded Erik of foods he sampled in Turkey, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, notably brynza/feta cheese, the use of sprigs of green herbs as condiments, and prevalence of lamb. But, some dishes were new, such as the head-cheese-like meat appetizer and pink marinated cabbage side dish. The accompanying dry, local red wine capped off a fantastic meal. The conversation was equally nice, with topics ranging from Moldovan politics to a handful of anecdotes about Erik's student's childhood years. He was able to visit with them again after the elections - the picture below is from a traditional Moldovan restaurant as they enjoyed shots of homemade wine. The gentleman offering them the drinks is somewhat of a local celebrity, as photos of musicians, actors, and other Moldovan notables in similar poses were scattered about the restaurant.

Thursday (Thanksgiving) was a work day, with a long orientation session followed by deployment meetings. Erik's area of responsibility was the region to the immediate south of Chisinau. While he was not able to take in as much of the country, he also faced fewer logistical challenges since he remained in the same hotel. Erik was paired with a young Armenian man who works in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

One of the attractions of an observation mission is the opportunity to interact with interesting people. Erik met several Americans who have served in democracy-building programs at home and abroad, the Swedish statistician in charge of OSCE data collection and analysis, a former leader of the Social Democratic faction in the European Parliament, a member of the European Council, a fellow political scientist from Belarus, and many others who share an interest in elections.
On Friday, all of the short-term observers assigned to the region met for an additional briefing. Erik and his partner Tigran met their driver and interpreter and made some plans to visit polling places on Saturday. In the afternoon, they braved the cold, heavy rain to explore downtown a bit. After strolling down Chisinau's main street for a while, they sought shelter in a nice restaurant, enjoyed a rather lavish meal, and chatted about family, their home countries, and politics.

Saturday was a full day of work, although a bit of siteseeing entered the mix. The standard practice is to become familiar with the region of responsibility on the day before the election. Erik and Tigran's territory was quite large, and many villages were accessible only by poor roads. However, two high quality roads cut through the region from north to south, and these served as their main conduits. Unfortunately, the roads were not directly connected. They had to double back through Chisinau to explore both ends of the region. They visited nine polling places and a village mayor's office. Overall, they had a good impression of preparations, in stark contrast to Erik's visit to Ukraine a few weeks ago. Some village commissions were rather surprised to receive a visit from international observers, but everyone was quite cordial.

Village life in Moldova can be a challenge. In several villages, plumbing was not widespread evidenced by the traditional wells and outhouses. Villagers were walking or biking long distances to buy supplies. The demographics were also interesting - most villagers we encountered were either very old or very young. Young adults seem to have abandoned these places, likely for work or study in the capital or abroad. In fact, while Erik was in Moldova, the New York Times published this sad photo essay about children left behind.

Above you see the entrance to a funeral reception, and below the procession through the village.

After work, we took a slight detour to the main attraction in the area, and indeed in all Moldova. Milestii Mici is home to the world's largest wine cellar (certified by the Guinness Book of World Records) and our interpreter's day job is as a guide there. She gave us a fascinating tour of the labyrinthine caverns that cover 200 kilometers in total. Of course, the team only visited a small area on the tour. The caverns were excavated in Soviet times, with the limestone used for construction. Moldova's economy is largely agricultural and it has a well developed viticulture industry. The caverns store wines from all over Europe, but our tour covered domestic production. After our travels through the caverns by car and on foot, we enjoyed a brief wine tasting. Erik was disappointed that he could not bring samples home. But he packed light and the bottles had no hope of surviving in his duffel bag.

Above you see the team at an underwater spring. The caverns reached a depth of 85 meters underground.

The roads were lined with casks, arranged by the type of grape. Note the small door in the cask below. Tiny women are hired to climb in the casks and clean them.

Bottled wine is stored in mausoleum-like catacombs at one of the deepest points in the caverns.

On election day, Erik and his team awoke early to attend a poll opening in the city of Ialoveni. They traveled from village to village during the morning hours, stopping in several polling stations and talking with officials. In the afternoon, they explored another part of the region and settled on observing the final vote count in Ialoveni. Overall, Erik observed a straightforward and well-managed process. Mistakes were made - generally by officials who privileged speed over accuracy in their preparations or vote counting. That is, officials understood the rules but took shortcuts, and those shortcuts caused them to make mistakes. They ended up spending more time instead of less as they backtracked and fixed the mistakes.

Above, officials prepare to open the polling station. Among the twelve polling stations we observed was the one below - appropriately located in a wine factory. Note the fantastic mural to Bacchus in the background.

Sometimes, the act of observation affects the process. Below you will see a few green banners. Erik noticed them when the team arrived at a station. The polling site was quite close to the local headquarters of a political party. However, they had hung extra banners well withing the 50 meter limit (no electioneering was permitted within 50 meters of a polling station entrance). Erik paced out the distance and took photos, then headed in the polling site to observe.

The "after" photo is below. Erik's activities did not go unnoticed, and someone removed the banners. The team checked back later in the day, and the banners were still gone. The remaining green banner is the HQ's official sign. While it should not be within the 50 meter radius either (technically), it is not a campaign sign.

The village above prepared for the election by hanging lovely flags everywhere. In many polling sites, the atmosphere was festive, with traditional Moldovan music blaring from loudspeakers. Below you can see one of the stars of the election - not the woman glaring at Erik, but the ballot itself. It was about 3 feet long and included 20 parties and 19 independent candidates.

Below, you can see Lili, the team interpreter, casting her ballot. She obtained an absentee certificate, allowing her to vote in any polling station. We were particularly enamored of this village site, located in the old Soviet-era "House of Culture." So, Lili decided to vote there.

Below you see Tigran at work. We took turns asking questions of the polling station officials while the other walked around inside and outside to observe the process. Splitting up can be an effective way to find interesting things (such as the banners noted above).

The photo of the vote count above does not fully capture the chaos and energy in the room. It reminded Erik of those glass booths in which money blows around and carnival-goers try to grab as much cash as they can. In this case, ballots flew about willy-nilly, landing in piles like the ones below.

Moldova's politics are quite contentious. Last Sunday's election was the third since spring 2009. Moldova's parliament elects the president, and if the super-majority of 61 out of 101 deputies cannot agree on a candidate, parliament is dissolved and new elections are held. Parliament failed to elect the president twice in 2009, but the constitution prohibited another dissolution for a year.

Above you can see a poster that says "No Mafia." It is an advertisement from a small party that opposed the activities of a particular businessman in the elections. However, this party never had a real chance of gaining seats.

The Communist Party is Moldova's strongest contestant, enjoying support in small towns and villages outside the capital region and in ethnic minority regions like Gagauzia. The opposition is perpetually divided, and four main opposition groups vied for seats this round. The results, announced last Monday, unfortunately do not resolve Moldova's gridlocked political scene. The Communists garnered the most seats followed by three opposition parties. Neither side has the requisite 61 votes to elect the president.

Erik planned to return home on Tuesday, but his flight to Munich was canceled. He and other observers spent much of the day standing in line to rebook. On Wednesday, he almost missed a connection in Frankfurt because of Air Moldova's delayed departure and its exile to a remote part of the airfield. For those of you who don't travel to Europe, planes often do not use jetways. Instead, they park on the airfield and buses take passengers to/from the plane. Erik suspects that Air Moldova has poor parking privileges, resulting in its bad parking place. The jet taxiing and bus transit legs of arrival in Frankfurt only gave him a scant 40 minutes before departure. He ran to the gate, but was delayed by unsympathetic security personnel who would not expedite his movement through the line. He found an ally in an Indian woman who was also hoping to get on the plane - they tried several approaches to get through, but were rebuffed. When he finally arrived at the gate, he was told that the doors were closing and he could not get on the plane. After a - let's say assertive - conversation, the Lufthansa employees relented and let him on. His new Indian friend and a young American couple finishing their Peace Corps duties in Turkmenistan also made it on, but some colleagues from the OSCE did not. Erik's bag did not make it, although it finally arrived on Friday afternoon.

The final photo is a view from the airport as Erik was standing in line to rebook. Despite some of the bumps, the journey to Moldova was a success. It is a lovely country that has great potential.

Running around on Thanksgiving

With Erik off in Moldova, and Lea's parents agreeing to host Thanksgiving, a quiet day was planned. However, Carter agreed that it would be fun to run his first 5K on Thanksgiving. And run, he did! Lea ran with him, and thought he would have to walk a great deal of it. But he ran and ran, only walking at the water stop. It was more of an ice stop in the 17 degree weather, and perhaps the temperature contributed to his motivation to run. Carter and his grandpa both ran their first races that day, and both made the top 10 in their age categories!

Here be Monsters!

We know, it's been a while, but figured this must go up before a Thanksgiving-related post. Carter decided to be a sea monster this year, a convenient choice as he already had the appropriate hat (thanks, Theresa, the sea monster hat has been a go-to head warmer and costume!). The week before Halloween, he hit the dorms to stock up on pre-Halloween candy. Other Halloween festivities included a party at school, a piano party, and regular trick-or-treating. He had a blast at all of them and collected a record-setting amount of candy.