Is Taiwan’s Solidarity With Ukraine Taking Root?

Is Taiwan’s Solidarity With Ukraine Taking Root?
Photo Credit: Yoshiki Go

What you need to know

Since the day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, crowds have gathered every day in front of the office of the de facto Russian embassy.

TAIPEI, TAIWAN – “We didn’t know each other before the first protests,” said Oleksandr Shyn, a Ukrainian resident in Taipei. “We met most Ukrainian people there.”

Since the day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, crowds have gathered every day in front of the office of the Moscow-Taipei Coordination Commission, demanding that the Russian army stop the war. On Sunday, more than 300 demonstrators attended the protest in Liberty Square in downtown Taipei.

Unlike many other European countries, Ukraine doesn’t have a representative office in Taiwan, making its affairs with Taiwan responsibilities of the Moscow office, which serves as a de facto Russian embassy. (The office hasn’t responded to a request for comment on the protests by time of publication.)

There are fewer than 250 Ukrainians in Taiwan, not including individuals holding dual citizenship, according to Taiwan’s government figures for January 2022.

“We’re certainly pretty united in our opposition to what’s happening and support for Ukraine,” Alex Khomenko, a Ukrainian-American who helped organize the rallies in support of the Eastern European nation’s resistance in Taipei, said. “But we’re also very dispersed around Taiwan.”

“Plurality of voices”

In the protests, participants included not only Ukrainians but also Taiwanese people, Hong Kongers, and residents from Central and Eastern European countries, including Lithuania, Poland, and the Czech Republic. Some held banners that read “Russia out of Ukraine” and “Long live freedom, Ukraine!”

Yi-hsuan Li, a Taiwanese journalist, said she showed up to support “democracy and self-determination.” 

“If something happened in East Asia, I hope there would be foreigners willing to speak out for us, too,” Li added. She told me in the protests in London against Israel’s bombardment of Gaza last year, East Asians were scant. 

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Photo Credit: Bryan Chou
Protesters gathered in front of the building of the Moscow-Taipei Coordination Commission in Taipei, Taiwan, February 26, 2022.

Marcin Jerzewski, an analyst for the European Values Center for Security Policy based in Taipei, believes Eastern European support for Ukraine matters as the “plurality of voices is a meaningful tool in combating false narratives about the war.” 

“Conspicuous manifestations of solidarity – for example, in the form of daily protests in front of the Moscow-Taipei Coordination Commission – help amplify voices of the Ukrainian community,” he added.

Ričardas Sedinkinas, a Lithuanian resident in Taiwan speaking in the protests, said the presence of the Lithuanian community represented solidarity with “all Ukrainians in their big sorrow for their country.”

“What Ukraine is experiencing now is what Lithuania experienced in the past when we were to become independent,” said Sedinkinas, whose country was among the first to break away from the Soviet Union in 1990.

Taiwan-Europe relations

In recent years, Taiwan has formed a much closer relationship with several Central and Eastern European countries, which lived under Soviet rule or influence for decades.

During the pandemic, Lithuania, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic donated thousands of vaccine doses to Taiwan in response to its offer of medical-grade masks. In the first case, the unexpected offer sparked a shopping spree for Lithuanian-produced chocolate and beer. 

In November, the Lithuanian government agreed to the establishment of a representative office bearing the name “Taiwan” in the capital Vilnius, which irritated China. Taiwan later bought a batch of Lithuanian dark rum bound for China after it was rejected at Chinese customs.

On February 25, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen condemned Russian military operations in Ukraine, claiming they “destroyed regional and global stability.” She said yesterday in a tweet that she hoped “freedom and democracy can continue to blossom in both our countries.”

Taiwan and Ukraine share common democratic values and respect for freedom, Shyn said. While Taiwan is considered a “full democracy,” according to a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit, he told me Ukraine is “on our way” but the war has distracted the government from necessary political reforms.

He believes Ukraine should “jump on the train” in Taiwan’s honeymoon period with many Central and Eastern European countries, but “we didn’t see any action from the Ukrainian government. Ukraine’s attachments to China are strong.” By 2019, China has replaced Russia as Ukraine’s biggest trading partner.

Yet Khomenko seemed optimistic about the development of Ukraine-Taiwan relations. “I’m sure Ukraine would be open to it after what Taiwan had done to help, in due time.”

The Taiwanese government has established a fund for Ukrainian refugees, which collected around US$10 million in five days, according to Foreign Minister Joseph Wu. The ministry has also launched a campaign calling for the public to donate necessities like clothes and masks to Ukraine’s neighboring countries.

Temir Sakavov, a Kazakh resident in Taiwan with family in Russia and Ukraine, said, “Ukraine is not [a] resources-based autocratic giant like Russia, so people can democratically decide how their relationships will develop with Taiwan.”

Help at civil society level

Khomenko said the Lithuanians and Poles have been at the forefront of helping Ukrainians in Taiwan organize citywide protests, being minority communities themselves. As of January, only 413 Polish and 57 Lithuanian citizens registered as residents in Taiwan.

On March 7, Polish and Lithuanian artists launched a 24-hour vigil in Taipei’s Wanhua district, sticking blue and yellow notes on the walls of a performance space to show solidarity with Ukrainians fighting on the ground.

Residents from these countries also gave Ukrainians tips about how to mobilize crowds for a common cause, but Shyn emphasized that Taiwan has been the most supportive of Ukraine’s fight against Russia’s invasion among East Asian countries. Protests in support of the Eastern European nation are taking place outside of Taipei, including the second biggest city Taichung.

“We have to work on acknowledging it as Ukrainians, not just Ukrainians in Taiwan. After the war, we have to stop and think about what Taiwan has done for us,” Shyn said.

He currently works for the Liberal Democratic League of Ukraine, a human rights organization formed in the aftermath of the Maidan Revolution. In 2014, at the end of a wave of civil unrest that erupted in response to President Viktor Yanukovych’s sudden decision not to sign a free trade agreement with the European Union, protesters ousted the elected leader and overthrew the government.

In March 2014, in what became the beginning of the Sunflower Movement, a group of Taiwanese students occupied the Legislative Yuan in protest against the passing of a bill by the Kuomintang government that would allow Chinese investment in Taiwan’s service sector.

For Ukrainians, the sunflower symbolizes peace and resistance against Russia’s military intervention. “Maybe one day [when] we have a Ukraine-Taiwan friendship organization, we can choose the sunflower as our symbol,” Shyn said.

Read Next: What Ukraine Means for Taiwan’s Security

Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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