Virtual. That would be the best word to characterize the activity of the worldwide Ukrainian diaspora during 2020 as the novel coronavirus spread. In-person events were few and far between, but there were plenty of official statements laying out the diaspora’s positions regarding developments in Ukraine and issues related to Ukraine.
The Australian Federation of Ukrainian Organizations (AFUO), which comprises 24 community organizations throughout the country and acts as the spokesperson on matters concerning relationships within the Ukrainian community and between Australia and Ukraine, was active also in humanitarian issues and COVID-related concerns. At the beginning of 2020, Stefan Romaniw, the federation’s co-chair, reported that the Ukrainian Australian community had raised $67,000 – well over the stated goal of $50,000 – for relief efforts related to the huge bushfires that ravaged Australia. Since the start of the 2019 fire season through the date of Mr. Romaniw’s report in late January, a staggering 10 million hectares had been burned, with all states and territories impacted except the Australian Capital Territory; 25 people died; thousands of homes and farming facilities were burned; and over 1 billion animals and birds were killed – some facing extinction.
The call for donations went out during the Julian calendar Christmas, and on January 18 in Hobart, where the smallest Ukrainian Australian community was celebrating its 70th anniversary of settlement in Tasmania, the AFUO held a national meeting with the community and presented a check for the funds raised – at that point, the amount was over $63,000 – to the Red Cross. The AFUO noted that its Kolyada for Australia Bushfire campaign was intended to show support and underscore that Ukrainians are an integral part of the Australian community. Ultimately, the AFUO transferred $68,201.89 to the Red Cross Bushfire Relief Campaign.
In March, as the novel coronavirus continued to spread worldwide, the Australian Federation of Ukrainian Organizations announced the formation of the AFUO COVID-19 Coronavirus National Community Task Force to coordinate dissemination of information and support services in the community. According to the 2016 Census, 48,000 people in Australia identified themselves as Ukrainian or of Ukrainian background.
The task force was chaired by Stephan Chomyn; co-chairs were Mr. Romaniw and Kateryna Agyrou. Members of the task force included community organizations in the states of Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania, Queensland, Western Australia and New South Wales, the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic and Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Churches, as well as the Embassy of Ukraine in Australia and the Dnister Ukrainian Credit Cooperative.
The goal of the task force was to give community organizations context on the information released by experts at the Department of Health, facilitate access to experts that could assist organizations in making informed decisions; provide information on medical and financial issues; and coordinate required support.
On May 5, the AFUO urged the Australian government to support the Ukrainian Parliament’s resolution regarding continuing Russian aggression. The resolution called for foreign governments to strengthen international condemnation of the armed aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine, the illegal annexation of Crimea and the occupation of areas of the Donbas, and political repressions of Ukrainian citizens. It also sought support for the release of political prisoners held by Russian authorities. In a letter to Minister of Foreign Affairs Marise Payne and to the Australia-Ukraine Parliamentary Friendship Group, the AFUO advocated for a sign of support from Australia for Ukraine’s call to the international community to reinforce its message of support and sanctions.[In North America, the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America and the Ukrainian Canadian Congress also were involved in their respective countries’ topics of concern. See the Year in Review sections covering Ukrainians in the U.S. in this issue and Canada in last week’s issue.]
On the worldwide level, the Ukrainian World Congress (UWC) was extremely active in following developments in Ukraine and coordinating diaspora reaction. On January 27, the UWC issued a statement in which it said the organization and the global Ukrainian diaspora “share the concerns of civil society over some recent processes in Ukraine and several proposed draft laws.” It raised the issue of political justice, including the case of the murder of Pavlo Sheremet and “indications of political persecution of Ukrainian political leaders, including past President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko,” and underscored “the importance of adhering to the principles of the rule of law and, as such, of the intolerability of political justice and pressure on the judicial branch of government.” The statement also commented on initiatives regarding Ukraine’s news media, such as a draft law that foresaw “excessive state regulation, control and potential censorship of the media, [which] could lay the foundation for politically motivated manipulations and negatively impact the professional self-regulation of journalists.” A third topic was the Draft Law on Land Reform in Ukraine, with the UWC calling on Ukraine’s leaders to ensure that “well-prepared, balanced and fair decisions [are] focused on the development of competent, productive, dignified and caring landowners.”
Soon afterwards, the UWC followed up with its position on Ukrainian citizenship. It called on the Verkhovna Rada to amend the draft law on citizenship in order to: “simplify the citizenship process for individuals who have the status of “zakordonnyi ukrayinets” (Ukrainian living outside Ukraine) to further enable their participation in Ukraine’s development; provide opportunities for Ukrainians living outside Ukraine to work in state and municipal administrations of Ukraine; implement effective security measures, particularly with respect to individuals connected to the military aggression of the Russian Federation; and introduce a pledge of allegiance to Ukraine upon first receiving a Ukrainian passport.” The UWC’s position was made clear in a February 5 letter to Verkhovna Rada Chairman Dmytro Razumkov and leaders of party factions and groups.
On February 18, the UWC reacted to the “Twelve Steps Toward Greater Security in Ukraine and the Euro-Atlantic Region,” a document released during the Munich Security Conference. Calling it a “scandalous statement,” the UWC said it “prompted intense debate in Ukraine and beyond, and provoked fair criticism from Ukrainian and international experts and politicians.” The reason: “This document is yet another attempt to distort reality and openly promotes the Russian position beginning with the opening words: the conflict ‘in and around Ukraine.’ The Ukrainian World Congress (UWC) once again reminds that it was Russia that invaded Ukrainian Crimea and eastern Ukrainian lands. There is no ‘conflict in and around Ukraine’ – there is a war that Russia is waging against Ukraine. The odious text of the ‘Twelve Steps’ aims to impose on the global audience an image of a ‘civil war in Ukraine’ and a ‘domestic Ukrainian conflict,’ create obstacles to Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations and help lift sanctions from Russia.” The UWC concluded: “The Russian propaganda machine is once again trying to convince the world that Russia is not a party to the aggression – now with the help of politicians, former diplomats and experts of various levels.”
On March 19, Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba held a teleconference with the leaders of the UWC, including President Paul Grod, First Vice-President Stefan Romaniw, Vice-President Andriy Futey, UWC Executive Director Mariia Kupriianova and Serhiy Kasyanchuk, director of the UWC Mission to Ukraine. The topics of the wide-ranging discussion included the coronavirus pandemic, political issues related to Russia’s war on the Donbas, including sanctions imposed by the West, and dissemination of official information to Ukrainians abroad.
Minister Kuleba emphasized the important role of the global Ukrainian community in raising awareness of continued Russian aggression in the east of Ukraine among the international community. Mr. Grod underscored the UWC’s continued partnership with Ukraine’s Foreign Affairs Ministry in countering Russian aggression and developing global Ukrainian communities. “In times of extraordinary global threats, we act as a united global Ukrainian nation, coming together to help. MFA Ukraine and UWC will continue to implement efficient ways of working together in our new reality,” stated Mr. Grod.
On March 30, the UWC announced the establishment of an International Task Force to coordinate support for Ukrainian communities in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Bringing together Ukrainian community leaders from all over the world, the task force was intended to work closely with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, governments, international organizations and Churches to: provide accurate and timely information; offer practical support to those who need it most; and assist Ukraine in procuring much-needed medical supplies and equipment by working with governments, suppliers and humanitarian organizations.
On several occasions during the year, Ukrainians diaspora organizations spoke loudly with one voice. Following are the most notable examples.
On March 14 and 15, the UWC, the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) and the AFUO all issued statements protesting a decision of the Trilateral Contact Group – comprising Ukraine, Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – to create a Consultation Council. “According to that decision, Russia will be replaced as the counterparty in the peace negotiations with the representatives of separate districts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions – in fact with Russia-controlled terrorist organizations of the so-called Luhansk and Donetsk ‘people’s republics’. The Ukrainian World Congress calls on the president of Ukraine and the Parliament to reject this proposal. Agreeing to these terms would legitimize the Russian narrative of ‘internal conflict in Ukraine’ and turn Russia from an aggressor into an ‘observer,’ then possibly even to a ‘peacemaker.’ Despite the ‘advisory’ status of the Consultation Council, this will be a step towards legitimizing Russian occupation forces in the Ukrainian legal system and with the international community. This is similar to the strategy deployed by Russia in other frozen conflict zones worldwide,” the UWC explained. Then UCC’s statement underlined that there can be no negotiations with terrorist organizations, and the AFUO made it clear that Russia is the aggressor and therefore cannot be given the role of mediator.
On May 18, as Ukraine marked the annual Day of Remembrance of the Victims of the Crimean Tatar Genocide, the UWC, the UCC and the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America (UCCA) all paid tribute to the innocent victims of the deportation of Crimean Tatar people in 1944 and supported the call of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis to the United Nations to recognize it as an act of genocide of totalitarian Soviet regime. It was on May 18, 1944, that the entire Crimean Tatar people, the indigenous people of Crimea, were exiled to the Soviet east by the Soviet Communist regime.
“Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children were forcibly and violently deported – almost half lost their lives during the first year of exile – for no crime other than their language, culture and traditions. They were not allowed to return to Crimea for almost 50 years,” the UCC noted. “The Sürgün [“violent expulsion” of 1944] was an inhuman attempt to rid the Crimean peninsula of its population of approximately 238,000 indigenous people, the Qirim Tatar Millet. Seventy years later, Vladimir Putin staged Russia’s military invasion and current illegal occupation of Crimea, and today seeks to erase any semblance of the indigenous Crimean Tatar identity from their homeland,” the UCCA pointed out. The UWC stated: “…the world must not let the painful lessons of history be repeated. We call for increased pressure on the Russian Federation until it fully de-occupies Crimea and the Donbas, and releases political prisoners.”
In June, the UWC, the UCCA, the UCC and the AFUO issued statements stressing the importance of the rule of law in Ukraine, warning against selective justice and responding the political persecutions in the country. The UCCA wrote that it is “deeply alarmed by the recent signs of selective justice in Ukraine, and is compelled to condemn attempts by the Ukrainian government to pursue politically motivated cases against former government officials and leaders of Ukraine’s civic society – including their expressed desire to detain former President Petro Poroshenko before a political show trial.” The U.S.-based organization also noted that “selective, politically motivated justice can irreparably damage to Ukraine’s image with the international community. …Ukraine’s leadership should refrain from any attempts to politicize the rule of law.”
In mid-July, the UWC, the UCC and the UCCA all spoke out in defense of the Ukrainian language in Ukraine. All three diaspora bodies cited the concerns of civil society in Ukraine about increased systemic pressure on the Ukrainian language as the one state language. In particular, the UWC said it “strongly opposes the ‘Russification’ proposals included in the provocative draft law No. 2362 which bring a potential divide in Ukrainian society.” The world organization pointed out that “It is the language that unites the Ukrainian world and fosters the upbringing of new generations of conscious Ukrainians, both in Ukraine and in the diaspora. The Ukrainian World Congress resolutely condemns any attempt to weaken the position of Ukrainian as the only state language and opposes the politicization of the language issue.”
UCC President Alexandra Chyczij said the draft bill “is an underhanded attempt to re-install the policy of Russification in Ukraine, which for centuries denied the Ukrainian people the right to speak and work in their own language.” She argued that “The Ukrainian language is a fundamental and foundational base of an independent Ukrainian state, and undermining its continued development serves only the interests of Russia – which has been waging a war of aggression against Ukraine for over six years.”
Similarly, the UCCA said “Ukraine’s enemies have renewed their assault on Ukraine’s native language in the land of its birth.” The UCCA went on to note: “The Ukrainian Congress Committee of America considers the recent actions of 51 lawmakers, mainly from the pro-Russia Opposition Bloc, as well as those of Vladimir Putin’s closest personal ally in Ukraine, opposition leader Viktor Medvedchuk, to be a significant breach of constitutional protections in Ukraine and a threat to Ukrainian as the sole state language in Ukraine. Along with other member organizations of the Ukrainian World Congress, the UCCA has consistently emphasized the importance of the Ukrainian language as the language that unites the Ukrainian world and fosters the upbringing of new generations of conscious Ukrainians, both in Ukraine and in the diaspora.”
After the August 9 presidential election in Ukraine’s northern neighbor, Belarus, the UWC, the UCC and the UCCA reacted to the violent repression of peaceful demonstrators in that country who took to the streets to make it known that they neither accept nor believe the vote count that handed the incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka victory. These diaspora organizations made it clear, as the UWC statement said, that “Ukrainians worldwide stand with the people of Belarus as they courageously defend their right for democratic free and transparent elections.”
In addition to all of the above statements on issues and developments during the year 2020, the Ukrainian World Congress issued several statements on notable anniversaries.
On February 20, the UWC honored the memory of “the peaceful unarmed protesters remembered as the Nebesna Sotnia heroes [Heavenly Hundred] who were brutally massacred in the center of Kyiv while defending the freedom, dignity and European aspirations of the Ukrainian people” in February 2014 during the Revolution of Dignity. The organization said that the 20-million-strong Ukrainian diaspora also calls “for the perpetrators of this crime to be brought to justice.”
As the world was marking the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day (V-E Day) on May 8, the UWC commented: “World War II, which had begun in 1939 with the Nazi-Soviet invasion and dismemberment of Poland, became the most brutal war in human history. Its cost is beyond calculation: in Ukraine alone, over 8 million lives were lost, over 2 million people were forcibly deported. Today we pay tribute to millions of Ukrainian men and women who bravely fought in the World War II, among them over 250,000 Ukrainians who served in Polish, French, British, U.S. and Canadian armed forces.”
The world body also reminded readers: “Caught between the totalitarian and murderous empires of Hitler and Stalin, Ukrainian people fought valiantly against both occupying regimes. The end of World War II did not bring peace or freedom to Ukraine. Instead, Stalin’s Soviet Union brought oppression and tyranny to Ukraine, as well as to many other captive nations of Eastern Europe. For over four decades, Ukraine was forced to continue its struggle against the Soviet regime that persecuted and denied the Ukrainian people the fundamental right to live freely.”
The sixth anniversary of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was noted by the UWC in a statement that said: “Over the past six years, the Russian Federation has harbored the criminals responsible for the killing of 298 innocent civilians on July 17, 2014, when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) travelling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down over Ukrainian territory by a Russian-controlled missile system. Despite persistent efforts by the Kremlin to discredit the findings of the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) tasked with determining the cause of the disaster, the overwhelming evidence gathered confirms that culpability for this crime lies with the Russian Federation.” UWC President Paul Grod added: “We are confident that the truth will be uncovered but question whether justice will be served. The top Russian political and military commanders who gave the order to shoot down MH17 must face criminal responsibility, and the Russian Federation must be held accountable to pay reparations to the victims’ families.”
A similar statement came from the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America (UCCA), with the organization’s President Andriy Futey saying: “The downing of MH17 is an egregious example of the Kremlin’s disregard for innocent life. Righteousness must be delivered for the victims of this horrible tragedy, and the UCCA applauds the Dutch government’s decision to bring Russia before the European Court of Human Rights for its role in the downing of Flight MH17.”
Ukraine’s Day of Dignity and Freedom, marked annually on November 21 – the day when the people of Ukraine, who were peacefully protesting against the refusal of President Viktor Yanukovych to sign the European Union-Ukraine Association Agreement, were violently attacked by the regime’s forces – was the topic of yet another statement by the Ukrainian World Congress. “Global Ukrainian communities did not stay aside. Ukrainians staged rallies in support of the Revolution of Dignity and Freedom, Euro-Maidans in European capitals, in the cities of Canada, the United States, Australia, Asia and Oceania. They shared the truth about the Yanukovych regime, and UWC leaders became the voices of the free Ukrainian people,” the UWC wrote.
Other activity by the Ukrainian diaspora included sending observers to Ukraine for the nationwide local elections held on October 25. Once again, the UWC and the UCCA sought volunteers to serve as international election observers, but given the worldwide pandemic and various travel restrictions, the Election Observation Mission relied mainly on expats already residing in Ukraine. Twenty-six official observers from the two diaspora organizations were accredited by Ukraine’s Central Election Commission, and the UWC and UCCA missions observed the electoral process in the Dnipropetrovsk, Donetsk, Kyiv and Chernihiv oblasts, as well as the city of Kyiv.
On August 22, just two days before Ukraine’s Independence Day celebrations, the statue “Bitter Memory of Childhood” at the Holodomor memorial complex in Kyiv was desecrated. The statue of a starving young girl holding several stalks of grain is an internationally recognized symbol for one of the most tragic pages in Ukraine’s history: the genocidal famine engineered by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin that killed millions of people on Ukrainian territory. The general director of the National Museum of the Holodomor Genocide, Olesia Stasiuk, was quoted by the BBC as saying that sometime during the might of August 21-22, three unknown persons torn the statue off its pedestal. “Thank God, the statue itself was not damaged, because they could not lift it, it was too heavy.”
The Ukrainian World Congress condemned the act as “a denigration of the memory of the Ukrainian people” and called upon the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine “to bring the perpetrators of this action to justice and ensuring appropriate security for the Memorial.” UWC President Grod pointed to “a global and coordinated anti-Ukrainian operation, including vandalism of memorials and disinformation campaigns that distort and falsify the truth about Ukraine’s history” and cited, in addition to the desecration of the “Bitter Memory” statue, vandalism at a Ukrainian cemetery in Toronto and defacement of the future Communism victims memorial in Ottawa. In the United States, the U.S. Committee for Ukrainian Holodomor-Genocide Awareness (U.S. Holodomor Committee) condemned the vandalism and called for a government investigation into the incident.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy responded to the UWC and issued a statement on September 7 condemning any acts of disrespect for the memory of millions of Holodomor victims, their relatives and the entire Ukrainian nation, and called on law enforcement agencies to investigate the crime.
Toward the end of the year, during the month of November when Ukrainians worldwide remember the millions killed in the Holodomor of 1932-1933, the Ukrainian world Congress not only mourned those victims but also announced a new project: the International Network of Holodomor Victims. The announcement came during a virtual event on November 27 that was attended by UWC President Grod; the chair of the International Coordinating Committee for Holodomor Awareness and Recognition, Stefan Romaniw; Patriarch Sviatoslav of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church; Metropolitan Epifaniy of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine; and Olya Soroka, head of the International Network of Holodomor Victims. On November 28, the UWC mission to Ukraine joined the Holodomor commemoration in Kyiv.
In the meantime, the UWC also continued to defend itself against Russia’s ban on its activities and the designation of the UWC as an “undesirable” organization. The world body challenged these July 2019 decisions by the Office of the Prosecutor General and the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation, but the Tver District Court of Moscow dismissed the UWC’s lawsuit on March 11. The court cited a number of UWC actions as the key reasons for its decision: promotion of anti-Russian political initiatives to return Crimea to Ukraine and strengthen sanctions against the Russian Federation; the 147 international trips to 51 countries made by former UWC President Eugene Czolij, during which about 1,500 bilateral meetings were held, where he advocated for the protection of the territorial integrity of Ukraine from Russian aggression; and organizing discussions that focused on Russian aggression, the occupation of Crimea and the security risks of Nord Stream 2 at events of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the World Economic Forum in Davos, the European Commission, the United Nations and other international forums. The worldwide diaspora organization said it was appealing the Tver District Court’s decision, arguing that the UWC had not violated any Russian or international laws and stating that the court had committed a serious error by simply adopting the position of the Russian authorities.