Volodymyr Valkov had no idea his native Ukraine would erupt in social unrest.
Now, the 26-year-old University of Wisconsin-La Crosse student stops to watch protesters every day during his downtown commute. Protests in his hometown don’t match the scope of the demonstrations in Ukraine’s capitol city, Kiev, but they still draw 30,000 to 40,000 people each day, Valkov said.
Valkov said the protests are both inspiring and intimidating. Inspiring, because social movements across the country are uniting people of different religions, languages and cultural backgrounds. Intimidating, because there is a real potential for violence.
“You can feel it on the ground how important it is,” Valkov said. “I do have a degree of concern that this might become bloodshed. I do.”
Valkov graduated from UW-L in 2007 with political science degree. He studied at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and earned a master’s degree from the Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, before returning home to Lviv in 2010.
During his time in La Crosse, Valkov worked with Jim Jorstad, UW-L’s director of academic technology services, who researches social media through CNN iReport.
Jorstad sent Valkov along on video shoots, but he noticed the student’s inquisitiveness and intelligence when it came to politics.
“He understands the social political environment so well,” Jorstad said. “This guy is going to go places.”
Valkov works for a human rights group in Lviv, a city of about 750,000 people in western Ukraine, near the border with Poland. He hasn’t been to the protests in Kiev, but he plans on making the trip.
Valkov’s time in western Wisconsin and his political science education at UW-L gave him the perspective he needed to question the actions by the Ukrainian government and President Viktor Yanukovych, Valkov said.
“My experience at the university has really helped me to become a much more open-minded person,” Valkov said. “I can spot a dictator right away.”
Yanukovych caused a furor last month when he snubbed a potential trade deal with the European Union. Yanukovych had already inspired the Orange Revolution in 2004 when he tried to steal an election. He was elected in 2010 and international observers declared the election was fairly conducted.
Yanukovych promised of “European integration,” Valkov said.
“With the ultimate goal of joining the European Union,” Valkov said.
Yanukovych promised to sign an association agreement with the EU, a stepping stone to membership. The agreement would have forced Ukraine to update its electoral process to meet European standards, with more transparency.
Pressured by businesses, Yanukovych backed out of signing the agreement, Valkov said. Protests began prior to Yanukovych’s actions, when government officials first showed hesitancy, Valkov said.
“It was not an anger reaction,” Valkov said. “It was not a backlash.”
Ukrainian protesters aren’t just upset about losing the economic benefits of the scuttled EU deal. The agreement had symbolized progress, toward a more modern, fair government, Valkov said.
“It was a strategic choice,” Valkov said. “It was really a choice of democracy.”
Valkov uses Twitter to follow whatever news he can, but the Ukrainian government has tried to “impose its will” and control how national media cover the movement, he said.
Valkov reached out to Jorstad over the Thanksgiving holiday, and asked if Jorstad would post a story about Ukraine’s political situation. Jorstad encouraged Valkov to make his on CNN iReport account and report the story.
Valkov took to the streets of Lviv to get footage.
“I was so proud that our student was in the middle of 30,000 people, trying to change the history of the country,” Jorstad said. “A UW-L student was reporting it live.”
Valkov thinks Yanukovych will resign and the protests will continue as peaceful demonstrations, despite what he described as violent provocation by government security forces.
Whatever happens will shape Ukrainian history, as the country heads down a path leading toward democracy or dictatorship, Valkov said.
“It’s a pivotal moment,” he said. “A choice has to be made.”