Bexley residents had the opportunity to gain some insight on the conflict in Ukraine last week as Rudy L. Hightower III, an Ohio State University professor and retired lieutenant commander of the U.S. Navy, spoke at the Bexley Public Library about the situation.
Hightower also shared details about his December 2013 visit to Kiev, the capital of the embattled nation, during the March 13 presentation.
Hightower is a doctorate candidate in the John Glenn School of Public Affairs at OSU, with a focus in international security and special expertise in the Black Sea region, where the Ukraine is located. An associate with the Ukraine Parliamentary Development Project, Hightower has made many trips to the Ukraine, which borders Russia and has a population of 45 million.
In spite of the political unrest in the region, Hightower said all of the pro-democracy protests he witnessed were peaceful and he never feared for his safety.
"Although it was very tense being there because it was anti-government (protests) and there had been some violence before I got there, I didn't have any real problems. I didn't feel any danger," he said. "I was a little bit nervous about the government troops (stationed throughout Kiev), because the government troops didn't really want to see international observers or someone in there seeing what was going on."
The political protests broke out in November 2013 after Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych's government rejected an accord with the European Union and instead chose to pursue stronger ties with Russia and President Vladimir Putin. Thousands of people descended on Kiev's Independence Square to protest the rolling back of democratic policies and integration with Europe.
Hightower said all the Ukraine citizens he encountered were friendly. When they noticed his hat emblazoned with the Ohio State Buckeyes logo and realized he was an American, they thanked him for traveling to their country.
"Being an American, the most difficult thing was not joining in" the pro-democracy demonstrations, Hightower said.
"I was there as an academic and had to stay neutral and see what was going on. But being an American and seeing what these people were sacrificing for democracy, you wanted to wave a flag with them and respond back when they do their cheers."
Hightower said one of the most interesting things he saw was a wooden structure spanning two city blocks on which people from countries around the world had scrawled messages in support for democracy.
While marveling at the sight as he walked down one Kiev street, he said, "I turned the corner, and this wooden brick wall of support for democracy went another city block."
Hightower said another impressive sight was a towering metal Christmas tree, set up in a public space and normally decorated with holiday ornaments, but at that time was covered with political statements and flags from democratic countries.
"This tree was pretty symbolic," he said. "There was an incredible amount of international support for what was going on there, this pro-democracy movement."
In spite of the pro-democracy movement, preliminary results from a March 16 referendum showed that the majority of citizens in Crimea, an autonomous republic in the southwest region of Ukraine, voted to become part of Russia.
Hightower said he continues to monitor the situation in Ukraine and plans another research trip there in May after the conclusion of Ohio State's spring semester. He said he believes the pro-democracy movement in Ukraine will continue, based on the political demonstrations he observed during his December visit.
"The feeling was more of a revolution, that 'We're going to change the whole way of government. We're going to try to get rid of corruption, change the whole way of life that we have here in the Ukraine,' " he said.
"It went from just a pro-democracy protest to more of a revolution of how we're going to live and the future for our children and our grandkids."