Vladyslav Antonov, 23, can passionately give a play-by-play rundown of protest-related videos he carries around with him on a flash drive, in this case while in the East Tennessee State University library. He shows what he calls clear cases of corruption and institutionalized brutality in his country of birth.
His life has changed dramatically over the course of the last two months. The Chernigov, Ukraine, native, was in that nation’s capital, Kiev, just weeks ago when Arizona Senator and former presidential nominee John McCain was there to talk to the massive crowds that had assembled in protest of President Viktor Yanukovych’s breaking of his promise to ink a deal with the European Union and pull ties away from Russia.
That decision, made back in late November, was the catalyst for ever-growing protests in Ukraine. Antonov said instead of hearing out the demands of the protesters, made up of mostly students and people with young families, Yanukovych swept their ideas under the rug as piddling civil disobedience.
“He ignored the existence of the will of hundreds of thousands of people in his own country,” Antonov said about the president he calls a “bandit” and a “criminal.”
When he attended many protests in both Chernigov and in Kiev, he said he was sure law enforcement had him profiled and were monitoring he and others fighting for a democratic government. He had to delete his social media accounts and all the pictures he could.
Now that he’s arrived in Johnson City, he feels a lot safer, having decided to pursue a degree in biology at ETSU with the hopes of becoming a veterinarian. His love of animals comes from his background in Ukraine, where he was on the canine unit in the military, helping train dogs and officers for protection at the borders. He said a great deal of his work was looking for drugs, cigarettes, alcohol and people being smuggled from Asia into other parts of Europe, using the Ukraine as a buffer zone.
The corruption he protested against he said he witnessed first hand. Antonov said the current Yanukovych administration is in bed with the Russians, and their collective corruption usually only benefits the extremely wealthy.
When he was in the military about four years ago, on the eve of an election, one of his superiors came into his barracks to speak with him and his fellow soldiers. His superior told them plainly that they needed to vote for Yanukovych, and, if they didn’t, they would not get any kind of bonus, and their holiday would be slashed from 10 days to three.
He voted Yanukovych. You didn’t go against what you were told, he said. One of his friends did, and he’s been having trouble ever since. Those with government positions like judges and police officers, or any government officials, are the ones benefiting from keeping Yanukovych in power.
An example Antonov gives is that a normal police officer will make about the equivalent of $280 per month in the Ukraine, but somehow live a life of luxury, driving a fancy car and living in a mansion.
Those police, Antonov said, are the ones carrying out the will of the president. Antonov promises all the protests being seen on the international news were organized and peaceful, but were also corrupted by Yanukovych’s inside forces. The police, Antonov said, were the only ones being violent, often beating young protesters to a pulp if not making them mysteriously disappear all together.
When protesters made sure to stay non-violent, Yanukovych would hire $30-per-day hooligans, called Titushkis, to act as protesters. The Titushkis would then purposefully get violent with the police to incite Yanukovych’s ability to call the protests violent.
Antonov said this is a goal of Yanukovyc, to reach that level of violence so he can declare a Ukrainian version of martial law upon the country and regain any control he might have lost.
In attempt to ignore any progress made by the government’s opposition, Antonov said a string of laws put in place by Yanukovych infuriated his protesters. These included disallowing protesters to wear helmets, even though there were reports of police hitting peaceful protesters in the head with batons; requiring every citizen to register their cell phones with the government for monitoring purposes; and mandating all protests first receive government approval.
Antonov said as the protesters continue to attempt to take back the country from the current government, one of the 24 total regions at a time, their demands are simple. They want to overthrow Yanukovych’s government and replace it with a true democracy, have all held protesters and journalists be released and also hold all those involved with the corruption and cruelty responsible.
They’ve aired their demands from the beginning, he said, and have not had any luck. If anything, Antonov said Yanukovych tightened his dictator-like grip around the country, so the protesters’ only way to get their country back is to use force to displace the president.
Recently, Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Yanukovich and told him that the U.S. recommends he stop using violence against the protesters and listen to their demands.
Antonov, now living the U.S. for the first time, said five protesters have lost their lives already and Biden’s words made him proud.
“That’s what I love about this country,” he said.