Poroshenko Builds Support Among Ukrainians Abroad in Visit to U.S.
BOUND BROOK, N.J. — While residents of Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, laid flowers and candles on the square where protesters died in a popular uprising five years ago, the country’s president was in New York on Wednesday to commemorate the anniversary.
In a speech to the United Nations and in meetings with the Ukrainian-American diaspora in New Jersey, President Petro O. Poroshenko expressed gratitude for international backing for Ukraine.
“For five years, the Ukrainian people have been living amid the longest hot conflict in Europe in its modern history,” Mr. Poroshenko said at the United Nations, speaking of the war with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. “Almost daily, we lose our best sons and daughters.”
Mr. Poroshenko is also facing an election next month in which the diaspora vote is seen as pivotal to his hopes. His popularity, dented by accusations of corruption, has dipped sharply at home, but Ukrainians abroad have rallied around the president and his government, with many sending money, warm clothes and even weapons to the Ukrainian Army.
“The fact that President Poroshenko came here means that he wants to be with us on this important day, and that he values the support of the U.S. in this moment,” said Veronika Plisak, who came to America in 1990s and attended his New Jersey appearance.
Mr. Poroshenko was an early backer of the protesters who flooded Independence Square in Kiev, beginning in late 2013, in support of a trade agreement with the European Union.
Russia opposed the deal and Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, refused to sign it. Mr. Poroshenko’s support for the deal led to Russian sanctions against his businesses, a chain of chocolate and candy stores.
The demonstrations snowballed, becoming a raucous party with rock concerts and gigantic crowds in the city’s center that extended for months, though the threat of police violence always loomed.
In the movement’s final days, five years ago this month, violent street fighting broke out as the police strove to clear the square and the protesters defended a small, soot-smeared section by burning their own tents and whatever else came to hand, including old tires, to form a defensive perimeter. About 100 people died and hundreds more were wounded.
The tragedy in the center of a European city that left bodies lined up on the sidewalk seemed to galvanize Ukraine’s commitment to democratic reforms. Mr. Yanukovych was forced out of office and fled to Russia, clearing the way for new elections that put Mr. Poroshenko in office.
Within weeks of the ouster of its ally, Russia retaliated with economic measures against Ukraine, it forcibly annexed Crimea, and Russian-backed separatists began a war against Ukraine in two eastern provinces that is still underway.
While the grinding conflict and backsliding by Mr. Poroshenko’s administration on economic and political overhauls have tarnished the revolution’s ideals for Ukrainians at home, the 2014 uprising still resonates in the diaspora.
About 200 Ukrainian-Americans, some from as far away as Ohio, came out in a persistent snow to see Mr. Poroshenko and attend a Mass at St. Andrew Memorial Church in Bound Brook, the central institution in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the United States.
The Orthodox Church in Ukraine was granted independence last month, splitting from the Russian church. Archbishop Daniel, an influential figure in the American church hierarchy, said the move strengthened “religious ties between the community here and that in Ukraine.”
For Lesia Mahlay, a Ukrainian-American who teaches English to recent Ukranian immigrants, the visit was of great importance.
“For us it shows he is with the community here and wants to remember the anniversary with us,” said Ms. Mahlay, whose students include seminarians.
“The ones who have just come over keep me updated on all the recent developments, and they’re very worried about everything.”
Andrew Kramer contributed reporting.