Published on January 27, 2014
Natalia Antoniuk wears a Ukrainian flag in this photo taken in her home country.
Published on January 27, 2014
Natalia Antoniuk stands in her place of employment beneath a Ukrainian painting depicting Cossacks. Like other Ukrainian residents in Prince Albert, Antoniuk is increasingly concerned about the violent crackdown on protesters by the administration of President Viktor Yanukovych.
Herald photo by Matt Gardner
Published on January 27, 2014
Ukrainian P.A. resident Natalia Antoniuk received two postcards from her friends at Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Kiev who are trying to encourage Ukrainians abroad. The cards read 'Greetings from Kiev!' and 'Happy holidays!'
The Ukrainian government’s violent crackdown on protestors has raised concerns among Ukrainian residents of Prince Albert regarding developments in their home country.
Massive demonstrations first sprang up in the capital city of Kiev around Nov. 21 after the administration of President Viktor Yanukovych rejected a proposal for integration with the European Union.
Protests have now spread to western Ukrainian cities as violence between police and protesters has intensified.
Two protesters died of gunshot wounds on Wednesday and a third fell from a great height while fighting with police. Opposition forces maintain that as many as five may have died in total, while hundreds have reportedly been injured.
Keeping track of developments from Prince Albert, Ukrainian resident Natalia Antoniuk noted the circumstances surrounding the death of the third protester, who fell from a high column in a Kiev football stadium.
“Police say that they didn’t do that,” she said. “But there are lots of videos that prove that they did this.”
Currently working as a paralegal for local attorney Peter A. Abrametz, Antoniuk came to Canada in February 2013 as part of an exchange program for young professionals.
Like other Ukrainian residents in P.A., Antoniuk’s concerns over developments in her home country have kept her constantly monitoring the latest news and maintaining regular contact with friends and family.
“Everybody is really worried in Ukraine right now,” she said. “My parents live in Ukraine, my relatives live in Ukraine, lots of my friends are right now in Kiev and they don’t sleep … They don’t eat good, they don’t get good care, they don’t see other families or relatives who came from other regions.”
In Antoniuk’s case, the government’s crackdown on protesters has had a more personal element.
An alumnus of the National University of Ostroh Academy, she recently learned that three of her friends, including two from her university days, had been arrested and charged with “extremist activities.”
“I can’t believe that they can do that,” Antoniuk said. “I can vouch for them that they are really good people and I can’t tell that they are ‘extremists’ … At this moment, these three people, they have 60 days of arrest during the investigation time, so probably they could get from eight to 15 years of prison.”
The arrest of her three friends -- one a poet, the second an economist and the third a conference organizer -- underscores the effects of an anti-protest bill signed by Yanukovych on Jan. 16.
The new law, which includes a ban on unauthorized tents in public areas and criminal charges for slandering government officials, further enflamed demonstrators and led to a renewed wave of protests.
For Antoniuk, the bill’s restrictions on freedom of speech, which she called “one step to dictatorship,” represent the worst aspects of the present administration.
“This government, this president -- he doesn’t think about people,” she said. “He doesn’t think about democracy … He just wants to use his power and if he doesn’t have power, he just tries to change this and to amend some law as he wants to do that.”
Antoniuk is no stranger to political activity herself. Aside from working with non-governmental organizations, she previously served as an observer during parliamentary and presidential elections in Ukraine, helping to count the votes.
In 2004, she participated in peaceful protests during the “Orange Revolution,” which contested the results of that year’s Ukrainian presidential election -- a very different scene, she said, than the violence that has marred current protests.
Given the breadth of the country, Ukraine has often seen residents of western regions display more pro-Western sentiments while eastern regions tend to favour Russia.
But Antoniuk, who hails from the westernmost city of Chop, said the heart of the current protests lies in the desire for freedom, democracy and the preservation of Ukrainian independence.
Everybody is really worried in Ukraine right now. Natalia Antoniuk
“In Europe, you can speak free what you’re thinking about … You can do what you want according to the laws,” she said.
“But in Ukraine we don’t have a right even to speak about this. This is what I mean to get freedom and to get democracy.”
Other residents of Prince Albert with strong Ukrainian ties shared Antoniuk’s concern over developments in the old country.
Oksana Firman, who moved to Canada 12 years ago and currently works in government services, found herself continually seeking updates on the situation through Ukrainian media.
“We are watching news night and day … anytime when we are home,” she said. “We can wake up at 2 o’clock in the morning and watch news until morning … We are so sad and worried about our nation over there.”
Both Oksana and her daughter Mariya expressed shock over the violence used against protesters who have been injured or killed.
Police, they noted, have disputed casualty figures while Yanukovych’s government has denied any involvement.
Despite their concerns, the pair have had to content themselves with monitoring developments from an ocean away.
“We wish to be there, try to support, be on the square with people through TV,” Mariya said.
“There’s nothing really much we can do about it. It’s heartbreaking and we pray for Ukraine every day. Whenever there’s something going on or some violence, we do pray again, so we’ll ask people for support through prayers.”
Former Prince Albert mayor Jim Scarrow, who travelled to Ukraine for a conference last year, noted the role economic hardship played in leading to the current situation.
Ukraine’s lack of affiliation to the European common market, he said, had placed the country in a position where its currency had been devalued -- a situation intensified by the global financial crisis.
“The economy and opportunities have been very limited, and there had been some indication that the government was going to establish … the beginning of a relationship with the European common market,” Scarrow said.
“When they announced that they were not going to do so and were going to make a pact with Russia, that’s what started the turmoil in Ukraine.”
Since the onset of the protests, Scarrow has been monitoring developments in Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, through live-streaming footage at www.livemaidan.com.
“Because of the high percentage of people with Ukrainian ancestry and many with extended families across the Ukraine, this is of real high interest with them,” Scarrow noted.
“It’s one thing to watch it in an edited version,” he added. “It’s another thing to watch it live.”
As the uncertain situation in Ukraine continues to unfold, those far from their home country can only hope for a positive resolution.
Mariya Firman noted that Kiev protesters have their own union, which has been accepting donations to pay for items such as helmets, food and clothing.
She and her mother shared a hope that the country’s future would be a peaceful, free and democratic one.
While acknowledging her own inability to affect events, Antoniuk echoed the Firmans’ sentiments and urged protesters to remain strong and continue their struggle.
“I can only encourage people and encourage my friends,” she said.
“Hopefully all will be much better in Ukraine, because Ukraine deserves this.”