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Unrest in Ukraine hits home

Local Ukrainians cautiously optimistic that changes will bring improvement to their homeland

By: Viola Pruss

  |  Posted: Wednesday, Feb 26, 2014 06:00 am

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Cautious relief might best describe the feelings of local Ukrainian Inga Malitski and her husband Maksim to the end of protests in their native country.

The couple has followed developments back home closely, through the news and by talking to Inga’s parents who remain in the country. Now that new elections have been called for, Inga hopes that the political situation in Ukraine may stabilize.

“It’s better than it was, sure, because it’s a more stable situation,” she said. “My mother and her husband are not sure that it will be better. But they hope it will be better.”

On Monday, Ukraine’s acting government issued an arrest warrant for Viktor Yanukovych. The former Ukrainian president is accused of mass crimes against the protesters who stood up against his governance for months.

Yanukovych set off a wave of protests after shelving an agreement with the European Union in November 2013, instead turning for a $15 billion loan from Russia. Within weeks, protests began to form in the capital city Kyiv, calling for the president’s resignation over corruption and human rights abuses.

Last week, 85 people died in what is now being called the bloodiest violence in the country’s post-Soviet era. At one point, government snipers shot protesters in Kyiv’s main square, the Maidan.

But Inga said her parents have been afraid to leave their house for weeks. The roads weren’t safe anymore and reservists patrolled the streets of her parents’ hometown Lubny, 200 kilometres east of Kyiv.

They were trying to keep the violence from spreading into their own city, said Maksim. He believes the bloodshed happened because of the extremists. Most of the protesters are peaceful, he said.

“We hoped (the violence) wouldn’t happen. It’s not the medieval times anymore,” he said.

Yanukovych has since signed an agreement with the opposition party to form a unity government. He then reportedly fled to the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, a pro-Russian area in the country.

Now the opposition is running the country and new elections have been scheduled for May. But Inga remains skeptical whether that will change anything.

In Ukraine, elections are often bought, she said. Whether the country will truly become more democratic and follow the rule of law, or continue to be ruled by pro-Russian oligarchs, will only show in the actions of the new president, she said.

They don’t know who would be a good candidate, added Maksim. But they hope the new person will be educated in politics and look after his people, not his pockets.

“It sounds like a miracle but we really hope that will happen,” he said.

Canadian Ukrainians relieved

Ukrainians across Alberta and Canada are “plenty relieved” at the direction the country is now going, said Slavka Shulakewych, provincial co-ordinator with the Alberta provincial council of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress.

Many Ukrainians living in Alberta have maintained contact with friends and family in Ukraine throughout the protests, and nobody could foresee how far the violence would escalate, she said.

“We were extremely saddened and appalled and shocked at how many have died in the last week,” she said. “This is the highest amount of deaths since World War II so it’s very devastating.”

She agreed that they remain cautious as to how a new government will fare. People will remain in protest on the Maidan until they feel comfortable that the country is moving in the right direction, she said.

In the meantime, the Canadian Ukrainian Congress is gathering funds for humanitarian and medical aid to help the victims of the protests.

“This is all moving in the right direction but we are not out of the woods yet,” Shulakewych said. “We are hoping that the Canadian government can help us as well to guide Ukraine with our expertise in governance.”

Dark history

Canadian, American and European governments have welcomed the changes in Ukrainian leadership, while Russia has sharply criticized them. Earlier this week, Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev called the protests an “armed mutiny”, or a coup d’état.

That’s old, Cold War rhetoric but it points to the core of Ukraine’s inner turmoil, said Jars Balan, national executive with the Ukrainian Canadian Congress.

“Putin is terrified of having a real democracy … on his doorstep,” he said. “Especially fellow Slavic people, people who are close to the Russians, because your own people might start asking questions.”

Ukraine’s parliament speaker, Tymoshenko Turchinov, said Monday that top priorities for the country include saving the economy and looking toward Europe for a new direction.

The European Union is looking to help restructure Ukraine’s debt and provide financial assistance in collaboration with other countries. It’s also sending messages to Moscow not to get involved. But for Russia the Cold War is not over, said Balan.

“Ukraine needs good advice now,” he said. “People who can help them clean up the corruption and establish institutions that will prevent the kind of abuses of power that have been characteristic of the country.”

Ukraine has long been under the social, political and economic influence of its larger, more powerful neighbour, he said. Russia not only controls Ukraine’s resources, but also provides education and jobs, and keeps an intimidating, often deathly grip on critics inside the country.

But the country has also long been divided between its eastern regions, which are largely pro-Russian, and its western parts. People there fought the Soviet regime long after the Second World War and continue to seek closer ties with Europe to this day, he said.

The next few weeks and years will be tough, he said. But he’s optimistic that Ukraine can finally shed some of the baggage of the totalitarian regime that has occupied it for so long.

“The people on the square are skeptical of opposition leaders, the opposition political party,” he said. “They don’t just want to see a shuffling of the deck chairs, they want to see new faces.”


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