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  • courtesy Vlad Skots

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Sacramento's Ukrainian population – among the largest in the nation – reacts to the upheaval in their native country

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014 - 11:09 pm
Last Modified: Monday, Mar. 3, 2014 - 12:58 am

Many members of the Sacramento region’s growing Ukrainian community – one of the largest outside Ukraine – are gearing up to vote in the country’s upcoming presidential elections on May 25.

While the prevailing local view is that President Viktor Yanukovych is a corrupt thug who had to go, some said they fear Ukraine’s uncertain future could split the economically troubled nation in halves, divided by the Dnieper River.

Community leaders say most of the region’s more than 30,000 Ukrainian Americans have their roots in pro-European western Ukraine, but others come from the other side of the Dnieper River in eastern Ukraine, a part of the country that borders Russia. People there tend to be more pro-Russia after centuries of Russian influence, culture, language and occupation.

Stephan and Vlad Skots, two successful businessmen from the Volyn region near the Polish border, keep in constant touch with their parents and five brothers, who support the revolution. “At least four people from our region have been killed in the protests in Kiev’s Maidan (Independence) Square,” said Vlad Skots, 34, a trucking company operator who joined tens of thousands of protesters in the square in January and hid behind the barricades.

“People have died, but I hope people will be free now,” Skots said. “The protesters had only one plan: impeach the president, remove the government and start a new government. ”

Both brothers said they know business people in Ukraine who were victims of extortion and violence at the hands of gangsters backed by Yanukovych’s henchmen.

Stephan Skots, a real estate broker who visited his family last month, said the region’s Ukrainians “all are connected to Ukraine. Sometimes they go back to get married there, and some have spiritual connections with churches there. I called my brother this morning and people are very excited. Now Ukrainian people feel unity like never before; they are pulling together.”

Markiyan Samiylenko, a 21-year-old television production student at Cosumnes River College, came from Lviv in western Ukraine seven years ago. He said he spent three days in Independence Square around New Year’s to support his people. “They felt the riot police would attack them at any minute,” he said. “The feeling in the square was totally different than in any other part of Ukraine; there was this feeling of freedom and equality. It doesn’t matter who comes from east or west, people said they were staying there for freedom of speech and assembly, and to start a new country and a new system where you’re not afraid of being taken away by police at any time.”

Yet Kirill Tarasenko, an immigrant from eastern Ukraine, is not convinced the change is for the best. An attorney who comes from Kharkov, Tarasenko agreed that the country has been rife with corruption, but worries it could violently shatter if competing sides can’t come together. “My biggest concern is the country will start fracturing, like Yugoslavia, and be torn in two as if by magnets on the European and Russian sides,” said Tarasenko, 29, who came here 23 years ago.

While other former Soviet states such as Latvia and Lithuania always had a measure of independence, Ukraine was the Soviet satellite closest to Russia. “Not only does Ukraine contain some of the most fertile farmlands in the world, and factories and military might, it’s very close to Moscow in every way,” Tarasenko said. “Moscow is not willing to lose its sphere of influence over Ukraine.”

During the anti-government protests, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Yanukovych to discuss how to build stronger economic ties, declaring “we’re not forcing anything on anyone.” But after Ukraine issued a warrant for Yanukovych’s arrest on murder charges over the dozens of Ukrainians who died in the protests, Putin put 150,000 troops on high alert during war games along the Russian-Ukrainian border Wednesday.

Meanwhile, thousands of ethnic Russians in Crimea – famous for the poem “The Charge Of The Light Brigade” – demonstrated for independence from Ukraine. “Both pro-Ukrainians and pro-Russians feel they have a right to the Crimea, and neither side will give up,” Tarasenko said. “My family in Ukraine is very worried. Their main concern is the economic situation, and I don’t think the European Union will be rushing with open arms to even accept Ukraine – they’re afraid of another Greek bailout type of situation.”

Tarasenko supports Yanukovych’s removal, but added, “You can make a serious argument that a democratically elected leader was overthrown by a coup.” He added that Yanukovych’s predecessor, Yulia Tymoshenko, was also corrupt, having been accused of misappropriating hundreds of millions of dollars. “The protesters might have achieved their goal, but how far did they look into the future? While everybody agrees Saddam Hussein was a very dangerous leader and a negative influence, he was at least able to keep rival factions at bay.”

Still, Yanukovych’s departure could produce positive results, if people worldwide become more willing to invest money in the country, Tarasenko said. “I think there’s a lot of potential here if the new leadership gets it together and creates a country that’s a lot more transparent.”

About 300 Ukrainians held a candlelight vigil at the state Capitol on Sunday night for those protesters who lost their lives on the streets of Kiev. Roman Romaso, director of the Slavic Assistance Center, said the Ukrainian Evangelic Church on Madison Avenue and other local Slavic churches have raised several thousand dollars to help the families of the 82 people who have been killed and the hundreds of others wounded in Kiev.

“They need treatment and recovery,” Romaso said. “We will send the relief to the church unions in Ukraine.” Romaso said he hopes the new leadership will “capture not only Yanukovych but those people around him. He and his sons and their gangs robbed people and killed a lot of business owners.”

Only Kings County, N.Y., has a higher number of Ukrainians than Sacramento, U.S. Census figures show. The agency counts about 18,000 Ukrainian immigrants in the region and about 30,000 residents who list their ancestry as Ukrainian. Community leaders estimate the number of Ukrainians is higher, upwards of 50,000, and say all adults – including American-born children – will be eligible to vote in the May 25 election.

“We did it with Russian elections, we did it with Moldovan elections and we are going to mobilize Ukrainian polling places here,” said Florin Ciuriuc, director of the Slavic Community Center, whose father was half Ukrainian and half Russian. “Come in with your Ukrainian passport and your children’s U.S. birth certificates and we will send copies to the Ukrainian consulate in San Francisco and get them registered to vote.”

Ciuriuc said he has mixed feelings about the revolution, since people on both sides were killed, and he thinks political leaders on both sides failed to contain the bloodshed. “Instead of destroying government buildings, people need to go home and prepare to elect the next government in May,” he said.

Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. Reporter Phillip Reese and researcher Pete Basofin contributed to this report.

Read more articles by Stephen Magagnini

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