November 24, 2004
Visiting Professor Svitlana Kravchenko votes at San Francisco’s Ukraine consulate and waits for election results.
Ukraine expatriate, expert hope for a peaceful resolution
By Diana Elliott
Browsing the Internet on Tuesday, the visiting University of Oregon law professor watched images of tens of thousands of people spilling into the central square of Kiev to protest claims of widespread fraud in Sunday’s presidential election. She e-mailed friends in her hometown of Lviv, from which busloads of protesters departed for the capital to join the uprising. And although she’s seen unrest there many times in recent years, this time she also sees reason for optimism.
“All the students have left their universities, the schools are all closed, the shops shut,” she said. In Lviv, a pro-reformist hub in Western Ukraine, there are signs in shop windows reading “Off to save Ukraine.”
“It’s an amazing spirit,” she said. “I have never seen anything like it. I hope people are really united.”
Ukraine has had its share of turmoil since declaring independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Rampant government corruption, media restrictions and violence toward journalists, as well as other human rights violations have brought the masses to the streets several times in the past three years.
Kravchenko said this week’s protests seem to have a life that others did not.
“The momentum now is the presidential race,” she said. “There is more at stake. The whole destiny of the country is at stake.”
The protesters back Viktor Yushchenko, a Western-leaning reformer. With more than 99 percent of the precincts counted, the Central Election Commission has his pro-government opponent, Viktor Yanukovych, leading by about 3 percentage points.
“Actually, half the population believe the election was fraudulent,” Kravchenko said. European and U.S. election observers have reported fraud, primarily discrepancies between exit poll data and results released by the government.
However, Mikhail Myagkov, a University of Oregon associate professor of political science, doesn’t see the uprising as a black-and-white, good vs. evil tale. He believes that the two candidates are essentially the same: two oligarchs motivated by power and money. Yushchenko has the support of the West and Western election observers, while Yanukovych has the support of Russia.
Just because there are large protests doesn’t mean the protesters are right, he said. “Those in power, use power to their advantage,” he said. “Those in opposition, use their opposition to their advantage.”
Myagkov, a Russian who has written two articles on Ukrainian elections and has visited Kiev many times, said Westerners have a hard time understanding the emerging democracies of the former Soviet Union. Allegations of fraud are common.
“You can’t measure the elections in Russia or Ukraine or Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan like elections in Western countries,” Myagkov said. “It’s like making my 10-year-old son play (tennis) against Pete Sampras and punishing him for losing.”
But Kravchenko, who is clearly in the Yushchenko camp, has high expectations for change. Despite fears that the election would be fixed, she eagerly voted at the Ukrainian Consular’s Office in San Francisco on Sunday – no easy feat considering she was on a two-hour layover on an international flight back to Eugene.
“I felt my vote was important, and I wanted to be heard,” she said.
When she arrived at the consul’s office, 200 Ukrainians waited in line to vote. She appealed to the others to let her go first, and they gladly welcomed her to the head of the line. “They said, `Go, go! Go and vote.’ “
Tuesday’s protests had the potential to erupt into widespread civil unrest – and, many feared, violence.
One prominent Yushchenko supporter threatened chaos. “We will have no choice but to block roads, airports, seize city halls,” reformist politician Yuliya Tymoshenko said.
Kravchenko worries about such fighting words. “I hope it will not be civil war, but I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know.”
If there is one thing Myagkov and Kravchenko agree on, it is hope for a peaceful end.
“The opposition needs to understand that they need to stop what they are doing now. Any meaningful government has to be a compromise government. They need to sit down with Yanukovych and compromise. The worst outcome would be for the opposition to storm the (elections) building,” Myagkov said.
Kravchenko, who started a public interest law firm in Ukraine, has been a UO visiting professor for three years. While she occasionally returns to Ukraine – most recently in May – she has married an American and has made her home here. Would she return if the political tide turns?
“Maybe,” she said. “I don’t know.”