Five Western New Yorkers are traveling to Ukraine to join US and international delegates who will be there to observe that nation's first round of a presidential election March 31.
WBFO met with Yuri Hreshchyshyn, president of the Buffalo Chapter of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, in advance of his trip. He spoke of his organization's initial interest in monitoring Ukrainian elections, beginning with an election which led to the nation's Orange Revolution.
"Back in 2004 there was an election where the results were questioned and there was a call by our group, the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, for election observers to come out and observe on the second round," said Yuri Hreshchyshyn, president of the UCCA's Buffalo Chapter.
"Again now it is time, after the invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops, after the Maidan Revolution in 2014 and (Petro) Poroschenko's election, the current president, it's time for that presidential election," Hreshchyshyn said. "So I got, as always, some friends interested in taking the trip with me and, this time around, it's five of us."
The delegation, in addition to Hreshchyshyn, includes Buffalo Common Councilmember David Franczyk, former Erie County Legislator and now Deputy Erie County Parks Commissioner Greg Olma, New York State Department of Health administrator Robert Sienkiewicz and businessman and Polish interest advocate Joseph Mikolaj Rej.
Rej has dual citizenship, in Poland and the US. His best-known Buffalo ventures include the Polish Happy Hour, a monthly event staged at various local venues. In an interview with WBFO, Rej explained that after Russian forces entered Ukraine in 2014 and annexed Crimea, he hosted a Polish-Ukrainian Solidarity Happy Hour to bring people of both ethnic backgrounds together.
The two nations have had a mix of cordial and hostile relations, including World War II-era atrocities which Hreshchyshyn acknowledged as "unfortunate." More recently, Poland and Ukraine have had better relations, including Poland's support for Ukraine's entry into the European Union and its refusal to recognize Russia's annexation of Crimea.
Rej sees this upcoming mission as a means to further improve relations.
"I look at the commonalities between Poland and Ukraine, or Polish and Ukrainian people, as something to build upon versus looking at the past that could possibly divide us," he said. "Obviously, there's a common threat in all of Europe and that's Russia."
Armed conflict has taken place in the Donbas region of Ukraine between Ukraine's army and Russian-backed separatists since Russians first entered the country to annex Crimea in 2014. There have been several cease-fires, including one set earlier this month, but most have been short-lived.
Ukrainian elections have also been turbulent, rife with voter intimidation and even claims by then-president Viktor Yushchenko in 2004 that he had been deliberately poisoned. The leadup to this month's elections have not lacked drama.
"The candidates themselves are at it quite vociferously and the outcome of this election is important," Hreshchyshyn said. "Whether we'll see any violations, I don't know. Certainly, the politics are rough right now. We'll see."