“A sense of freedom” after crossing borders

The presidential election in the Ukraine and the European elections take place on the same day, May 25th. After the most violent months experienced by Ukrainians since the country’s independence, Pavlo Sadokha, residing in Portugal for 13 years now, looks to the future of his country. And he dreams of the day he’ll be able to vote for the European Parliament.

Maria José Oliveira

Translation by Paulo Montes

June 2014

Pavlo Sadokha arrives at Sabores de Outono terrace, a cafe in Lumiar, Lisbon, in a hasty step. He looks at his phone and writes a message. Throughout our one hour conversation, his mobile will not stop vibrating. His duties as president of the Association of Ukrainians in Portugal require him to be ready to answer the demands of a community that currently comprises approximately 60,000 people, of whom 15,000 are already Portuguese citizens.

The European Parliament elections will take place in six days. As will the presidential election in the Ukraine – a demand made for months in the Independence Square (Maidan), and scheduled shortly after the escape of President Viktor Ianukovich and the deposition of the Government he appointed in 2010.

Pavlo smiles at the coincidence of the two dates. He was not at the Independence Square when the place turned into a protest camp, in December 2013, nor did he witness first hand the worst episodes of violence in 23 years of independence. But he talked every day with his parents and his sister, who still live in Lviv, in the western part of the territory; he sought to be always informed about what was happening in the Square; he organized meetings and demonstrations in several Portuguese cities; he raised funds for the protesters in Kiev’s city center. What started as a demonstration led by university students against Ianukovich’s refusal to sign a free trade agreement with the European Union (which would certainly put the Ukraine in a privileged position to apply for membership in the EU), culminated in a protest against a corrupt and authoritarian regime. “When Ianukovich didn’t sign the agreement with the EU, everyone realized the Ukraine wouldn’t have a future. And that he intended to do what Russia wanted to do for so long: to annex the Ukraine, and create a new Soviet Union and a new empire”.

Pavlo arrived in Lisbon in 2001. Portugal had already welcomed a few of his friends, who greeted him at the airport and gave him a place to live for a while. It was impossible for him to continue to survive in the Ukraine that, under Leoni Kuchma, was facing an economic and social crisis. With a degree in Economics, he worked in a bank, earning $50 a month. “And that was not a bad salary, when compared to the average wage at the time.” With a disabled nephew who needed an urgent $15,000 surgery, Pavlo did not hesitate and decided to emigrate. (The exodus of Ukrainians, especially in Europe, is reflected in the country’s demographics: when the country became independent, Ukraine had a population of 52 million people, in 2014, that number decreased to 46 million.)

In Portugal, his first job was in a restaurant kitchen. After that, he worked in construction (“where many immigrants work”), but that ended abruptly when Pavlo realized that he wouldn’t get paid. Finally, the Jesuit Refugee Service found him the job he now holds since 2002, in a trading company, where he works as an economist, after his degree was recognized in Portugal.

Shortly after the Orange Revolution – prompted after international observers detected that Viktor Ianukovich, presidential candidate in the 2004 elections, was involved in a vote manipulation scheme – Pavlo married a Portuguese woman. They met at the São Jorge de Arroios church, in the center of Lisbon, where they were married in a Catholic and Greek-Catholic ceremony, a Byzantine rite.

Volunteers for war

The day’s newspapers report that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the withdrawal of his troops from border areas, but Pavlo doesn’t believe that. “It’s a lie, it’s part of his game.” A few hours earlier, he had been talking with his parents, both over 70, who expressed their fear of the outbreak of a civil war. “Fortunately, Lviv is still a quiet town, but we have information that Russian terrorist groups aim at destabilizing the western part of the country. All they have to do is simply blow up a factory, for example. People are even afraid of being in a crowd, in the streets. The terrorist threat is very real, especially after what happened in the East.”

During his phone conversations with his parents, Pavlo tries not to mention the imminence of a civil war. But fear is spreading in the Ukrainian immigrant community. “Just yesterday I helped a lady to write a waiver to bring her nephews to Portugal.” The threat has also had other effects. Even before the Crimea referendum, which culminated in the Russian annexation of the peninsula, many Ukrainians expressed their willingness to return to their country to fight against Russian intervention. Pavlo Sadokha decided to organize a list of volunteers who already has 80 names. Among them is also Pavlo’s. “I never killed anyone or been in the military. Unfortunately, humans have not yet found another way to resolve their conflicts. We have to end this injustice.” The Association has already made the necessary contacts with the Ukrainian National Guard. For now, these fighters are still not necessary, but they are on alert. And they can leave for the Ukraine at any time. “We are ready to fight,” he said, noting, however, that Putin’s strategy “is to keep the country in a state of confusion.” Just look at what is happening to the East: “Those terrorist actions aim at creating a climate that does not allow the Ukraine to carry out any programs of economic and social growth. And that is the biggest danger.” What is Putin afraid of? “That the revolutionary virus spreads to Russia.”

It was not only the mobilization of volunteers to fight alongside the National Guard that surprised Pavlo, but also the unity of the immigrant community. The association has 14 sub-offices scattered throughout the country, but in many initiatives they see people from cities where Pavlo thought there were no Ukrainians, like Castelo Branco, a city in the countryside, and some villages in the Algarve. “Many got off from work and came to our small demonstrations in Lisbon, returning home at night.” In these initiatives organized in major cities, people prayed for their country and for those killed in the Independence Square, they sang, made speeches, some carried banners, others posters with slogans like: “Portugal, help us stop the ‘modern authoritarianism’ in Ukraine”; “Say no to war. Putin out of the Ukraine.” In all these initiatives, there was a fund raiser. This made it possible for the association to raise “over 30 thousand euros,” donated to the Greek Catholic Church, which provided support to the people in the camp, in the center of Kiev, and to the Right Sector and other organizations present in the protests. “We continue to raise money and send it to the National Guard”, Pavlo adds.

During the protests in Maidan, the Russian propaganda widely disseminated the notion that the protesters were mostly radical nationalists. One of the biggest targets was the Right Sector, which, according to Pavlo, is mostly comprised of Russian speaking citizens from the East. “Nationalism has different meanings in the Ukraine and in Russia. Sometimes, it’s difficult for me to explain this to people here. Even the Portuguese communists have no idea of how the Ukrainian communists are. In the Parliament, they lodged a draft law to ban the Communist Party in the Ukraine – not because of their program, but because they are simply the Russian Fifth Column. Today, I cannot say there is a pure Ukrainian nationalism. What exists are forces that want to fight corruption. Russia has always wanted to split the Ukraine between those who are pro-Western nationalists and pro-Russian nationalists. Therefore, through the Government and the President, they approved laws like the one that established Russian as the country’s second official language. That was not necessary because there has never been discrimination towards the Russian language. In every family there is always someone who is of Russian descent or only speaks Russian.”

It is not just because he presides the Association of Ukrainians in Portugal that Pavlo considers it necessary to explain the history of his country – every Ukrainian should do so in their host countries. “The Ukraine has always been controlled by Russia. Until now, we did not have our own voice. And, as immigrants, we feel a responsibility to report on what is happening in our country. More so because Russians have more means to convey their point of view to the world and the Ukraine has no money to do the same”.

“The future in Portugal”

At the Embassy, the list of registered voters for the May 25th elections already exceeded the number of voters for the Ukrainian Parliament in 2012. The recent polls indicate that Petro Poroshenko, a businessman who has held numerous ministerial offices, will be the winner, with a great advantage over Yulia Timoshenko. Pavlo Sadokha believes the polls already reflect the election results next Sunday. However, he knows that the fight against corruption will be one of the hardest battles the future leader of the country will have to face. And he knows they will need “decades” to tackle the problem. “A state employee knows that, by signing false documents, he can make extra money, and I do not believe this type of mentality will change overnight.”

There is another problem, equally old: “Politicians who are now running for office are from the Soviet Union generation. Petro Poroshenko is more of a European politic than pro-Russian, but still there is a huge mistrust.” Despite believing in the results the polls give Poroshenko, Pavlo notes that “Ukrainians are undecided, they don’t know who to choose”.

On the same day, 15,000 Portuguese of Ukrainian descent may vote in the European Parliament elections. Pavlo has paid close attention to each of the 16 party programs, and has already agreed to meet with some of the parties to know the positions they took following the events in the Ukraine. Recently, as board member of the International Council of Ukrainian Communities, he wrote a letter to immigrants living in Europe, urging them to vote for parties that have publicly supported the anti-Putin and anti-Ianukovich manifestations. “I know the Ukraine will not be a paradise, even after this conflict with Russia ends. But I think Ukrainian immigrants can help their country.” And “help” also means giving votes to those who remembered them, especially during the months of violence in Kiev’s main square.

One day, Pavlo would like to see the Ukraine as a member state of the European Union. “Both Europe and my country could gain from it,” he says, noting that the Ukraine also shares the Christian philosophy. “The values are the same.” But what he values the most is the idea of freedom, of a land without borders. “When I first went to get my parents in Lviv, I did it by car and I crossed the whole of Europe. This feeling of crossing a border was difficult for me, it made me nervous. But when I went from one country to another almost without noticing it, I realized that feeling of freedom, a feeling that is much more important than economic issues”.

Pavlo believes in the European project, but regrets the situation in which Europe “seems not to be united.” “There are changes that should be made, but the union aspect is very important.” In this context, he says he does not understand those in Portugal who defend the country should leave the EU. However, he has a suspicion: “I think the Russians still hold sway over Portugal, like they did in 1974, and they convey the idea that the country should leave Europe.” Pavlo believes Portugal should “show its teeth to Europe, especially to countries that had something to gain with the Portuguese crisis”.

For this economist, the government could have sought other solutions in the austerity measures package, since “it was not necessary to follow all of the Troika’s recommendations. For example, by raising taxes, they reduced any stimulus to the economy.” One of the effects of the policies on salary reduction was the departure of many Ukrainian immigrants – not to return to their homeland, but to go to European countries where there are still jobs available, such as England and Germany. This situation revealed something new: many of these Ukrainians have expressed their desire to remain permanently in Portugal. They bought a house, they married, they had children and they established themselves here. The crisis forced them to look for work elsewhere. But they no longer send money to the Ukraine, but to Portugal. “They see their future in Portugal.”