On Sunday, Ukrainians will go to the polls to vote for a new president. But that simple statement does not reckon with the significance of this election. The May 25 vote is not just a validator of their struggle for change and a harbinger of Ukraine’s future – plenty important enough — it is also a demarcation point between the global struggle for freedom and the forces of repression, of nations being able to choose their own future rather than have it imposed upon them.
So this is not just any election. It comes at a perilous moment in Ukraine’s long history. It follows the purported annexation of Crimea and Russia’s own efforts to destabilize the country and undermine the voting. For weeks now the Russian media machine has broadcast fictional stories of a “Neo-Nazi rampage” and a country on the verge of civil war, while the Kremlin has encouraged separatists in the east to seize power at the barrel of a gun.
Last week I traveled to Ukraine to see for myself. I found Kyiv to be calm but nervous; people were going about their business, having coffee at sidewalk cafes, taking their children to school. But they were a little anxious about the election. And why wouldn’t they be? There’s a lot riding on it.
While in Kyiv, I walked through the Maidan and paid my respects at monuments to the Heavenly Hundred, the protesters who gave their lives fighting for a truly representative government. I met young Ukrainians who protested in the Maidan and lost friends in the struggle. I spoke with one university student who told me she had always passed out at the sight of blood, yet during the protests, she volunteered to care for the wounded in one of the Maidan’s makeshift hospitals and never fainted or faltered. She said she has seen enough bloodshed for a lifetime, and now she is focused on finding a democratic future for her country. Everywhere I found a quiet patriotism, a faith that if only the people can exercise their will, Ukraine will prosper.
Sunday’s elections are the best route to political healing in Ukraine. Polls show that more than 70 percent of Ukrainians want to stay intact as a nation. The elections should be an antidote to the mayhem created by Russia and the separatists who seem more intent on tearing the country down than raising it up. Everyone I spoke to in Kyiv wants a nation that includes minority voices, a nation that looks both westward and eastward. They reject the notion that they must choose one or the other.
Elections are never perfect — and this one will not be either. There will be disruptions, and some people will stay home in the east, where election officials have been intimidated and in some cases even kidnapped. Russia has also ensured that no voting will take place in Crimea. But instead of preventing people from voting, the separatists should register their dissent in the voting booth. The story of the 21st century shows that in the end, the ballot box is more powerful than the bullet. Around 400 million people in Europe are eligible to vote this weekend in European Parliamentary elections — Ukrainians deserve the same right to express their will.
More than 200 years ago, Thomas Paine wrote that “the right of voting…is the primary right by which other rights are protected.” Let this election be the beginning and not the end of the Ukrainian people being able to choose and construct their future. It should not only reflect the will of the Ukrainian people but be an engine for protecting the rights of minorities as well. That is the future of Ukraine.