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Cali Owings, Published March 11 2014

Instructor from Russia criticizes pro-Ukrainian tilt of panel discussion at Concordia

MOORHEAD — International tensions mounted here at a Concordia College panel for local Ukrainians to share perspectives on the ongoing crisis in their home country.

Oksana Bihun, a Concordia assistant math professor from the Ukraine, gave an overview of how the crisis has escalated from peaceful student protests in Kiev against ousted president Viktor Yanukovich to violent conflict and most recently, perceived Russian aggression in Crimea, a republic of Ukraine.

In a packed room filled with students, faculty and community members, Bihun and three other Ukrainians living in the Fargo-Moorhead area weighed in on the situation. The differences of opinion that arose following their remarks mirrored conflict overseas between Ukraine and Russia.

Local Ukrainians expressed support for protesters, a lack of confidence in the Ukrainian government, mistrust of Russian media and disapproval for Russian involvement in Crimea.

But Elena Atitsogbui, a Concordia instructor from Russia, stood up to criticize the panel for being too homogenous. It was comprised of mostly western Ukrainians and didn’t include representatives from traditionally more pro-Russian areas in the east and Crimea.

She said the panelists’ arguments were based on emotion and students should have been exposed to more objective opinions.

Most speakers admitted it was an emotional topic for them.

Bihun paused while sharing a photo of protesters who were killed.

“I feel grateful when I look at this that they have fought,” she said. “And I also feel guilty for the times that I thought they would not be able to topple that regime.”

Roman Kovbasnyk, who has lived in Fargo for two years, said it was difficult to be objective.

“It has been a very emotional time for all Ukrainians,” Kovbasnyk said. “You’re trying to suppress your emotions, you’re trying to be objective and tell people the truth, and it’s not easy, as you might see, for anybody.”

He drew parallels between the young audience made up of mostly Concordia students and the young protesters in Kiev’s Independence Square.

“Those young students that were killed, they were very smart and educated young guys,” he said. “They were just regular kids, most of them.”

He said they were fighting against political oppression, corruption and racketeering.

“So basically we are talking about some basic human needs and some democratic values that young generations of Ukrainians were trying to pursue. They were fighting furiously for that,” he said.

Going forward, the panelists told audience members to be critical of where they are getting their information and to be wary of “Russian propaganda.”

Kovbasnyk said he gets his information from a network of friends still living and working in Ukraine.

He encouraged people to read from a broad variety of sources, analyze them and make their own conclusions about what’s happening in the country.

Atitsogbui, who criticized the panel, said Western economists and politicians were credible sources on the issue. She handed out an op-ed from former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, published in the Washington Post, which favored the will of Ukraine’s people and argued against Russian annexation of Crimea.

She said she didn’t think the crisis would have a long-standing impact on the relationships between Russians and Ukrainians.

“Peace between Russia and Ukraine — that’s the most important thing,” she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Cali Owings at (701) 241-5599