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Saturday, November 27, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Ukraine's election has local impact

By Rosario Daza
Seattle Times staff reporter

MARK HARRISON / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Ukrainian immigrants gather downtown Wednesday. Another rally is planned for 3 p.m. today at Fourth Avenue and Pine Street.
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In the past week, Yaroslav Sydorskyy has hit the refresh button for his favorite election Web sites more times than he can count.

For the 29-year-old researcher, the drawn-out election duel that keeps him riveted to his computer is not this state's gubernatorial race but his home country's bitterly contested presidential election. Sydorskyy is one of Washington's estimated 30,000 Ukrainian immigrants.

Complete with voter fraud, mass protests and even allegations that one candidate was poisoned, the election has galvanized Ukrainian communities across distance and faith lines.

The landmark election — which many see as the country's first real chance at democracy — was followed so closely here that 1,100 immigrants signed a petition asking the Ukrainian Central Election Commission for a polling place in Kent.

When that petition, along with similar ones from immigrant communities in Philadelphia and Detroit, went unheeded, more than 300 Ukrainians from the Puget Sound area boarded buses for San Francisco, their closest consulate, to cast their ballots in last Sunday's presidential runoff.

Svitlana Okromeshko, a Bothell organizer who helped register eligible voters and raise money for the journey to San Francisco, said, "We were pretty divided before because of distance and the different religions represented in Washington. We not only came together, but we connected with Ukrainian communities in Portland and Sacramento."

The election pulled in people like Peter Drogomiretskiy, a 38-year-old builder from Brier, who never considered himself a political junkie. In recent months, Drogomiretskiy visited churches such as the First Ukrainian Evangelical Baptist Church in Federal Way to explain the importance of this historic election.

He and other immigrants, many of whom came to Washington after the collapse of the Soviet Union, say that, for too long, entrenched ex-Communist party members and a criminal organization have controlled their home country. They say they think this will continue if the Russia-backed candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine's current prime minister, is allowed to take office.

The country's Central Election Commission declared Yanukovych the official winner Wednesday, despite exit-poll results showing opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko had received more votes. But Ukraine's Supreme Court blocked Yanukovych's inauguration amid arguments of rampant voter fraud.

Drogomiretskiy said that this same Election Commission's refusal to certify a polling place in Kent ignited the spark that inspired Ukrainians to take the 850-mile road trip to the San Francisco consulate.
 
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"It was an example of the corruption in Ukraine, so it made us even more angry," said Drogomiretskiy, who came to Seattle in 1992. "We've never been so close as at this time. I was surprised that we might be so tight, that everybody is willing to travel so far to show support for Ukrainian democracy."

Sydorskyy, the doctorate student, said that when he first moved to Seattle from Edmonton, Canada, where 12 percent of the population claims Ukrainian origin, he knew just where to connect with other young Ukrainian professionals. All he had to do was type three words into his Internet search engine: "Seattle," "Ukrainian" and "church."

In the past few months, he tapped into those church networks to recruit interested Ukrainians and those eligible to vote. And he's still amazed by the results.

At the First Ukrainian Evangelical Baptist Church in Federal Way, nearly 500 people registered to vote. Another 100 did so from the Ukrainian-Greek Catholic Church in Seattle, which meets at the St. James Parish. And the Slavic Gospel Church in Federal Way, the largest Ukrainian-Russian church in the state, with a congregation of 2,800, lent their 50-passenger bus.

"The mood on our return trip was a huge adrenaline rush," said Sydorskyy, who studies cell biology at a Wallingford lab. "We had six or seven cellphones going all the time, with people constantly calling their relatives and friends in Ukraine asking how they were counting votes, and calling people here in Seattle who were sitting in front of their computers."

Eugene Lemcio, president of the 28-year-old Ukrainian-American Club of Washington, says these ties have to be maintained, no matter who is declared Ukraine's next president.

"There has to be a way to live beyond the election and to strengthen the democratic process in Ukraine," said Lemcio, a professor at Seattle Pacific University and co-chair of the Ukrainian Studies endowment at the University of Washington.

He says the best way to do this — and to save Ukrainians another pilgrimage to the consulate in San Francisco — is to establish a Ukrainian consulate in Seattle.

Rosario Daza: 206-464-2393 or rdaza@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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