By Lydia Tomkiw
As the snow came down in New York on Monday, in a scene slightly reminiscent of one out of Ukraine, people waving blue and yellow Ukrainian flags and holding signs supporting the EuroMaidan protesters surrounded Wladimir Klitschko. On Second Avenue dozens of people held up their phones to snap photos of the world heavyweight boxing champion as he and the crowd sang the Ukrainian national anthem. Across the street at Baczynsky’s East Village Meat Market, butchers crowded at the window to catch a glimpse of the celebrity.
Hundreds of Ukrainians in New York City turned out on short notice to see the celebrity athlete speak about the situation in Ukraine. (Klitschko’s appearance was only advertised on social media and by email two days before). As the crowd waited for Klitschko’s arrival at the Ukrainian National Home in New York City’s Little Ukraine neighborhood, audience members young and old, from recent immigrants to second generation Ukrainians, debated the current crisis and scrolled through Ukrainian-language news sites on their phones.
Protests began in Ukraine in late November after President Viktor Yanukovych made the surprise move of not signing free-trade accords with the European Union. No one had expected to the protests, known as the Euromaidan movement, to last this long and take so many political turns.
Brothers Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko are celebrities who rose to international fame and prominence as heavyweight boxing champions. Wladimir, an Olympic gold medalist who is known by the nickname Dr. Steelhammer (he holds a Ph.D. in Sports Science), continues to fight today and is scheduled to defend his title in April. Vitali has since retired from the boxing ring and has switched to fighting in the political arena as the head of the opposition political party Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR). The acronym means “to punch” in Ukrainian.
Chants of “Klitschko, Klitschko” and “Glory to Ukraine” rang out in the large hall as Wladimir Klitschko, at least a head taller than most, walked to the stage. He began his remarks on the current situation in Ukraine by joking, “I’m not the politician here. My name is Wladimir Klitschko, not Vitali.”
Wladimir, who has spent time on the Maidan Square in Kyiv (along with his fiancé American actress Hayden Panettiere), described corruption in Ukraine as “very sad” – Ukraine gained the distinction as the most corrupt country in Europe in 2013 – and he readily admits the situation is no longer about the EU.
“Both sides have crossed the line of no return,” Wladimir said, referring to protester deaths as well as to opposition protesters who have resorted to violence, including throwing Molotov cocktails in downtown Kyiv.
“And now we have to do anything and everything that is in our power to stop the violence, to stop the killing of our people. And we can once we have a new government, a new president, a new country that we all fight for.”
While government corruption and a violent crackdown aimed at dispersing protesters united crowds throughout Ukraine, the opposition movement with its three different leaders—Vitali Klitschko, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, and Oleh Tyahnybok—remains divided. It is unclear how the current situation in Ukraine will be resolved. A woman who had recently returned from Ukraine told Klitschko, “I’m not going to ask about the plan because it’s clear the opposition leaders don’t have a plan.” She also pressed him to reveal how his brother is funding his political party. Wladimir assured her that Vitali is using his own money.
Protests have continued in Ukraine all week. A recently leaked phone conversation between American Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt and Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland highlighted the US government's view of Ukraine's opposition leaders. In particular, Nuland said she didn't think it would be "a good idea" for Kiltschko to be part of the government, stating “I don’t think it’s necessary."
Diaspora activists aware of the fragmented situation are working without backing any one leader or group and are instead trying to keep the situation on the international political radar. Members of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America (UCCA), a group that supported the Klitschko event, lobbied their representatives in Washington D.C on Tuesday. While introducing Klitschko at Monday’s event, UCCA president Tamara Gallo Olexy listed goals including targeted sanctions and increased US government spending on democratic programs supporting civil society.
Activists aren’t only heading to capitals around the world to petition their governments. The movement has been digital since its inception, with protesters organizing and sharing information via social media networks. Photos of beaten protesters and journalists have quickly spread. Celebrities from George Clooney to Arnold Schwarzenegger have also weighed in, sending video messages of support in what has become a fast paced digital protest movement.
“Social media that’s the only source, in Ukraine, of free media we have because any other media is not free, any other media is controlled,” Wladimir said.
At Monday’s event, New York journalist Andrea Chalupa urged people to set up Twitter accounts. She helped set-up Digitalmaidan.com to spread the word in English about events in Ukraine. The hashtag #digitalmaidan quickly went viral and trended worldwide with participants in a Twitter storm tweeting about the situation and targeting celebrities and politicians.
“DigitalMaidan is a movement without leaders just like EuroMaidan and the numbers keep coming and people keep joining us and some of these numbers still don’t know how to use Twitter,” Chalupa said, adding that hundreds of messages were sent to Bill Clinton who tweeted his support of protesters “demanding real democracy” this week. Another Twitter storm targeting members of Congress on the Foreign Relations Committee as well as “people who use their positions of power to further Putin’s anti-human rights agenda” occurred yesterday.
Other movements like the Facebook group Razom for Ukraine (razom means “together” in Ukrainian) and the weekly Facebook event Vyshyvanyj Tuesday, that asks people all over the world to wear tradition embroidered Ukrainian shirts, are encouraging people to get involved.
Mariya Soroka, who is part of the Razom group, took an extended lunch break from her tech start-up job to come meet Klitschko. Soroka’s father lives in Kyiv and she participated in protests there in December. She spoke passionately, asking, “Why is all of that happening? Imagine growing up in a society where if you don’t know people, if you don’t have money, no one will talk to you.”
Soroka, like many participating in diaspora efforts, admits that it’s hard to imagine the exact outcome and what “winning” would really mean.
“The whole idea of ‘winning’ needs a better description or definition because we will only win if Ukraine will be a very stable country with democracy and freedom of rights and great, great opportunities which is a utopia that will never exist,” Soroka said. “We get that, but we are aiming very high to achieve most of the things we want.”
Both Chalupa and Soroka want the online spaces they have helped create to outlast the current protests.
“Razom will exist forever,” Soroka said. “That’s the plan, because Ukraine is in such a state that there’s so much work that needs to be done.”
Adrian Karatnycky, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council whose connections helped make the event in New York City possible, sees a long, difficult road ahead for Ukraine.
“I don’t see a way towards completely clean government. I think you can reduce graft, you can make it more pluralistic, you can have competitive elections, you can build a democracy, but it won’t be a clean Scandinavian or Swiss pure democratic system,” he said.
Karatnycky also highlighted that most of the truly hard work will begin once some kind of political settlement occurs in Ukraine.
“The real problem is whether enthusiasm will die down after the Maidan, when the real work of helping the country to pick up its pieces will be the matter,” he said.
It’s a fight that will take much longer than a boxing match, something the Klitschkos have been known to joke about.
As the national anthem came to an end on Second Avenue, Klitschko was shuttled off to his next stop. Images and video were posted and tweeted for protesters in Ukraine to see, tagged with #digitalmaidan.
Lydia Tomkiw is a journalist who has reported from Jakarta, Indonesia, Washington DC, and places in between. She is currently based in New York City where she is pursuing a masters in international affairs at Columbia University.
[Photo courtesy of Lydia Tomkiw]