Nadia Stefyn (Vancouver)
First published at www.straight.com
In 2004, Ukraine, the geographic centre of Europe, jubilantly celebrated the success of the Orange Revolution—a two-month-long protest that followed a rigged election. The pro-West Viktor Yuschenko (who had been near fatally poisoned in the lead up) and his running mate Yulia Tymoshenko were democratically elected after citizens took to the street demanding a re-run of the presidential election. The power of the people was triumphant, a country transformed.
Nine years later, the struggle for freedom and democracy (which so many of us take for granted) continues. On November 21, 2013, President Yanukovych, under pressure from the Russian government, went against the wishes of his people by suspending the signing of a European Union-Ukraine Association Agreement.
Since the announcement, hundreds of thousands of protesters have gathered in the capital Kyiv’s Independence Square (Maydan), now known as #EuroMaydan, to call on the Government of Ukraine to reverse its decision. Similar demonstrations have occurred across the country, including many traditionally “pro-Russian” areas such as Zaporizhia and Donetsk from which the current regime draws it support. EuroMaydan is a reminder of the Orange Revolution.
For many Ukrainians, European integration promises better opportunities for work and travel, an improvement of economy, freedom of expression, freedom from corruption, the rule of law, and a guarantee of democracy. This “move towards Europe” is best demonstrated by the plight of former Prime Minister Tymoshenko, leader of Ukraine’s largest opposition party and a key player in the Orange Revolution. Tymoshenko was jailed in 2011 on politically motivated charges. An important pre-condition to signing the EU Agreement is to observe human rights violations and release political prisoners. The Ukrainian establishment has failed to comply, preferring to stall for time in false process.
Moreover, Ukraine’s integration with Europe is seen as a personal blow to the Russian government. Russia has been working aggressively to derail the EU agreement and force Ukraine into the Moscow-dominated Customs Union—threatening to close its borders to any trade with Ukraine should it sign with the EU—another escalation in the ongoing gas wars between Russia and Ukraine.
The Third Eastern Partnership Summit, at which President Yanukovych is due to sign the EU Agreement, commences today (November 28) in Vilnius. The people of Ukraine and their supporters worldwide are demanding that the Ukrainian government reverse course and ratify the landmark agreement with the European Union. The signing of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement will mark a historic break from the Kremlin by the ex-Soviet country.
Despite these difficulties, the power of social media has mobilized people in a way it simply couldn’t nine years ago. Prior to independence, under the Soviet regime, information to the outside world had been scarce and mostly falsified to suit the authorities, but today anyone in the world can follow people on the ground using the hashtag #EuroMaydan. When Ukraine’s two largest mobile telcos locked down their data networks, local businesses and sympathetic residents gave access to Wi-Fi networks to ensure communication continued.
Rallies in support of EuroMaydan are taking place throughout Europe, Canada, the U.S., Australia, India, South Korea, Georgia, Nepal, and Japan, among others. Incredible images and videos of support are uploaded by the minute, and Twitter and Facebook are a sea of blue and yellow representing the colours of the Ukrainian and EU flags.
This fight for democracy is precisely why the international community must show Ukraine its support. Help them achieve freedom of speech without fear of persecution such as we have here in Canada. Though we are nearly 8,650 kilometres away here in Vancouver, our voice is being heard loud and clear online. We are showing the Ukrainian government that the whole world is watching. Yanukovych’s government is being held accountable—we will not stand for their corruption and intimidation.
I am an Australian of Ukrainian heritage who calls Vancouver home. Having lived in both Australia and Canada, I am incredibly thankful every single day to my grandparents who, despite having lived in Ukraine during an unimaginable time of war, genocide, persecution, deportation, and forced resettlement, came to Australia and helped build a Ukrainian community—a home away from home. The passion for a free Ukraine runs rich in the veins of Ukrainians, and is reflected throughout history in their literature, art and culture.
In the coming days, I hope that my two surviving grandmothers, who have given me the gift of knowing my heritage and understanding the importance of freedom, will see that the values of their generation have been passed down and will continue to live on. May their homeland find the freedom and prosperity it truly deserves.
Nadia Stefyn is a communications professional who moved to Vancouver for love. She is an active member of the Ukrainian community in Canada and Australia, and enjoys travelling, adventures, yoga, and creating positive change in the world.