Ukrainian turmoil hits close to home

April 15, 2014

By Christina Corrales-Toy

Issaquah resident Yuriy Vasyleha watches news reports of Ukrainian unrest with a mix of heartache and worry.

For him, the conflict occurring a world away is immensely personal, because the eastern-European nation is his native country, and where most of his relatives still call home.

“I feel really bad, but I cannot do anything,” he said.

Ukraine native Yuriy Vasyleha and wife Helen, now Issaquah residents, sit among the country’s Carpathian Mountains wearing Ukrainian folk attire in 2002. Contributed

Ukraine native Yuriy Vasyleha and wife Helen, now Issaquah residents, sit among the country’s Carpathian Mountains wearing Ukrainian folk attire in 2002.

Protests erupted in November, after then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s cabinet balked at signing a trade deal with the European Union, reportedly at the behest of Moscow.

Yanukovych would proceed to sign a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in which Russia would buy $15 billion of Ukrainian debt.

The peaceful protests turned deadly in January, eventually forcing Yanukovych to flee. Pro-Russian forces have since taken over the Crimean peninsula, a region in Ukraine.

A standoff between Ukranian and pro-Russian forces continues to percolate as leaders from around the world keep a close eye on the situation.

Vasyleha grew up in a different Ukraine, one buoyed by the promise of new beginnings after the Iron Curtain fell.

“Especially after the Soviet Union broke up, people had a lot of hopes that things would get better, it would be an independent country,” he said.

As that independence is threatened, Vasyleha worries. The conflict conjures up images of the old Soviet Union, he said.

Vasyleha moved to the United States about 10 years ago, not because he didn’t enjoy growing up in Ukraine, but because the opportunities for software professionals like him were minimal.

The connection to his native country never diminished, though, he said, and he’s followed its news closely. This conflict, he believes, was not so much a need to take a political stand against Russia, as it is necessity to remove the deceitful practices of the Yanukovych administration.

“Corruption is not how a country is supposed to be built, especially in this 21st century,” he said.

After living in the United States for a decade, Vasyleha said he has a different view of how things are supposed to be done. He’s seen first hand the values of freedom and independence, and so, too, have other Ukrainians who traveled the world since the Iron Curtain lifted, he said.

“They see how life outside of the Soviet Union is,” he said. “They don’t want to go back to that.”

Vasyleha moved to Issaquah in 2007, after a short stay in Florida, and his parents have traveled from Ukraine to visit several times.

They like it here, he said, but they haven’t considered leaving their country, despite the fact that they are very worried about what they’re seeing there, Vasyleha said.

“They grew up there, they have their family there,” he said. “It’s really hard to take the switch with a language and cultural barrier.”

Still, if a serious war does break out, in what would be a last resort, Vasyleha said he would assist his relatives with the hope that the United States might open the door for refugees.

The United States government has put pressure on Russia with a series of economic sanctions, and the threat of more, in response to the country’s aggression. It’s a smart move, Vasyleha said.

“The U.S. is really doing the right thing right now,” he said. “If countries start shooting bombs at each other, everyone will be losers. We don’t need to escalate this emotional thing.”

The battle is ultimately one between an old and new mindset, Vasyleha said. The new mindset, buoyed by social media, has a global perspective of what is right and wrong. The old is mired in the past traditions of Soviet power.

In his heart, Vasyleha said he knows the true Ukrainians, and the ones not spoiled by Russian propaganda, want to move ahead, and leave the past behind.

“I know the Ukrainian people are strong and they want to be independent,” he said. “My ultimate hope is that they will protect from this Russian aggression. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but we hope for the best.”

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