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Reed College professor serves as Ukrainian election monitor
Her work as an independent monitor allowed sociologist Alexandra Hrycak to be witness to the birth of Ukrainian popular democracy
Portland, OR (February 7, 2005) - Since her early childhood, Alexandra Hrycak has heard stories about the hardships endured by the citizens of Ukraine. Her parents, both refugees from the Soviet Union, experienced the frightening reality of state-sponsored violence the Soviet Union unleashed in Ukraine. Growing up in New Jersey, Hrycak participated in demonstrations to support the Ukrainian human rights movement, though she was never confident local reformers would have a real impact on Ukraine’s authoritarian government. Having recently returned from Ukraine, however, where she served as an independent monitor in the December 26 repeat of the Ukrainian presidential election, Hrycak, 38, believes that Ukrainian civic activists have ushered in a new era of pride and civil liberties.
Hrycak, an associate professor of sociology at Reed College, has studied Ukrainian civic activism in-depth since her first research trip there in 1992. During her subsequent years of research in the country, Hrycak experienced firsthand both the population’s deep distrust of politics and government institutions, and the emergence of a broad variety of new civic groups that have helped create the foundations for Ukraine’s democratization.
When Hrycak first visited Ukraine, the country had just gained its freedom from the former Soviet Union and was still dominated by the fear that had allowed the Soviet state to maintain its stranglehold over politics and the society in the satellite. Hrycak found that many Ukrainians both mistrusted their government and doubted the existence of civil liberties. "The police were seen as a threat," Hrycak notes, "not as a source of protection. People feared the police because they were unsure whether, if they were mistakenly arrested, they would be able to dispute the charges. People regularly bribed the police, and had no faith in them as a source of protection."
More importantly, however, Hrycak saw a people dominated by fear. "It was a tragedy," Hrycak continues. "Most people in Ukraine did not believe that they had rights or civil liberties. The people did not have the self-confidence to defend themselves against misconduct. They were afraid to talk to me over the phone about politics because they feared that they might be under police surveillance."
In recent years, however, Hrycak has noted citizens have made great strides toward democracy. Democratization has been enabled by a multitude of civic groups that have emerged and grown stronger since her 1992 visit. These groups also helped to create the foundations for the Orange Revolution, named for the color of Ukraine’s opposition party, Our Ukraine.
In late November, the Orange Revolution began when Ukraine’s government announced that the previous president’s handpicked successor, Victor Yanukovych, had emerged victorious in the country’s presidential election. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens took to the streets to protest the results. International and domestic elections monitoring groups, as well as various Ukrainian civic groups and the supporters of opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko, documented massive fraud. In response, both Ukraine’s Parliament and Supreme Court declared the election invalid and proposed a repeat. At the center of this monumental turnaround stood the reinvigorated citizens of Ukraine, who, Hrycak believes "felt proud, and not afraid anymore."
This past December, Hrycak served as an elections monitor in Ukraine’s repeat runoff between Yanukovych and Yushchenko. Hrycak found that the Orange Revolution had transformed the mood surrounding popular participation in politics. "The people of Ukraine, for the first time since their liberation from the Soviet Union," Hrycak says, "felt proud that this was their country. They were also proud that they used peaceful action and discussion, not violence, to affect change. The important thing, though, is that they are no longer afraid to stand up for their beliefs and for themselves. They feel like it’s their country now."
Additionally, Hrycak discovered that Ukrainian students played an extremely important role in ensuring the election proceeded fairly. According to Hrycak, the students were the bravest of all of Yuschenko’s supporters. "The students faced oppression and were threatened with expulsion from their universities if they did not vote for the pro-governmental candidate. In spite of pressure from university administrators, the students stood up in protest of fraud, and even traveled to parts of the country that were heavily pro-Yanukovich to serve as elections monitors. As an educator, it was wonderful to see the central role that the students played in making this happen."
While she may have learned a lot from her time spent monitoring the election, Hrycak feels what Ukrainian people have achieved is of paramount importance. "The important, wonderful part of this experience is that we see the Ukrainian people using peaceful protest as a foundation on which political change and the defense of civil liberties can occur."
About Alex Hrycak
Alex Hrycak, associate professor of Sociology at Reed College, is an expert source on Ukrainian democracy and elections. She received her Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Chicago in 1998, and has taught at Reed since. She is the author of numerous articles on Ukrainian democracy, displays of nationalism in theatrical performance, and the former Soviet Union.
Reed College, in Portland, Oregon, is an undergraduate institution of the liberal arts and sciences dedicated to sustaining the highest intellectual standards in the country. With an enrollment of about 1,360 students, Reed ranks third in the undergraduate origins of Ph.D.s in the United States and second in the number of Rhodes Scholars from a liberal arts college (31 since 1915). For more information, visit web.reed.edu .