Expatriates watch events in Ukraine with mix of unease and hope

EVERETT — Oleksandr Melnychuk moved here from his native Ukraine nearly a year and a half ago, but he’s been losing sleep over the political turmoil in his homeland.

Like many Ukrainian emigres in the Northwest, Melnychuk gives a down-to-earth view of the popular uprising that led to the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych.

The soft-spoken 38-year-old will talk about people living paycheck to paycheck, who long for more opportunity. You won’t hear much of the East-versus-West, Russia-versus-Europe rhetoric that dominates television news.

“The Ukrainian people who live here, we worry a lot about the motherland and the people there,” Melnychuk said through an interpreter at Everett Community College. “We pray and we want the people in Ukraine to have a better life.”

The upheaval in Ukraine, a country of 45 million, is part of the ongoing story of post-Soviet countries that swing between emerging democracy, dictatorship and chaos.

Yanukovych, the apparently deposed Ukrainian president, fled on Friday night after opposition protesters took control of the capital city of Kiev. His ouster followed months of street protests, which culminated last week with more than 70 people — from both sides — killed in clashes among demonstrators and police.

Much of the western analysis has focused on the well-known divisions in Ukraine: western, predominantly Ukrainian-speaking regions, and those in the east with closer connections to Russia. There’s also an intricate religious mix of Orthodox Christianity, plus a Greek Catholic minority that also generally follow a geographical split.

Melnychuk’s from Rovno, in western Ukraine, where he managed a building-supplies warehouse. You’ll hear about similar aspirations for freedom and economic opportunity, though, regardless of what part of the country people hail from.

“I’m worried about the people who fought all the time, for three months, I don’t want it to be in vain,” said Lena Elevashova, 35, of Renton. “I want honest people. I don’t want any corruption. All of them fought for this. It wasn’t just for being with Russia or European Union. We want to be safe.”

Elevashova arrived in the U.S. less than a year ago from Sumy, near Ukraine’s Russian border, where she used to work in advertising for a local newspaper. She’s glad to see Yanukovych gone, but also wary of opposition leaders. That includes Yulia Tymoshenko, the recently freed former prime minister who came to prominence during Ukraine’s 2004-05 pro-democracy Orange Revolution.

“I want all of them to go away,” Elevashova said of Ukraine’s political class. “I want new people to come to power.”

A retired U.S. diplomat who spent eight years of his career posted in the neighboring countries of Romania and Moldova said there a plenty of reasons for Americans to pay attention to the situation in Ukraine.

“America cares about human rights,” said Michael Mates of Monroe. “There is a congressionally mandated report on human rights for every country in the world, which reflects our concern for human rights. And there’s also an International Religious Freedoms report and an International Trafficking-In-Persons report.”

As with political unrest elsewhere, Ukraine raises the spectre of an increased flow of refugees and asylum-seekers, Mates said.

There’s also the guessing game over what pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin will exert in his country’s historical sphere of influence. The Russian government has characterized Yanukovych’s removal as a coup d’etat.

Mates said it was difficult to conceive what kind of influence western powers can, or will, exert.

“I hope that the Ukrainians do not have high expectations of assistance, because they’re likely to be disappointed,” he said. “I would hate to have people think we can send our armed forces, and I would hate to have people think that the EU (European Union) would send armed forces.”

Snohomish County has a sizeable Ukrainian population.

Russian and Ukrainian rank fourth and fifth, respectively, as the most common languages spoken at home by students in the Everett School District. (English, Spanish and Vietnamese are the top three.)

Go to Everett Housing Authority’s Bakerview Apartments, and you’re likely to hear a lively conversation about Ukraine — in Russian. Judging by last names, about a quarter of the residents are from the region.

Some complain about protesters destroying public property, or rampant corruption. Some take a nuanced look.

Tanya Goloborodko, 54, came to the U.S. from the Kiev region, where she was a member of a small Baptist religious minority. She’s worked as a housekeeper and in a bakery, and now has three grown children living here.

When she first got to America, she said she cried from happiness; the religious freedoms, the chance to earn decent money — it all impressed her.

“I’m very happy,” she said. “I feel protected and safe. The laws work.”

Ukraine evolved in areas such as religious freedoms, she said, but has far to go with human rights. And the economy is abysmal.

“We need a government that will support human rights,” she said. “If they adopt American or European laws, that would be good.”

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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