Kiev, Ukraine - Not only was the world watching the third round of elections in Ukraine, but it was there, positioned in the major cities and throughout the industrial and agricultural regions. The media were euphoric about the thousands of Viktor Yushchenko supporters camped in Kiev's main square and about how the noisy orange revolution represented a showdown between Western-style democracy and Eastern authoritarianism.
But after being posted as an international observer, I started to wonder how much of that oft-stated interpretation was really true, and whether our mere presence was itself a corrupting influence.
It wasn't until I got on the ground in Kiev among a flurry of foreigners that I grasped the impact and excitement generated by the presence of so many outsiders. We were everywhere. In the streets, at the bars, in the restaurants, packing the hotels, lined up at discotheques and writing home or meeting deadlines from Internet cafés.
We were asking for directions, wondering about domestically produced beers and vodkas, looking for fur hats and having authentic Ukrainian dinners at restaurants.
Whether we were part of much-publicized observer teams or members of major media outlets, our presence did not go unnoticed. And although all of us were there as objective witnesses (or reporters), it seemed to me that there was a perception among the locals that we were there to get Yushchenko elected, since we were very welcome in the western part of the country, a Yushchenko stronghold, and unwelcome in the eastern part, the territory of Viktor Yanukovych.
On December 26, I woke up at 4 am in order to drive to my assigned polling station in an agricultural region northwest of Kiev on the Polish border. Previously the wheat belt of Ukraine, the communities' land is now underused, their buildings unheated and, according to local pensioners, there is up to 80 per cent unemployment.
Although people seemed overwhelmingly to support Yushchenko, many in this farming region were nostalgic for the days of nationalized industry and Soviet-organized economy, when they had thriving communities, full employment and heated buildings, if not "freedom."
From what I witnessed, there seemed to be little Ukrainian- or Russian-initiated obstruction of the electoral process. In the last two rounds, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported that balloting did not meet a number of international standards. This time the organization found the vote more satisfactory and egalitarian.
But watching the congratulatory press reports afterward, I couldn't contain my unease. While Western human rights activists and liberal journalists are very taken with the idea of exporting electoral norms, they don't seem to examine whether their interventions actually shape how locals imagine their revolution and how it gets taken up in international discourse.
Did the media, for example, actually misrepresent the historic and cultural divide between Ukraine's east and west as they rushed to paint Yanukovych's eastern voters as brainwashed throwbacks to the Communist era? According to Fred Eidlin, a University of Guelph political science professor who specializes in Russia and Eastern Europe, eastern and western Ukraine can effectively be conceived as two countries with different histories.
"Western Ukraine shared a history with Poland. Its national identity was formed in reaction to and in imitation of Polish nationalism, which had a strong ethnic focus. Eastern Ukraine, in contrast, was part of the Russian empire, and Russian national identity never had a strong ethnic focus.'
And though the journalists were captivated by the mass movement that fought for and won the revote, they didn't spend much time exploring the political resumés of the two people at the centre of the upheaval. After all, Yushchenko has his own oligarchic pedigree. He ran Ukraine's national bank in the 1990s and was prime minister from 2000 to 2001, presiding over a massive decline in people's standard of living.
His sidekick Yulia Tymoshenko, who headed Ukraine's Unified Energy Systems from 1995 to 97 and made her fortune in a time of extreme decline for the rest of the country, is accused of fraud and embezzlement to the tune of $2 billion.
In addition to the soft treatment of Yushchenko's history, little ink was spilled examining the role of geopolitics in the positioning of the Western nations vis à vis the election. As University of Toronto political science and international relations professor Aurel Braun points out, "Western countries want to move Ukraine out of the Russian orbit. The Poles in particular have said that if Russia maintains control of Ukraine, then it can become an empire again, one that could threaten its neighbours. But if Russia can be stopped from controlling Ukraine, it could be prevented from becoming a threatening geopolitical power.'
The mass movement that forced the rematch wasn't the only victor in this epic. The reality is that powerful Western countries also angle to get their way. Perhaps Eidlin best sums it up: "We in the West have a tendency to believe that if an election is truly free and fair it will produce the result we want."