Ukrainian Americans Watching Elections

They've wrapped trees and fences with ribbons and balloons of bright orange — the campaign color of the man they hope will be Ukraine's (search) next president. At a local credit union, they gather to watch the one television tuned to Ukrainian news coverage of massive protests in Kiev and send thousands of dollars to help.

All across the United States, Ukrainian Americans have been showing support for what they see as Ukraine's best chance to break away from Russian influence and become a real democracy. And nowhere has that been more apparent than in Chicago's Ukrainian Village, one of the country's largest Ukrainian enclaves.

"I haven't seen such solidarity in the Ukrainian community in a long time," said Orest Danyluk, a 58-year-old lifelong resident whose parents, like many others, moved here after World War II to flee Russian rule of their homeland.

"They feel they have an opportunity to make a difference, have an impact and change the course of Ukraine," said Bohdan Watral, the president and CEO of Selfreliance Ukrainian American Federal Credit Union (search), which is showing the Ukrainian news and has collected more than $350,000 to send to the protesters in Kiev.

What brought people together was a Nov. 21 run-off election between Kremlin-backed Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych (search) and opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko. When Yanukovych was declared the winner, opposition in the Ukraine and around the world alleged massive fraud.

"Up until three or four weeks ago, we felt like something needed to be done, but it was like 'let someone else do it,"' said Mykola Bagan, an owner of Chicago-based Ukrainian Independent Radio, 850 AM. "Then, after Nov. 21, it was, 'No, we've got to do something."'

Thousands of Ukrainians descended on the capital Kiev to protest, waving banners and chanting in the freezing cold for days on end. As the protest continued, the Supreme Court invalidated the election and ordered a new vote for Dec. 26, and the Ukrainian parliament this week adopted a package of electoral and constitutional changes.

In Chicago, the explosion of orange was just the most obvious sign of support. The village, with three Ukrainian churches, Ukrainian National Museum and other Ukrainian institutions, has long been the focal point for the thousands of people of Ukrainian ancestry in the area — 100,000 by the Ukrainian consulate's estimate and about 46,000 by the U.S. Census Bureau's count. But this was different.

People have streamed into the credit union to donate money to help the protesters in Kiev. A few gave $1,000 but most gave $10 to $100. In all, said Watral, about 1,800 donated more than $350,000 to send the protesters for food, clothing, medicine and tents — anything to help.

As in other U.S. cities, the local Ukrainian population gathered for rallies, and about 400 people drove to Washington, D.C., for a rally there.

Nobody, it seems, can get enough news from the Ukraine. It dominates conversations in restaurants, coffee shops and on street corners.

It's the same story at the credit union, particularly since the television in the waiting room was hooked to an Internet feed of a Ukrainian station that shows live coverage of the protests.

"People will come here and stay all day long," Watral said.

One of those is Wasyl "Bill" Klowatys, an 83-year-old retired owner of a radio and television repair shop who fled his homeland in 1952 when it was under the control of the Soviet Union.

Like many in the community, Klowatys still believes the country is a "dictatorship" under the control of Russia even though it became an independent country in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"We want democracy in Ukraine like the United States," said Klowatys, who donated $150 at the credit union a couple of weeks ago and has been returning every day to watch the news. "That's why people are excited."

That excitement is evident on the streets, said John Oharenko, who grew up in the neighborhood. He said more Ukrainian Americans from the suburbs and tourists are descending on the community.

"They want to witness the orange karma," he said.