Ukraine in turmoil

Franklin County connections offer insight into conflict

  • Submitted Photo
  • Photo submitted by Betsy Yetter
  • Alex Bryzhaniak points to his native Ukraine on a globe.  Recorder/Paul Franz

“Our president and government unleashed the war against their own people, against Ukrainians. At least 50 people are killed now. The streets of the capital are in blood,” Tatiana, a Ukrainian woman working in the central part of the country, reported to her former Peace Corps friend, Betsey Yetter of Leyden, on Feb. 16.

“Every day we are watching the events and pray for peace in Ukraine. The center of Kiev is not similar to that which was before. Events spread throughout Ukraine. We hope that God will not leave Ukraine,” wrote another friend, Olya, on Jan. 18.

Since January, four of Yetter’s Ukrainian friends have watched as violent protests urged pro-European Union leaning Ukrainians to oust Russian backed President Viktor Yanukovych, and they now watch and wait as the Russian military seems to be moving to bolster their position in the Russian-speaking east and Crimea sections of the country.

The divide has a long history. In 1954, Russia gave Crimea to Ukraine when both were part of the Soviet Union. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, some wanted Crimea to become part of Russia again, but lawmakers voted to keep it part of Ukraine.

Yetter from 2004 to 2006 served in the Peace Corps in Nemirov, Ukraine, a small town 3.5 hours south of Kiev. She worked for a nongovernmental organization, Nemirov Association for Creative Initiative, to help develop programs for women and children. In the central part of Ukraine, Yetter said most people want to keep Ukraine independent from Russia.

Yetter worked in Ukraine during the Orange Revolution, a series of civil protests from November 2004 to January 2005 after the 2004 Ukrainian presidential election, which some claimed to be corrupt.

“The things happening now have always been brewing. I’m not surprised this has happened,” Yetter said Friday while reflecting on the current events, her friends’ reports and her time in the former Soviet country.

“Ukraine has never been able to shake free and become economically viable (from Russia.) People are releasing years of frustration,” she said.

In the past week, the president was driven from office when west-leaning political forces rallied in downtown Kiev to protest the government’s turning toward Russia and away from closer economic ties with the European Union.

Yetter has kept in touch with her host family and the women she worked with — most of whom support an independent, pro-western Ukraine. Yetter was willing to share some of the stories of those people, but withheld their last names for their safety.

The women are becoming involved in the movement in different ways. Ludmilla, with a friend, Sasha, has attended a demonstration in the center of town to show solidarity with those who had been killed. While Tatiana is becoming more angry and militant, Irina, the head of the Nemirov Association, is torn. Irina was born in Kazakhstan and identifies as Russian, but she has spent most of her life in Ukraine.

“(Irina) is disgusted,” Yetter said. “She thinks at the end people will want to settle scores and not have a peaceful resolution.”

To deal with the situation, Irina is focusing on her work.

“When thousands of people each day are artificially kept in a state of euphoria from the fighting, usually most of the results are not the ones for which they had hoped. With love and sadness,” Irina wrote on Jan. 28.

Greenfield arrival

Meanwhile, in Greenfield, Alexander Bryzhoniuk, 37, watches as his home country is in turmoil. Bryzhoniuk, a former electrical engineer, moved from central Ukraine to Greenfield nine months ago to be with his wife.

At the Center for New Americans, Bryzhoniuk, speaking in halting English, tells how his family is fearful in Ukraine.

Like Yetter’s friends, Bryzhoniuk and his family are also pro-European Union.

The protests in Ukraine were expected by Bryzhoniuk, who said his country has been embroiled in political conflict for years.

He said the protests and the ousting of President Yanukovych was a “nice surprise” and he supports the acting interim president.

While he can’t predict whether his homeland will descend into civil war, Bryzhoniuk is hopeful that Ukraine will join the European Union, a situation he believes will bring more freedoms to the country than a partnership with Russia would.

“People were already on edge, struggling to live. I don’t know what will happen now,” Yetter said. “How will this resolve itself without a civil war?”

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