Will Orange Revolution help Ukrainians improve their reputation in the Czech Republic?

Ukraine, photo: CTK

Ukraine went to the polls this Sunday for a re-run of the second round of the presidential election. With most votes counted, the western-leaning opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko is said to have taken an unbeatable lead over the Moscow-backed opponent Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.

Viktor Yushchenko, photo: CTK
Upon the news of his victory, Mr Yushchenko proclaimed a new era of democracy in his country and said it was a victory of the Ukrainian people as the nation had become free.

But the road to victory was not an easy one. First Viktor Yushchenko claimed - claims that were later confirmed - to have been poisoned with large doses of dioxin. He is convinced it was an attempt by the Ukrainian authorities to knock him out of the race. Then thousands of Yushchenko supporters took to the streets to protest against Yanukovych's declared victory. In their words, it was a fight against corruption, a fight for freedom and democracy. The masses, wrapped up in orange hats and scarves - Yushchenko's colours - slept only in tents in the freezing cold, vowing not to leave until the election was declared rigged. Their efforts paid off when the Supreme Court annulled the results and called a re-run of the second round.

In the month or so of what has been called the Orange Revolution, the eyes of the world were on Ukraine. And in the Czech Republic? Lenka Knapova is from the Ukrainian Initiative in the Czech Republic:

Viktor Yanukovych, photo:CTK
"Today, Ukraine has adopted a position where people have something to fight for the first time since it gained independence. They can for the first time choose what they want and like - they are not forced to choose the lesser of two evils but now have the chance to choose what they think will work and is best. This means a lot to all Ukrainians here in the Czech Republic. They have been following the elections with much enthusiasm and decided to leave for home to take part in the elections, despite the Christmas holiday."

According to official statistics, there are some 70,000 Ukrainians in the Czech Republic's population of ten million. Unofficially, there are twice as many. The Ukrainian minority outnumbers the Slovaks, Vietnamese, and Croatians. But Ukrainians do not enjoy a good reputation in the Czech Republic. To Czechs they are either cheap labour that takes jobs away from locals, or criminals who are linked to the Russian mafia.

"Ukrainians here in the Czech Republic are faced with a difficult situation. In Ukraine the economic situation is much worse than here in the Czech Republic. So here, they are forced to work for very low wages. I know that Czechs do not like Ukrainians very much mainly because the Ukrainians take up jobs. But it's not right because Czechs wouldn't do the job under the same conditions anyway."

The presidential elections in Ukraine, photo: CTK
"I don't have anything against them. They live and work here in the Czech Republic. But many of them are involved in crimes and that's why the people here don't like them."

"I feel sorry for the Ukrainians because they are very poor. Last summer I went to Ukraine and loved the people there. I felt at home because many people there worked in the Czech Republic. When I went to a shop they were happy and said I was a member of the family who has come from the Czech Republic. It was very nice to speak with the people about the Czech Republic and Prague.

"But the country is very poor and I think many people in the Czech Republic don't like Ukrainians because some of them commit robberies and other bad things. I was also attacked robbed by a Ukrainian four years ago. The police caught him. It wasn't a nice experience but the people are very poor and I can understand their life."

The Ukrainian Initiative's Lenka Knapova again:

"It is a very big problem because Czechs have had this large antipathy towards Ukrainians which is somewhat founded but far too exaggerated. What led to this was the large influx of illegal workers. Some were involved in criminal activity, which created very unpleasant feelings among the Czech majority. Czechs also don't like the Ukrainian character. But I must say that the media played a very significant role in this. They actually had a witch hunt on Ukrainians, which only ended about a year ago. Since then the situation has been improving bit by bit."

Ukraine, photo: CTK
Most Czechs are unaware that many Ukrainians living in the Czech Republic have much respected jobs such as lawyers or doctors. Ukrainians in the Czech Republic are now hoping that their pro-western president elect and the Orange Revolution will shed a different light on the Ukrainian people:

"The Orange Revolution had a lot of meaning. Besides surprising the world, Ukrainians surprised themselves. They realised that they were able to hold massive protests in the streets, stick together and stay strong together until their conditions are met. Before that, the world had ignored Ukraine for thirteen years. Now, the world is beginning to realise that Ukraine exists and wants to fight for democracy. Ukrainians stopped everything they were doing and went to fight for their right. After thirteen years, a civic society has been born in Ukraine."

Thousands of Czechs took to the streets in 1989 to demand democracy and bring down the Communist regime. So, how do Czechs feel about Ukrainians now that they've had their revolution?

"In my opinion, Czechs never really took notice of what was going on in Ukraine. Thanks to the revolution, we now know other things about Ukraine than we have been hearing and seeing here. This will definitely change things. It shows us that there are normal, regular people in Ukraine too."

"I think it will be better in Ukraine but I don't believe there will be a change in the Czech Republic. The problems with work will be the same. Maybe in the future but I don't know. I hope so."