As Ukrainian voters headed to the polls over the weekend to help shape their nation’s future, U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess was there to watch.
Burgess, R-Lewisville, led a congressional delegation from the United States to Ukraine to monitor the presidential election and ensure that it was fair and open, free from intimidation.
He saw long lines and enthusiasm as he visited 17 polling locations, while 16 million Ukrainian voters chose chocolate tycoon and former Foreign Minister Petro Poroshenko to be their new president.
“They had a free and fair election,” said Burgess, who serves on the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission. “This was imperative for the country’s future.
“This is a country that has been through a lot,” he said. “Two months ago, an election wasn’t even on anyone’s radar screen. These people are going through an emotional turmoil in their country. They are trying to do the right thing … and we ought to support them.”
Last year, Ukrainians tired of corruption in their government began anti-government protests that ultimately became violent.
“They were literally taking their country back,” Burgess said. “You’ve got to respect that degree of patriotism. … They said their country was too important to leave to corrupt politicians.”
They fought the military and pushed back, ultimately ousting pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. Russia moved in and quickly annexed Crimea, a Russian-speaking Ukrainian peninsula.
On Sunday, they chose a new leader — Poroshenko, a billionaire candy manufacturer now faced with the challenge of resolving the country’s conflict.
“Their new leader is young, but clear in thinking,” Burgess said. “They have elected a president with a pretty strong mandate to stand up … and end the corruption because it is sapping the future, stealing the future, of their country.”
Burgess and a congressional delegation that also included Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Friendswood, arrived in Ukraine on Saturday to observe the Sunday election.
They participated in the monitoring mission organized by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and were among the more than 100 observers at the polls.
Burgess said voters he saw at sites in the Kiev vicinity were frustrated at times by the long lines.
But they stood and waited to make sure their voices were heard.
“I didn’t quite know what to expect,” Burgess said. “I did worry the election would be marginal. But these people worked their hearts out and this was their election.
“They very much took ownership of it and they were serious about it,” he said. “They have a big job ahead of them and they have got to stop the corruption. But people need to understand there’s a new sheriff in town.”
Burgess said he felt that it was very important for him and the other members of the congressional delegation to be in Ukraine. They plan to return home this afternoon.
He said he and others met with the Ukrainian prime minister and foreign minister and said he believes the country could be an important friend to the United States, one with which “our government can cooperate on international security and with which our companies can do business.”
“Back home, a lot of people say whatever happens over there is not important to us,” Burgess said. “But if we miss an opportunity here, it is one for which we are going to be paying for a long, long time.”