NEW YORK—In 1951 my grandfather immigrated to the United States, fleeing the Soviet occupation of his home country, Ukraine. He instilled in my two brothers and me a love for Ukraine and a never-ending hope that one day it would emerge from the communist totalitarian regime imposed by Moscow.
He strongly believed that, with the help of the United States and others, Ukraine would eventually claim its freedom and take its place as an equal among the other democracies in Europe.
He was right. In 1991 our family celebrated the collapse of the Soviet Union and the establishment of Ukraine as an independent state. While my grandfather has since passed away, for the past two decades we have joyfully accepted Ukraine’s democracy, not perfect under any measure, but still a democracy that allowed for the freedom of the press, freedom of religion and freedom of speech.
However, for the past four years, under President Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine has been spiraling toward totalitarianism and a return to Moscow’s clutches. Early signs of this direction came with the arrest and imprisonment of opposition leaders. Then, in November, President Yanukovych abruptly turned away from Europe, refusing to sign a widely supported trade agreement with the European Union, and instead linking Ukraine more closely – economically and politically – to Russia and Vladimir Putin.
The people of Ukraine immediately took to the streets to voice their opposition. Instead of listening to his people, Yanukovych doubled-down on his authoritarian ways and enacted a law that returned Ukraine to totalitarianism. In a “compromise” with the opposition, the law was repealed, but the people of Ukraine have not backed down.
In the face of truncheon-wielding militia, they continue to fight for their basic human rights, their freedom and their country. At least four protesters have already been killed, and the world read in horror the stories of torture, including crucifixion and cutting off ears.
The international community should be supporting their efforts—through mediation, negotiations or when all else fails, strict financial sanctions and freezing officials’ ill-gotten assets.
Instead, the rest of the world is standing idly by, watching while the hated iron curtain comes down again.
As a parent of two teenage daughters who have been to Kyev and walked the streets where the protesters gather, I suddenly find myself in my grandfather’s shoes trying to answer some of the same questions my brothers and I asked my grandfather more than 30 years ago. Why does the government senselessly beat its own citizens? Why would the government pass draconian laws, legalizing a dictatorship its own people don’t want? Why would a government shoot unarmed protesters? Why would a government sanction the torture of its own people? Why don’t the US and Europe do something?
My daughters understand what is happening; they can read the protesters' signs. They know what they mean, and yet as Americans they have difficulty understanding why no one listens.
The United States and Europe, as champions of democracy, need to listen. They should make it clear to the government of Ukraine that the current escalation of violence – the shooting, kidnapping, beating and torturing of its own citizens – needs to stop. They need to make clear that the government should negotiate in good faith with the opposition, with negotiations mediated by an impartial international body.
The international community should also make clear to Ukrainian government officials and the oligarchs who support them that should they continue down the path of repression and violence, denying their citizens their basic rights, they will become pariahs in the West, unable to enjoy the benefits and fruits of Western democracy.
As a Ukrainian-American, I care deeply about the future of Ukraine and its people, as do my daughters. For the sake of the people of Ukraine I remember my grandfather’s words and his hope that with the help of the US and Europe, democracy will prevail in Ukraine. But action needs to be taken and help should be forthcoming – the United States and Europe should not avert their eyes while Ukraine’s democracy is strangled in its crib.
Adrian Hewryk is an economist living in New York.
This piece is part of a new GlobalPost Special Reports/Commentary initiative supported by the Ford Foundation called "Voices." The mission of "Voices" is to present the ideas and opinions of those who are less frequently heard in the media, including women, people of color, sexual minorities, citizens of the developing world and young people. These voices will consistently discuss topics important to GlobalPost Special Reports including human rights, religious issues, global health, economic inequality and democracies in transition.