By Brianna Hiser

One of the most striking features of the drive from Borispol International Airport into Kyiv is the overwhelming presence of Ukrainian flags. Ever since the Maidan protests that started in November 2013, the wheat-yellow and sky blue flag symbolizing Ukraine’s agricultural richness has become an emblem of their political turmoil. Much like the American flag’s prolific emergence after 9/11, the Ukrainian flag hangs on nearly every building: the colors are painted on walls, facades, and event concrete barriers. A long bridge leading into the city is painted in alternating blue and yellow; the paint was recently touched up by volunteers. “Flags are everywhere now,” a Ukrainian civil society activist said to me. “It is our national symbol of freedom.” 
 
I arrived in the country a week before the October 26, 2014 parliamentary elections as part of a 750 member international delegation of election monitors with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). After several days of briefings in Kyiv, OSCE sent me to Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv. 
 
As a Russian-speaker, I was sent to Kharkiv, the largest city in the Russian-speaking east. Kharkiv also borders the two territories of Luhansk and Donetsk, which are facing violent conflict due to a Russian-backed separatist uprising. The OSCE wouldn’t deploy observers any further east due to security concerns (the parliamentary elections in rebel-controlled territories were scheduled for later in December).
 
Petro Poroshenko, the chocolate magnate-turned-president, called these elections in August after dissolving parliament. He cited the need for new national elections after the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovich. Yanukovich’s Party of Regions had occupied the highest number of seats in the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, meaning the legislature no longer represented the post-Euromaidan interests of the country, Poroshenko argued. Moreover, many of those still in power voted in favor of the January 16, 2014 “dictatorship laws”—a package of legislation sponsored by Party of Region MPs and signed into law by Yanukovich that severely restricted freedom of speech and assembly, in response to the anti-government protests known as EuroMaidan. 
 
Despite the clarity of President Poroshenko’s logic, I wondered if all of the people that I would encounter in the eastern region of Kharkiv oblast would agree with him.     
 
The boutique art hotel in Kharkiv where our delegation stayed is on the outskirts of Kharkiv city, but it still took an hour and a half to drive one way on bumpy roads to get to Balaklaya, the district where we observed the elections. My observation partner and I spent the Saturday before the election visiting polling stations, meeting poll workers and getting acquainted with the region. By and large, polling stations were located in community centers and schools. The old, Soviet buildings had large rooms that were rather stark. The centrally-controlled heating had not yet been turned on which made the air cold and damp. Despite these uncomfortable conditions, the poll workers greeted us warmly and welcomed us for tea and cookies while they described their constituencies, election preparations and personal backgrounds. 
 
One polling station had just 300 names on the voters list, and expected less than 50 percent turnout. “People are tired,” the head of the polling station said. “They don’t understand what these elections are going to change, and don’t want to stand in line anymore.”   
Election day went smoothly in our district. Though many anticipated that attempts to disrupt the election might be concentrated in the east, there was no real geographic pattern in the reports from domestic and international observers. 
 
Moreover, observer groups broadly credited the election as being free and fair. While turnout was lower in the east than the rest of the country, the overall turnout for this election only hit 52.42 percent as compared with over 60 percent turnout for the presidential elections just a few months earlier. Both expert opinion and coffee shop conversations attributed lower turnout to the same sentiment the poll worker in Balaklaya had expressed: election fatigue in the midst of political uncertainty.
 
It might seem like this is when Ukrainians need to be energized the most, building momentum from last year’s protests and successful elections. And I did see more energy and enthusiasm among civil society activists in Kyiv than among residents in Kharkiv region. 
 
But the cost of change in Ukraine is high. Everyone I encountered talked about the horror of watching the protests on Maidan. Nearly everyone has a relative or friend fighting in the east, and over 80 percent of Ukrainians have donated money or material goods to support soldiers and their families. This is particularly remarkable given Ukraine’s deteriorating economy: during the three weeks I was there, the hryvnia devalued nearly 35 percent. 
 
Ukrainians have been personally and often profoundly affected by the political turmoil over the last year. While the parliamentary election was an important step forward, it doesn’t address the myriad questions facing the country on a daily basis. Ukrainians have proven yet again that they will play by democratic rules; now it is time for the newly elected leadership to prove the same.