Lydia Yermoshina: “Not to Lose Humanness”

We tend to pay special attention to faces on screen, the more important the person, the more attention he or she rivets; especially if it is “she” we are talking about. Our hero today is Lydia Yermoshina, one of the few females close to the Olympus of the state authority. She has headed the Central Commission for Elections and National Referenda for ten years now; she is the one that makes sure that all election mechanisms work with no failure
So who is this woman that is flying so high and yet wins popular support when she claims she backs an authority “with a human face”?
We meet Lydia Yermoshina in the midst of another hot campaign; this time Belarus is to elect local authorities.
— Lydia Mikhailovna, you often repeat this phrase of yours about the authority with a human face. Could you explain to us what it means?
— I mostly refer to the way people elect the authorities. I would like to emphasize that the Belarusian elector knows the people he votes for. Belarusians are well aware of both the platform of the candidate and his or her track record (professional, if not personal). Besides, an authority with a human face is the one that often places itself “in the shoes” of a common voter. Most countries in the post-Soviet space give their electors no chance whatsoever to get to know their candidates: in Ukraine and the Russian Federation there are closed party lists, and all seats are distributed by the party “brass”. We all understand that if a big-time businessman gets in the list his success certainly depends on the generous contribution to the fund of the party.
— What criteria do you personally use to evaluate an official?
— Professionalism, conscience and decency are mandatory for any functionary, especially a delegate representing other people. Nonprofessionals will never manage to arrange an efficient operation of subordinate agencies or manage a whole region even if this man or woman is a wonderful and charming personality. An intelligent, but not very scrupulous person may be even more dangerous, as there will always be a strong and sometimes irresistible temptation to abuse the authority.
— How do you deal with tension on the election day? How can you cope with this immense stress? Do you ever weep just like an ordinary woman when you get home after a hard day?
— It could have happenned to me right after my appointment as the head of the Central Election Commission. I was so much shocked I could not sleep at night, but I never cried. Tears may appear as a reaction to some offence made in public. I still remember the news availability back in 2001, during a presidential campaign. There were many attacks against the commission and some personal insults. When I got back to my office I just wept at the thought that I allowed someone to try to humiliate me in front of my grown-up son, who was near me at that time.
— Who pushed you so high up the career ladder?
— Men (smiles). I was the only female in the commission (she has been there since 1992). It was a unique case when the president signed an ordinance to appoint me the commission head without even meeting me. I have never made it a secret that I am a “departmental Cinderella”. It all happened to me as if I were a girl from a fairy tale. I became the chairwoman after all commission members endorsed my candidacy.
— Weren’t you scared?
— I was somewhat naпve and very far from politics. And yes, I was scared, because I thought I might not be good enough. I had an idea that the responsibility was too heavy, as if a lieutenant were charged to command a whole division. But I guess I had had enough training, and I appreciate the confidence of my colleagues and the president.
— Does the Central Election Commission cooperate with election officials from other countries, and what sort of cooperation is it?
— The commission is part of the Association of Organizers of Elections of Central and Eastern Europe; we have friendship and cooperation deals with the Central Election Commission of the Russian Federation, we invite professional organizers of elections from Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. It became a bit harder after the European Commission had denied us entry visas, but we still preserve personal contacts and friendly ties in the European Union. We keep exchanging experience, we are elaborating European and world-wide standards of election organization and monitoring. We were among the developers of the Convention on Standards of Free and Fair Elections adopted by the members of the Commonwealth of Independent States. The Belarusian commission is one of the key partners of the Russian Central Election Commission, the author of the Convention.
— Does the Belarusian election system correspond to international standards?
— Of course. We use the oldest election system of the world — the majority vote system. Systems of the kind are used in the U.S., the UK and France. The system is used to elect the head of state in the countries governed by the president. As for parliamentary elections, our neighbors — the Russian Federation and Ukraine — use another model, the so-called weighted voting, or voting by party lists. This system is far from the voter, as I already said, and suites the party elite the best.
— Do you like being recognized in the street? What sort of questions people normally ask you?
— It used to be a problem, and I preferred wearing sunglasses even in winter, but people recognized the sound of my voice, and I had to comply. Those who talk to me normally say pleasant things. Sometimes I hear some personal requests.
— Have you ever faced professional jealousy of male legal experts, like “she should be doing something else”? Can this sort of remark offend you?
— Male jealousy? I have never come across such a thing! I guess neither males nor females would like to do what I am doing now. Criticism may hurt me only if I feel I failed somewhere and gave a reason for remarks. It may get really sharp.
— Does anyone envy you?
— I am never envious, and I never mean ill to anyone, so I don’t see envy. I guess I could be envious of beautiful successful women who are in love with some supermen, but this is positive envy that encourages you.
— This romantic fiber is characteristic of all women…
— And I am no exception. I like beautiful people very much, I like watching them and listening to them. I can forgive a beautiful woman even if she is not a very nice person.
— But you have an expressive countenance…
— Well, in this context, I guess I am lucky to have this appearance: I am not ugly enough to cause rejection, but I am not beautiful enough to excite envy, which is why both men and women like me. Moreover, I don’t recall facing open enmity.
— You are a fatalist, aren’t you?
— Yes, I am. If something is bound to happen, it will happen anyways. Could I have guessed that I would soar like this at 43 years of age?
— You definitely can call yourself a successful woman. What are the chief components of success for a business lady?
— I am successful. I have made a distinguished career, I have a trouble-free family, my private life is fine. But I cannot say that I am absolutely happy about everything. A human being always seeks for something new, otherwise life would always remain the same without ever changing for the better. Happiness has so many facets. If they had told me that I had several options when I was just 17, and had convinced me that family was the true happiness, I would have chosen family. But I am also reasonably ambitious, which is an essential propelling power.
— You must be one of those people that would succeed in any matter they face. Ambitions and Yermoshina: were they in harmony only in your young days, or are they still together?
— They have always been here. I like healthy ambition in people and in myself. I have never been a mediocrity, as I always was close to the top of my environment. I worked as a legal expert for over 25 years. The peak of my career was the head of the legal department of the Bobruisk city executive committee.
— You said in some interview that your dream was to become an actress. It must be because of those dreams that you are so far from ordinary.
— It was just a joke: is there a girl that does not dream of being an actress? When I was 17 and it was time for me to choose what to do I wanted to become a journalist. As for conspicuousness, it must be due to the individual characteristics that make you wish to remain a distinguished personality whenever you are.
— When did you feel that you wanted to be noticed?
— I was a Komsomol leader at school, and I always took part in all talent shows.
— You ever sung?
— I recited poetry, wrote essays that were published in a magazine. I was among the eye-catchers. When I got into the university I had straight A’s in my first year, and two years later I became the chair of the scientific group. I just loved it. Besides, I never applied for any post, on the contrary, they used to have to pull me from somewhere under the table and tell me: you have to!
— And you would agree…
— Sure, because people believed in me. And I had to fall all over myself to meet the expectations. I wanted so much the people that trusted me not to be disappointed. It could be the genes of my father, a Ukrainian from Poltava. Ukrainians are all very active social climbers.
— What kind of relaxation do you prefer?
— I have acquired two great habits lately: I take long three-kilometer walks every day in any weather. I also go to the pool, I just love swimming. I also read a lot, a perfect way to release tension. I have always liked reading.
— What are your reading preferences?
— It is like food: you eat something sweet, and then you wish to switch to salty foods. I read Turgenev or Bunin today, and tomorrow I may read some French classics. I like Balzac and hate cheap and banal love stories and blood-soaked detectives that are so far from my favorite Agatha Christie’s novels, delicate, cozy, with doilies and a glass of sherry.
— Is there a person in your life that you could trust as you trust only yourself?
— I trust many people I work with. I tend to believe people, I guess I feel people well. I may be a bit self-assured when I think, if my attitude is positive, I can naturally expect the same for myself. As for personal things, I rarely open my mind and soul to people: why burden other people with your problems? I understood that it is wrong to pour your troubles on other people. Everyone has negative moments that we wish to keep to ourselves, so your burden should remain in shadow, as it is your personal business.
— You spoke about doilies in Agatha Christie’s books. What about your home?
— I love when my house is cozy. Everything should be in order, and I cook borsch regularly.
— You must reign in the kitchen, too. Do you like cooking?
— I like it, but I don’t do it very often. If I have to cook every day I get tired like everyone else. I cook borsch and dumplings, I also like pelmeni, or meat pockets — a fantastic invention.
— Have your views changed much since the times of your youth — the songs of Bulat Okudzhava, Vladimir Vysotsky and poems of Yevgeny Yevtushenko?
— Not really, unfortunately. I believe in ideals, in beautiful relations between people, in global brotherhood. It is important not to lose your human side in the global world that is getting closer. But you need to be more pragmatic now.
— Are there any outstanding personalities that you look up to?
— I like the people that make themselves — strong and enthusiastic, generous, open and kind-hearted.
— What do you hate in people?
— I don’t like anger and irritancy. I just hate the people that speak badly about everyone. They are misanthropes that tend to see the negative side of it. (Remember Shakespeare’s “For why should others false adulterate eyes Give salutation to my sportive blood”? When they pay me compliments and speak badly about other people, I don’t believe their sincerity. A bad attitude often stands behind bad deeds.
— What can upset your serenity of mind among all things that surround you?
— I would like a good attitude from people, like anyone else. If they love me and give me flowers, it is extremely pleasant.
— Have all your dreams come true?
— Nearly all my dreams normally come true. I guess everything I dreamed of when I was young has finally come to life.

Valentina Zhdanovich
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