Compelling news from the refugee and migrant sector
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Ukrainian solidarity on show at Melbourne art exhibition

22 December 20220 comments

At a small gathering at an art exhibition in Melbourne’s Docklands the quiet courage is almost palpable.

Ukraine’s ambassador to Australia is meeting with a group of recently arrived refugees from his war-torn homeland.

Ambassador Vasyl Myroshnychenko talks amiably with about 30 new arrivals at the exhibition by Ukrainian-Australian artist Maru Jarockyj.

Ms Jarocky’s art is a representation of Ukrainian, culture, pride and history – themes all currently under threat of obliteration by Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion.

Ambassador Myroshnychenko said he was pleased to be able to show solidarity with the refugees, who are being supported by migrant settlement agency AMES Australia in their first months in Australia.

“It’s important that we stand together at time like this when our very existence as a nation is under threat,” he said.

Speaking at the event, Ambassador Myroshnychenko thanked Australia for its support in his nation’s hour of need. The federal government has so far contributed $400 million to Ukraine’s effort to defend itself. 

Mr Myroshnychenko also highlighted the scale of destruction wrought on Ukraine to date and the work of reconstruction that will be required, saying that help would be welcomed from a variety of sources as well as from Australia’s Ukrainian community.

His experience of western nations and his expertise in media and PR has made him an ideal candidate for the position of ambassador – a role which sees him pushing the cause of his country across Australia.

At the age of 15 he went on a year-long exchange at a Tennessee high school in the US.

He says it was an eye-opening experience and a trip of a lifetime for the boy from a small town of Volochysk in Western Ukraine. It was also where he discovered the importance of his Ukrainian identity.

“It was a life-changing experience. Only when you go abroad do you realise how different you are,” he said.

“I had to explain where I was from and what my country was like. Not many people in Tennessee knew about Ukraine.”

Years later Mr Myroshnychenko did an internship at the US embassy in Kyiv as he completed his studies in international relations, giving him a first taste of foreign affairs.

“I was working at the public affairs section of the embassy. At the time we worked on a visit by Bill Clinton to Ukraine. It was an interesting time and I saw how foreign affairs works in the real world,” he said.

Later, Mr Myroshnychenko went overseas again studying for a Master’s Degree in Politic Science at the London School of Economics. But unlike many Ukrainians in the post-Soviet era, he returned home to build a career.

“I thought I could make a bigger impact in Ukraine and that I could achieve much more in Ukraine than anywhere else. And, if I had stayed in London, I would not be where I am today,” Mr Myroshnychenko said.

Along his journey the ambassador created an international communications consultancy and was involved in the staging of the Eurovision Song Contest for the best part of a decade.

In a recent speech at the Australian National University, Mr Myroshnychenko told how he contributed to Ukraine’s Eurovision win in 2004 through a clever PR campaign designed to promote its contestant Ruslana, while also promoting the country’s reputation overseas.

Mr Myroshnychenko’s work in influencing threw him into the spotlight in 2014 when protesters flooded Kyiv’s Maidan Square after Ukraine’s former pro-Putin president Viktor Yanukovych back flipped on a deal with the European Union.

The peaceful rally by university students turned into a near revolt when ‘special police’ brutally attacked the crowd. More than 100 people were killed during the Revolution of Dignity, which eventually led to Yanukovych being ousted from power.

Mr Myroshnychenko’s office was at the centre of the chaos and he became a go-to commentator for foreign media covering the protest.

Subsequently, he set up an alternative media centre to help boost the coverage of the crisis and give ordinary Ukraine’s a voice.

His media-savvy approach is standing him in good stead today as he pushes Ukraine’s case for more support in Australia. Also active on social media, he was at the forefront of a campaign for the removal of a Melbourne mural depicting a Ukrainian fighter embracing a Russian solider.

Like most Ukrainians, Ambassador Myroshnychenko says the Russian invasion took him by surprise.

“The US was warning of an invasion but I don’t think people were taking it seriously and really nobody want to believe it,” he said.

“It turned out not to be a joke, The Russians did invade and they started killing us.”

At 5am on February 24, he was woken by his wife who told him: “the war has started”.

Mr Myroshnychenko says Russian President Vladimir Putin was encouraged to invade by weak responses from the west to his invasions of Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014.

“He probably thought the timing is good because Biden is weak — his withdrawal from Afghanistan was a disaster, there’s a new untested government in Germany, there are upcoming elections in France and a comedian is running the country in Ukraine. He thought ‘OK, I’m going to invade them’” he said.

“But Putin didn’t expect our resistance.”

Mr Myroshnychenko was appointed ambassador to Australia at short notice after a recommendation from the Foreign Minister of Ukraine Dmytro Kuleba.

He began the role on April 1 and he rates his biggest achievement over his five months in the job as convincing Anthony Albanese to travel to Ukraine just five weeks after the Prime Minister was elected.

But with the European winter approaching, and Russia weaponising its energy industries, Mr Myroshnychenko fears his country will soon be face the threat of a winter without power.

“We have to survive the winter. But because we depend on Russian gas for supplies, it could be very tough. It would be great if Australia could send more coal,” he said.

The ambassador says a lot will depend on how Europe stands up to Putin.

But he says the stakes are high for the entire world.

“This affects everyone and not just because of the economic volatility. If you allow one country to change the borders and impose its will on another country, you will embolden other leaders to do the same thing,” Mr Myroshnychenko said.

“In Ukraine we are defending the values Australians also find important. These are things like democracy, human rights and freedom.

“I think this is all summed up in the great Australian tradition of a fair go,” Ambassador Myroshnychenko said.