6. Ranjbar observes Ukraine presidential election

by Kathy Cappelli 


In the midst of the political crisis between Russia and Ukraine in the spring of 2014, nearly 1,000 volunteers from 49 countries went to observe Ukraine’s presidential election to make sure all protocols were observed. It was the single largest election observation mission to date, organized by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Ph.D. candidate Azita Ranjbar was one of those observers, stationed in Lviv, Ukraine for the May 25, 2014 election.


Ukraine map

Lviv, where Ranjbar was stationed, is about 1,000 km/621 mi from the Crimean Peninsula.

Map by Kathy Cappelli.



Despite the high tensions and strained political situation, Ranjbar said that she experienced no problems, and found everyone friendly.

“Everyone was incredibly aware of the political situation, and were very invested in the election process. They were all very supportive and appreciative of the mission,” Ranjbar said.
Election observers are charged with ensuring everything in the election remains transparent and impartial. Duties include but are not limited to opening voting stations, watching ballot counts, and delivering the votes to the state.


"Our goal is not to be involved in what’s happening politically.

We just need to ensure voting practices are legal,

and we take our mandate very seriously.”



34 million voters registered, and 60% of them voted, resulting in the election of President Petro Poroshenko. According to the OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission Final Report, “the election was characterized by high voter turnout and the clear resolve of the authorities to hold what was a genuine election largely in line with international commitments and with a respect for fundamental freedoms in the vast majority of the country. This was despite the hostile security environment in two eastern regions and the increasing attempts to derail the process by armed groups in these parts of the country.”

“Certainly, election monitors had different experiences based on their deployment,” Ranjbar said, “But my area of observation was calm, and I found it to be a wonderful place. Our goal is not to be involved in what’s happening politically. We just need to ensure voting practices are legal, and we take our mandate very seriously,” Ranjbar said. In this situation, Ranjbar was a representative of the United States. She did not, she said, go as a diplomat, but as an observer, which is a volunteer position. “Observers are completely impartial,” she emphasized.

The May 2014 Ukraine election was Ranjbar’s second time as an election observer working through the ODIHR, and she is already looking forward to her next opportunity. Volunteers are limited to observing once per year.

Ranjbar said her interest in elections comes from her experience working in Afghanistan and watching the elections process there. After her graduation from The College of William and Mary in 2005, she was interested in the political situation in Afghanistan, so she interned with the Afghan Women Judges Association. Through her internship, she studied issues such as what makes a local population view an election as legitimate and what inhibits the democratic process. Ranjbar said that these issues play a large part in finding ways to involve women, minorities, and marginalized groups in daily life.

Adding another layer to the complex situation of the 2005 elections in Afghanistan, there was a large international presence, Ranjbar noted. The influence of foreigners, expatriates, and other organizations affected the elections because international interests want to ensure transparent elections, but the security concerns involved must be balanced with issues of human rights, justice, and democracy.

 After that, she returned to work with Jennifer Fluri (M.S. ’01, Ph.D. ’05) as a research assistant on development and aid in Afghanistan. She credited Fluri with sparking her interest in geography and helping her “begin to understand the relationship between power and space.”

As a student of political geography, Ranjbar has an interest in not only the democratic process, but also the role of elections in building sustainable peace. This goal is also shared by the organizations she works through, ODHIR, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and the U.S. Institute of Peace.

During her 10-day stay, Ranjbar didn’t have much time off, first training intensively in the capital, then working with other volunteers to familiarize herself with the city of Lviv, the polling stations, and the District Election Commissions.

However, observers were given evenings off, and during this time, visiting the city’s cafes was one of Ranjbar’s favorite activities in the UNESCO world heritage city. She found that many locals were willing to talk her through their views of the conflict, most feeling that international news coverage was telling an uninformed and incorrect version of the conflict. While U.S. media coverage interpreted the annexation of Crimea as rooted in ethnic differences, the locals of Lviv saw it as very much a political conquest.

Ukraine is a member of OSCE, and because of that affiliation, other members of the organization can send election observers to ensure that all legal processes are observed.