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Ukraine Trade Union Leader Praises Revolution but Continues Fight for Change

(Washington DC--July 29, 2005) On November 22, 2004 Mikhail Volynets led a large group of miners into Kiev's main square to support Viktor Yushchenko and helped achieve democracy for his country in what is referred to as Ukraine's Orange Revolution. According to Volynets, the President of the Confederation for Free Trade Unions of Ukraine, "the revolution took place at the top level only" with the election of a democratic President and Prime Minister, "but on the local level nothing has changed." Speaking to a RFE/RL audience last week, Volynets said that is why he is concerned that economic reforms continue and political reforms deepen across the society.

Volynets and the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Ukraine have been staunch advocates for workers' rights and human rights in Ukraine. He reviewed the growth of the independent labor union in Ukraine, which began in 1989 with a miners' strike. "Our protest movement grew into a workers' movement" said Volynets. "The Solidarity Center [of the AFL-CIO] visited us," and soon the leaders of "the strike committees became leaders of trade unions." Over the last decade, "we made lots of mistakes," but when finally "we understood there was no democracy in our country, Volynets said, "journalists were [being] killed and this was connected to [the] top leaders. There was no plan to integrate with the West, so we moved to the opposition movement."

The independent labor unions have had lots of political experience because the political parties remain weak in Ukraine. Volynets said he brought miners to Kiev to support Ukraine's independence in 1991, and the miners supported the failed protests to oust President Leonid Kuchma in 2002. They actively supported Viktor Yushchenko in the presidential election of 2004.

Yushchenko's opponent, Viktor Yanukovych, had much support in the industrialized eastern and southern regions of Ukraine. According to Volynets, all information flows from Ukraine's democratic opposition to this area of the country were blocked, but 100 percent of Ukraine has information flowing from Russia. Because of this it was very difficult to gain supporters for Yushchenko in this part of the country.

After the run-off election in which the democratic opposition documented massive voter fraud and other election violations, Volynets argued for the protest tactics to remain peaceful. "Because I knew how to direct large groups of people," Volynets said, Yushchenko encouraged him to apply his organizational talents to the growing crowd of supporters. "I thought we should block the entrance to the Presidential Administration building and the Cabinet of Ministers to give the people the feeling that we were getting stronger," Volynets said. They took over the government controlled trade unions building on the city square and made it the control center for the protestors. "When people came from the provinces with food, clothing and blankets, we were able to tell them where the protestors from their town were located on the city square," he said.

Volynets confirms that President Kuchma and his police officials debated using deadly force against the protestors, particularly on 24 November. Volynets gives credit to Lech Walesa, the former Polish President who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 for his leadership of Poland's Solidarity movement, for helping to convince Kuchma not to use weapons against the protestors. Polish free trade unions delivered food to the protestors camped on Kiev's main city square, but most of protestors were fed daily by donations of local stores, restaurants and factories. "The whole population of the capital city supported us," Volynets said, "I've never felt such a feeling of unity and brotherhood."

Volynets, a member of Ukraine's parliament, believes that at least 57 percent of Ukraine's economy is still "a shadow economy," and that the old government's representatives and the Communist Party continue to undermine the parliament's efforts to reform the country. "We suppose the communists got their money from Russia," he said, "We don't know any other way to describe their aggressive position." He is very concerned that the democratic opposition wins the next parliamentary elections scheduled for spring 2006 in "a free and fair way."