KIEV, Ukraine — When Ukrainians voted Sunday for a president, Reno Domenico of South Jersey was a poll monitor in Kherson, on the border of occupied Crimea. Ulana Mazurkevich, a mainstay of Philly’s Ukranian-American community, was poll-watching in Odessa. Marta Fedoriw of Allentown, Pa., was checking polls in Dnieperpetrovsk.
All are volunteers, paying their own way. And all agree that Sunday’s presidential election was crucial if Ukraine is to withstand crippling pressures from Russia. “Ukraine desperately needs this election to succeed,” says Domenico, who led training sessions for 222 U.S. pollwatchers organized by the Ukrainian Congress of America.
If this election is credible, as attested to by international observers, this will undercut Russia’s efforts to dismember Ukraine and compel the Kremlin to recognize Ukraine’s elected president. These three monitors from the Philly area are on the front lines.
Domenico got interested in Ukraine when it was part of the Soviet Union, after he set up a long-running exchange program between Sterling High School, in Somerdale, N.J., and a Ukrainian secondary school. When he retired in 2006, he moved to Kiev and opened the Sterling Business School, partnering with Rowan University; the program trains midcareer administrators. He has been involved in election monitoring since Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, which ousted a president who won by massive cheating.
But Ukraine’s second revolution in a decade, this one prompted by Russian pressure on Kiev to renege on planned links to the European Union, has brought economic life here to a standstill. “If Ukraine is going to get a fresh start,” says Domenico, “it will be with this election. As Americans who know how to do this, I feel we are obliged to do something.
“I have 40 years’ experience [with political activity] in Camden County,” he adds, “and there are no tricks here I haven’t learned.” He will really be on the front lines: Crimeans who still want to and are gutsy enough to vote in Ukraine can cross their new Russian-imposed border to this nearby Ukrainian town.
Fedoriw has an equally compelling reason for hoping this election is a free and fair one. She was one of the first American investors in Ukraine in the 1990s, just after it became independent following the breakup of the Soviet empire. She invested her family’s life savings into renovating and running the Grand Hotel in Lviv. Her parents had fled western Ukraine when the Soviets arrived, and she wanted to return to their homeland.
But her dreams were destroyed by the deadly brand of Russian mafia-style corruption that still undermines Ukraine. Legally required to take on a Ukrainian partner and offer him a 51 percent share in the business, she was told six months later that he had taken the business over. Her husband’s cousin, a local who had been hired as the hotel director, was shot dead.
Neither police nor courts would help her. She hopes a new Ukrainian president will finally tackle this corrupt system, and says, “That’s why I came back.” She was pollwatching in a key city with long ties to Russia, that Moscow had hoped but failed to destabilize.
The dynamic Mazurkevich has long been active in Ukrainian-American affairs. She monitored Ukranian elections three times and was in Kiev for the Orange Revolution. Ukrainian leaders who come to the United States often visit Philly’s large Ukrainian-American community and usually stay in her home.
Only recently, a parliamentarian who was one of the leaders of the Euro-Maidan revolution was her houseguest.
“Why do I do this? Because my life has been dedicated to human rights,” she said, as the group of monitors prepared to leave the Dniepro Hotel, located near a still-standing barricade of tires where several Maidan demonstrators died.
“The most basic human right is to have a choice of leaders,” she said, before leaving for Odessa, where provocations by pro-Russian separatists recently led to the tragic death of more than 40 people.
All three Philly-area residents are hoping a successful election will help Ukraine move past this recent trauma. They are doing their part.
TRUDY RUBIN is a columnist and board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.