Many of Spokane’s recent Ukrainian immigrants moved to the United States hoping for a place where they could practice their religion freely. But many also say they wanted to leave their homeland because of the harsh poverty, corruption and a widespread feeling of hopelessness.
A revolution last year toppled a president viewed by many as corrupt. Religious freedoms are now guaranteed, and hopes are rising that the country of 48 million can pull itself out of the muck.
Art Antonyan, a young radio journalist who lives in the western Ukrainian city of Uzhgorod, said the country remains mired in problems. The 24-year-old fluent English speaker is in the process of moving to the capital city of Kiev, about the only place in the country where young skilled people have a chance to find a job, he said. A Spokesman-Review reporter visiting Ukraine spoke with Antonyan about his perspective on life in the country and his activities during last year’s Orange Revolution, when massive street protests helped topple a government viewed by many as widely corrupt. The revolution was sparked over allegations of widespread fraud in a presidential election – an election where the main challenger, Viktor Yuschenko, was terribly disfigured after being poisoned.
Q: What was your reaction to last year’s Orange Revolution?
A: It was a real surprise for me. I was sure that the people of Ukraine would never do or even say anything to protect themselves. I’ve changed my mind. The people stood up for their rights. They were full of hopes for a better living. They were tired of lies and injustice. I was not an exception. I understood that something important is going to happen in the country. When I saw a crowd of people with orange stripes all over their clothes for the first time, I was really excited. Always gray and black – they became orange; so bright! They wanted to be noticed.
The most shocking thing for me was the arrest of the armed gang in the center of our city. A man called and said that something is going on at the stadium. One of my colleagues and I went there. I’m a young journalist, and I never saw anything like that – only in movies. Lots of cars full of automatic machine guns, huge sticks and a lot of money. But what was most surprising is the fact that all of the mobsters were set free in a few days. My personal opinion is it was fake – someone wanted to frighten the people of our region.
The last day and night of the revolution I spent in Kiev at Independence Square [in the center of the city where the protesters had set up a massive tent city]. It was a cold night with lots of rain and snow, but I wanted to see everything with my own eyes. I liked the graffiti. Some was really serious, like “Take your hands off our country.” Some was funny: “I’m young and beautiful, let’s save Ukraine together.”
Q: What’s happening in Ukraine now? Has anything changed?
A: It’s only been months since [Viktor] Yuschenko became the president. It’s a fact, though, that more and more people are disappointed with Yuschenko and his policies. Lots of words and few actions. … A bad sign is that the new government decided at first to think about themselves and only then about the people. They buy real estate, expensive cars, land. There has been a scandal about Andrey Yuschenko [the 19-year-old son of the president] who drives one of the most expensive cars in Ukraine, who’s got an apartment in the center of Kiev and his cell phone is made of platinum.
Q: What do Ukrainians think about the United States?
A: Some people, mostly the elderly, are against the States. Young people are open to everything new. A lot of them would like to emigrate – not necessarily to the U.S. It’s hard to say anything about your president, though, without sarcasm. I’m very sorry, but I’ve never seen a single Ukrainian who would say good things about George Bush. There is a certain image of him: not smart. He does something before thinking about it. This doesn’t mean the Ukrainian people think bad things about the Americans. They think that Americans are very poor to have Bush as the president. They don’t believe in American democracy with Bush. I can’t discuss American democracy, though. I’ve never been to the country.
Q: What do you think about Ukraine’s prospects of joining the European Union?
A: No one wants to see us in their country. The emigration of young people is a great problem. If it continues Ukraine will be a country of only old people. … We have a lot of work to do here. Human rights are not followed here in most cases. We don’t think about poor and disabled people. Bribery is still flourishing. Corruption is everywhere. Most people pay bribes to enter a university. Professors take money from students to build houses, buy cars. You will not get good medical care if you don’t give anything to a doctor. If you want to start a business here you will have to bribe a lot of officials. I don’t want you to think that everybody takes bribes. But the thing is, those who do are not afraid of being caught.
Q: Are there more tourists in Ukraine since visa restrictions have been relaxed?
A: There are many more, at least here in western Ukraine. I’m really glad about this. Ukrainians get to find out more about other cultures and get to share our unique traditions and customs. … Uzhgorod is not a big city and sometimes it’s a problem even for me to walk down the street because of my long hair and bright clothes. But I’m not alone anymore. Young people here are as cool as anywhere in the world. The nature is very beautiful here, though our people don’t seem to care about what they have. Every day I see people throwing garbage everywhere. Well, every country has problems. If you come here, you’ll never regret it.
Q: Do young Ukrainians have much hope for the future?
A: Most of the young people say there is no future at all. They can’t get good education, can’t find good jobs. Sometimes I think the same. I must say that we’ve got several lost generations. Young people still drink and smoke too much. There is little reason to be smart, talented or healthy. … Most people are afraid of doing something.
Though I would love to go to the U.S., I don’t think I will ever do that. I’ve got a dream, and I want to make it come true here.