Ukrainians in NC, watch, hope for unity, peace
Posted February 28, 2014 4:28 p.m. EST
Updated February 28, 2014 6:51 p.m. EST
Chapel Hill, N.C. — With Ukraine claiming the Russian military has taken over an airport and President Barack Obama warning of consequences for that action, Oleh Wolowyna watched closely Friday from Chapel Hill with memories of the Cold War top of mind as the divisive situation in his homeland escalated.
Wolowyna, 75, was born in Lviv but left the country with his family at age 5, as World War II engulfed Eastern Europe. He stayed away, watching as his country fell under Soviet influence and only made his first return in 1992, a year after Ukraine won its independence.
"I was afraid to travel before because, technically, I was a citizen of the Soviet Union," he said.
Since then, he has visited many times, part of a research project on post-war Ukraine.
"I’ve seen how the country is changing,” he said.
During a November visit, just about the time that President Viktor Yanukovych's government announced a move away from the European Union and a closer relationship with Moscow, Wolowyna came across a sign – a poster that said "Go away, Putin, go away."
"He can not accept the fact that the Soviet Union is dead,” Wolowyna said of the Russian president.
Wolowyna watched over the months as the Ukrainian people mounted protests, but he never dreamed they would successfully overthrow the government.
He has a cousin who has been active in what he calls "the revolution."
"I'm proud of him," Wolowyna said. "The will of the people is there. You feel it. People are passionate about it."
Last weekend, those passions flared when Yanukovych left the capital for Kharkiv, the heart of his eastern support base, and accused the parliament in Kiev of staging a coup. Protesters took control of the capital, and police abandoned their posts.
On Friday, Ukraine's U.N. ambassador told the U.N. Security Council that Russian military helicopters and transport planes had entered his country and that the main airport was "captured by Russian armed forces."
He said Russian "groupies" in Crimea are challenging Ukraine's national authority.
In an address late Friday afternoon, Obama warned "there will be costs" for any intervention, but he did not say what those costs might be.
"Any violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity would be deeply destabilizing," Obama said.
The turmoil threatens to cleave Ukraine into east, aligned with Russia, and west, which looks more to Europe.
Wolowyna hopes his countrymen can find a solution that keeps the nation intact.
He said a new form of government is the only way to rid Ukraine of corruption he said is left over from the former Soviet system. "That’s the cancer we need to eradicate,” he said.
He is a member of the Ukrainian Association of North Carolina, a group some 16,000-strong in the Tar Heel State, and will be part of a protest Sunday outside the state capitol. The Ukrainian Association hopes to send the message to Congress that sanctions can quell Russia's aggression in Ukraine and show support for the citizens there who are fighting for change.
"We want to have a decent country, a decent society. That is what we want," Wolowyna said.