Political protesters outside an East Baltimore church yesterday afternoon hoisted signs, shouted slogans and sang songs of freedom. But the presidential election they railed against wasn't the contest between Bush and Gore, or even the one pitting Bush against Kerry.
The candidates this time? Yanukovych vs. Yushchenko.
Since Nov. 21, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych's disputed victory over opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko has kept tens of thousands of angry Ukrainians in the streets of the capital city Kiev. Yesterday, members of the Baltimore region's Ukrainian-American community entered the fray, holding its own sidewalk rally and candlelight vigil in Canton to support Yushchenko's candidacy.
"We are the children of immigrants and the American government needs to support the opposition in Ukraine," protest organizer Oksana Palijczuk, 51, of Towson said, taking a break from marching in front of St. Michael Ukrainian Catholic Church on Eastern Avenue, across from Patterson Park. "We are seeking the same God-given freedom for them that we enjoy here."
More than 70 people joined yesterday's rally in a state where some 20,000 claim Ukrainian heritage. Bundled against the afternoon chill, the protestors wore orange scarves, sweaters and jackets as a sign of solidarity with the color of Yushchenko's campaign, dubbed the "Orange Revolution."
Their signs - "Putin, don't be a terrorist" and "Criminals - Hands off Ukraine," among others - specifically blamed neighboring Russia for unduly influencing the election.
"Communism is not dead. And Russia refuses to let us go," said Olga Jaremko, 55, who immigrated to the United States in 1991 from Ternobil in western Ukraine shortly before the country declared its independence from the former Soviet Union.
Orest S. Deychakiwsky, staff adviser to the federal Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, just returned from Ukraine where he served as an international observer of the election. Deychakiwsky, who is of Ukrainian decent and lives in Beltsville, said yesterday that he witnessed opposition party officials being removed from local electoral commissions and other blatant examples of voter fraud. One polling place, he said, remained closed almost all day to discourage turnout for the opposition.
In one precinct, he said Yanukovych had 765 votes while Yushchenko had 1,221. By the time those tallies reached the central government, the figures had been switched to benefit Yanukovych, the current prime minister.
"It was a reversal of the count with a vengeance," said Deychakiwsky, who stopped by yesterday's rally, but did not participate.
After the election, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell criticized the results. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Maryland Democrat and the commission's ranking member, said recently that "the level of fraud witnessed by Ukrainian and international observers is shocking. I share in the hope that Ukrainians will be allowed to continue their peaceful protests in their quest for honest election results."
Pointing his finger and shaking a clenched fist yesterday afternoon, Andrij Chornodolsky tried to inspire the Baltimore crowd with a fiery speech.
The 59-year-old businessman from Timonium implored his fellow Ukrainian-Americans to send letters of protest to media organizations mistakenly portraying the election as simply between two opposing political parties. They must also raise money, he said, to support the opposition's campaign in the new election ordered by the Ukrainian Supreme Court at the end of this month.
"Ukraine will no longer accept a position on its knees," Chornodolsky said as the crowd applauded.
In Kiev, more than 1,000 tents have been pitched off the city's main square to house opposition supporters. The Baltimore rally had two on St. Michael's front lawn, but organizers said the number didn't matter.
"We put this all together pretty quickly," said Maria Kaczaniuk, 54, of Perry Hall, whose Ukrainian parents survived a World War II concentration camp. "But look at all the people we have. This campaign won't stop here."