Separating fact from fiction in Ukraine

Canadian researcher Antoine Nouvet recalls his experience as an observer of the parliamentary elections in October.
By: /
December 4, 2014
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The air was crisp and cool not unlike autumn in Canada, but we were one kilometer from Russia and quickly getting closer on foot. What is a McGill Law student doing in Eastern Ukraine, I asked myself again? And how can this border area feel so quiet and peaceful, given the out-and-out war raging a province or two away? This was my fifth week in Ukraine, as part of a core team of long-term observers spanning all of Ukraine’s 24 provinces to cover the October 26 parliamentary vote.

In theory, my assignment was straightforward: Observe the elections impartially from start to finish. Yet experience and goodwill does not make the job easy. Utmost among the challenges for observers was distilling useful information from a buzz of uncertainty, fabrications, and contradictions.

Election observation can at first glance seem elemental — watching ballots move, listening to speeches, and filling reports. The mission’s teeth are limited to its eyes and ears. However, in Ukraine — a country raked by political upheaval, social tensions, and outright war — intrigue and unpredictability are the norm. Within this, one of the biggest challenges is navigating a hazy information environment, of competing narratives, fueled by rumors, war, and spread everywhere from town cafes, to television and social media.

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Polling stations close and election commissions begin the ballot count the night of Oct. 26, Sumy Province, Ukraine.

In practice, tackling this challenge is a fascinating exercise of “plugging into” the local pulse. In getting a read on local politics and laying down the groundwork for the arrival of the larger team of short-term election observers, I met the governors of the two provinces, leaders of police and intelligence services, militia leaders, and political candidates. I visited and listened in to media scrums, spoke to middle-rank bureaucrats, and compared what I heard there, with the conversations of everyday Ukrainians. It entailed hundreds of kilometers on bumpy country roads and visits to far-flung places, from border towns to federal penitentiaries.

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Planning the day’s observation route in rural Eastern Ukraine. (M. Dyczok)

But even with access to so much information, Ukraine’s bitterly fought political contest and conflict gives credence to the adage “the first casualty of war is truth.”

Take the border for instance: For the better part of this year, Ukraine has been embroiled in a bloody war along the border that has left thousands killed and scores more displaced from their homes. Indeed, some parts of the country are unrecognizable from a year past and remain out of government control. Internally Displaced Persons in the tens of thousands could be found throughout the country.

Still, here I stood on the border with my colleague, stunned not by a sense of tension and insecurity, but by the calm and quiet. One could seemingly walk back-and-forth across the border unhindered — indeed, some of the local inhabitants said they had done so.

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A quiet and otherwise unmarked Russian-Ukrainian border in Sumy Province, Eastern Ukraine.

Yet, even this calm is not what it seems on second glance. Speak to some locals, and they would cite this border area as a key-front for smuggling, potentially of weapons, its placidity being a harbinger of such activities. And indeed, just as my partner and I returned to our vehicle, we spotted a pair of armed and camouflaged men walking along the Ukrainian side of the border. They did not appear to be regular forces and the fuzziness of who they were seemed apt.

Even harder to tackle is the role new media communications play in such an “information war.” Just days prior to elections, a violent and bloody attack was reported on a Russian language blog describing an armed ambush a few kilometers from where my hotel was. Alarmed — two armed attacks by unknown perpetrators had occurred in the same province just weeks before — I researched the incident, and ultimately, it appeared to have never actually happened. Yet its existence was still of importance: Who were the authors of the report and what was their aim with spreading misinformation? More significantly perhaps: Who were the dozens of commentators lauding praise on the fictional guerilla force that carried out an attack that never happened? The blurred line between information warfare and actual armed warfare is difficult to navigate.

And just as important as what is said is what goes unsaid. On election week, as we stopped in a polling station near the border, some of the elderly ladies working the booths chatted with us over cups of warm tea, as is the custom. My partner and I described our recent border visit on foot; they recounted excitedly a nearby intrusion over the Russian-Ukrainian border in the summer that had to be repelled by local militias. “No one made a video of this, and put it online, so we have no proof that it happened,” quipped one of the commission members who would have been in her seventies. Here like elsewhere, the fog of conflict was the rule rather than the exception.

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Polling commission members and voters busy on Election Day in Sumy Province, Ukraine. (M. Dyczok)

In the face of such challenges, observation missions confront a moving, ephemeral target. As a law student, I was struck by how the experience was a real-life laboratory for methods we learn in class: The sum of these events, contradictions, rumours, and gaps created an information environment that constantly challenged my assumptions, knowledge, and analysis. No matter how well informed I think I am, such skills are essential when parachuted into the haze of conflict.