Four international election observers from Buffalo served in the snap Parliamentary Elections in Ukraine on Oct. 26. We worked in Odessa and Kharkiv, less than 30 miles from the porous Russian border, and adjacent to the war-ravaged oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk. Most of those two oblasts, along with Crimea, were prevented from voting by the Russian military, their mercenaries and heavily armed criminal gangs.
We witnessed peaceful, orderly voting as Ukrainians made a third dramatic lurch in the past year away from a totalitarian past, and toward an independent, democratic, European future. The Kyiv Maidan uprising of last winter chased a deeply corrupt thief from the presidency in February. Three months later, every voting oblast picked Petro Poroshenko, a democratic reformer, as its new president. Then the October elections gave democratic political parties a majority in the Parliament. Communists were expelled from the Verkhvovna Rada for the first time since the Bolshevik Revolution.
Each member of our observer team is a proud American citizen who chose to travel to Ukraine at his own expense and personal risk. We did it for the same reason that we drove a van overnight to Washington, D.C., in September when the new Ukrainian president met with President Obama and delivered a speech to a rare joint session of Congress. Poroshenko asked the United States to honor the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, where Ukraine agreed with America, the United Kingdom and Russia to destroy the world’s third-largest nuclear weapons arsenal in exchange for a guarantee of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. He explained that civilized countries all share the common values of liberty, rule-of-law, respect for individual rights and peaceful coexistence. Poroshenko was grateful for America’s MREs and blankets, but blankets alone cannot fight a war or secure the peace.
I saw a friend from New York City in the crowd and asked her, “How long have we been meeting at similar protests for Ukrainian independence?” She replied, “It has been at least 40 years, and apparently we will keep doing it until we are both dead, or Ukraine is finally free.” Her statement reminded me of the book “Life Sentence” by Danylo Shumuk, who was imprisoned for decades under Polish, Nazi and finally Soviet regimes; all for the crime of wanting Ukrainian independence. Diaspora activists all carry an intense burden of responsibility to not abandon our kinsmen despite our own blessed good fortune of living in a just and prosperous America. Our burden has elements of duty, pride, justice and survivor’s guilt.
So, our small group and dozens of supporters meet at the Ukrainian Cultural Center Dnipro on Genesee Street near downtown Buffalo to plan our next action in support of Ukrainian freedom.
One of our most inspiring stories is about two Buffalonians, both named Yuri; one born in America and the other in Ukraine. Since the start of the Russian invasion, which has claimed more than 4,000 lives, they have led a team that has organized at least eight shipments of humanitarian, medical and self-defense supplies. The two Yuris have spent countless hours driving to pick up donations in Cleveland, New York City and Philadelphia, and then repacking and shipping dozens of boxes to the overwhelmed Ukrainian hospitals. This is how they serve out their life sentence.