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Sergey Dolzhenko / EPA

Revolutionary hopes dim in Kyiv as political strife escalates

With violence raging in Ukraine’s east, residents of capital grow disillusioned with the outcome of Maidan protests

KYIV, Ukraine — From a plastic lawn chair set up outside an aging military tent on Kyiv’s Independence Square, or Maidan, Viktor Labazov led a heated discussion with several protesters and journalists about corruption.

The tent belonged to the National Movement of Ukraine, a nationalist party. Labazov, a former regional deputy from the Chernihiv region, argued that the Maidan protests — which earlier this year ousted President Viktor Yanukovych — have inspired progress by motivating ordinary Ukrainians to change their way of thinking about everyday corruption.

“After and even during the height of Maidan, people stopped paying bribes to doctors or plumbers, which we normally had to do just for them to do their jobs,” he said. “More and more people are saying ‘no, no, no.’ This is significant.”

While that change is a step forward, many activists like Labazov are frustrated with the interim government’s progress in implementing the revolution’s demands, and by a worsening economy.

Maidan activists have called for the Ukrainian government to adopt anti-corruption laws and political reforms that would break down the power structure created under the Yanukovych regime. They also demanded prosecution of those who ordered the shooting of protesters on Maidan. One of the strongest calls has been for ridding the government of politicians who have any hint of a corrupt past.

But now, with the east falling deeper into a violent crisis between Russia supporters and pro-Western Ukrainians, the people behind Maidan are seeing their revolution’s agenda put on the back burner as security fears around the country start to take precedent. Many blame the current government, which took power in late February after ousting the Moscow-favored Yanukovych, for not doing enough to keep the Crimean peninsula from falling into the hands of Russia.

Now they fear a lack of coordinated effort and political strength to go up against the pro-Russian separatists in the east, who have promised to hold a referendum on regional sovereignty on May 11. They fear the industrial heartland of the country, known as the Donbas, or even areas of southern Ukraine along the Black Sea coast, could also be split away.

“The new government isn’t new, it’s just the same people in the different positions,” said Petro Okhotin, a political adviser for the Open Dialogue Foundation in Kyiv. “People are calling for lustration on a major scale. That is the only way they believe things will change, to get rid of the old guard.”

But instead the country feels as if it is starting to fall apart. The Ukrainian military’s “anti-terrorist operation” aimed at taking back dozens of civic buildings in the control of pro-Russian activists has stalled several times, with losses on both sides. It has angered eastern Ukrainians, who view it as unwarranted aggression from a deeply mistrusted Kyiv government.

Many easterners believe they are being attacked for expressing their wish for more regional autonomy. In a poll conducted in late April by the Pew Research Center, only 24 percent of Ukrainians in the east said they believed the central government in Kyiv had a good influence on the country. Still, 70 percent in the east said they’d like to remain within Ukraine. 

The new government isn’t new, it’s just the same people in the different positions. People are calling for lustration on a major scale.

Petro Okhotin

Open Dialogue Foundation political adviser

Last week’s clashes in the Black Sea port city of Odessa, in which more than 40 people — most of them pro-Russian — were killed, were a turning point in Ukraine’s now six-month-long crisis. During the clashes, the city’s police often seemed to just walk away from the violence, which for many came to symbolize a growing lack of government control. In fact, two days previously, acting President Oleksandr Turchynov had declared that the central government had indeed lost control of the eastern regions, where local, interior and police forces in some cases had given up their arms and sided with the rebels.

“What happened in Odessa was very depressing,” said Vera Nanivka, the honorary president of the International Center for Policy Studies, a think tank in Kyiv. “After that, we understood that our government is not able to protect us, and that we must do it ourselves.” A perceived lack of security in Ukraine has spurred Maidan’s “self-defense teams” into action. The volunteer groups are loosely organized into battalions and conduct paramilitary training in camps outside of Kyiv.

This week, several teams left Kyiv for hot spots like Odessa and Kharkiv, vowing to protect pro-Kyiv Ukrainians in places where government police and interior forces could not be trusted, said Maxim Potapchuk, a member of a Kyiv battalion. “In January the mood here was very hopeful, but now we are seeing a lot more frustration,” said Valentina Bukovskaya, a psychologist who has counseled Maidan activists on the square since December. “It’s not pessimism yet, but they are anxious, and it is worrying. There’s not a lot of leadership, and they don’t know what to do.”

This week, tensions were particularly high as rumors circulated about the potential for provocateurs to try to disrupt Kyiv during the May 9 Victory Day. The Kyiv city government canceled the traditional parade as a precaution, and National Guard units were out in force in the center of the city. Block posts manned by National Guard troops, self-defense teams and police were set up on the main highways leading into the capital.

Some of the self-defense teams have joined the reinstated National Guard, a move that for some Maidan groups has been controversial. Many have refused to join the government troops, saying they would be populated also with former police officers and riot police, the same men they said they were fighting against in violent clashes in Kyiv’s central square in February.

“In our country, when we think of the police, we don’t think of a nice guy who’s going to protect us,” Bukovskaya said. “We think of scary guys who are working against us and looking for bribes.”

One thing they all agree on is that Russia, and particularly President Vladimir Putin, is behind the destabilization of the east, just as the Kremlin helped orchestrate the Crimea referendum vote and eventual annexation. They blame Putin for seeking to destabilize Ukraine ahead of the May 25 presidential election.

“If we weren’t at war, things might be progressing differently with Maidan,” said Mustafa Nayem, a producer at Hromadske TV. Nayem, a well-known journalist in Kyiv, is attributed with being one of the Maidan movement’s instigators last November, after he posted on his Facebook page a call for people to gather in the central square of Kyiv to protest Yanukovych’s rejection of the European Union association agreement. His post, along with hundreds more from civil society groups, helped bring thousands into the streets that night.

“It’s difficult to assess the progress of the Maidan now, when we are dividing people between patriots and non-patriots,” Nayem said in his office. “It’s a difficult time to be as critical of the government when we have foreign forces on our borders.”

Hromadske TV started just days before Maidan as an independent, Internet-only news show. Its intention was to counter the mostly Yanukovych-friendly channels operating at the time. After the ouster of Yanukovych, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk created an agreement with the state-owned First National channel to allow the airing of some of Hromadske TV's programming.

Nayem and the other journalists at the station are now organizing the country’s first presidential debates, which will begin ahead of the May 25 election. Nayem said the presidential debates were an example of how Maidan was creating a more active civil society, which was realizing that dealing with many of Ukraine’s deepest problems — such as corruption — will not come through politicians alone, he said. Civil society groups have increased their participation in monitoring the government, even taking a direct role in drafting legislation on anti-corruption and public information access laws.

“Before, we all knew that we had a horrible economy and corruption,” Nayem said. “But our government used the oligarch-owned media to convince people that they will fix it, and that we should just keep quiet. Well, Maidan has shown them that they can’t lie anymore, because civil society is watching more closely.”

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