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Ukrainians Reflect Bitterly On 'Betrayed Hopes' Of Euromaidan

  • Christopher Miller

Three years after the passionate idealism embodied by the Euromaidan movement, many Ukrainians are feeling disillusioned and disgruntled.

Three years after the passionate idealism embodied by the Euromaidan movement, many Ukrainians are feeling disillusioned and disgruntled.

KYIV -- Between classes in Kolkata, India, 17-year-old Svyatoslav Yurash was glued to a video stream of almost a million of his compatriots rallying in Ukraine's capital when he decided to join the protest that would soon swell into a revolt.

The night before in Kyiv -- on November 30, 2013 -- hundreds of demonstrators, most of them students, had been bludgeoned by riot police. The idealistic Yurash couldn't stand by any longer. He flew home and rushed to Independence Square -- better known as simply the Maidan. Soon, he would launch the influential Euromaidan PR agency that amplified voices from the barricades in half a dozen or so languages across almost as many platforms.

Out on the Maidan, the "loss of hope" that had driven Yurash out of Ukraine after the 2010 election victory of pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych faded. As he and his fellow protesters pressed their case for closer ties to the West and greater transparency, fighting back the ranks of riot police, passion swelled within him. He sensed that his country was finally on the right track, which for him meant the path toward Europe as a thriving new democracy and away from Russia's smothering sphere of influence.

Three years later, that passion has turned to frustration.

Yanukovych might be in Russian exile, but many of Ukraine's would-be revolutionaries say they are disillusioned by the lack of progress and complain that the country is now dangerously close to being rerouted from the European track set out by the uprising.

A man carries a placard reading "European salary for European prices" during an antigovernment rally in front of parliament in Kyiv on December 8.

A man carries a placard reading "European salary for European prices" during an antigovernment rally in front of parliament in Kyiv on December 8.

The past year has seen the collapse of the second postrevolutionary government and the departure of a number of reform-minded ministers and other officials. For the most part, they have been replaced by old-guard politicians -- including some with close ties to the president, Petro Poroshenko -- who critics say have resumed the opaque ways of Ukrainian politics.

"The post-Maidan leadership has betrayed our hope for rebuilding Ukraine anew," Yurash, now 20, tells RFE/RL. "These people kept the country together, but there has been little desire to change. Instead, they've worked in the usual corrupt way."

Indeed, corruption remains rampant in Ukraine. Moreover, prosecutors have failed to bring current or former senior officials to justice for serious crimes, including the killings of more than 100 protesters during the unrest.

And Ukraine's economy is still reeling from the 2014 chaos and subsequent conflicts with Russia and Russia-backed separatists. Its currency, the hryvnya, has plunged to historic lows. Some three-quarters of Ukrainians, who make just $200 a month on average, consider themselves poor; almost 82 percent think their lives are worse since the revolution, according to recent surveys.

Meanwhile, the passionate idealism that drove many Euromaidan demonstrators to hit the streets three years ago might have ebbed; only around 1 in 4 Ukrainians in a fresh study by pollster SOCIS expressed a willingness to participate in Euromaidan today. But the perception remains that something is amiss; nearly half of respondents in the same poll think such a protest is "likely" or "very likely" in the first half of 2017.

Chants of "Bandits out!" and "Shame!" -- popularized during the 2013-14 uprising -- are again being shouted during street protests aimed at the government and president. More than 1,000 demonstrators at a Ukrainian Federation of Trade Unions rally in front of Ukraine's parliament on December 8 chided lawmakers, saying they should be ashamed of themselves for not doing more to increase social benefits for workers as utility costs rise. Members of far-right groups returned to Independence Square on November 21, the anniversary of the start of the uprising, to demand the resignation of Ukraine's "criminal" leadership. Kyiv, which has been ground zero for two revolutions in 12 years, has been rife for months with talk of a third revolt.

"I have a strong feeling that if you leave everything as it is, awaiting us is a counterrevolution," Mustafa Nayyem, a former journalist turned lawmaker whose Facebook post on November 21, 2013, is widely viewed as the catalyst for Euromaidan, as the movement came to be called, wrote on that same social media platform on its third anniversary.

Many Ukrainians have placed the blame for the slow pace of progress on one person in particular: President Poroshenko. Several embittered reformers who have quit government accuse him and his perceived cronies of blocking their efforts to fight graft and nepotism. Most recently, a member of parliament now in self-exile accused the president and his inner circle of massive corruption -- which his administration vehemently denies.

Many Ukrainians have placed the blame for the slow pace of progress on one person in particular: President Petro Poroshenko.

Many Ukrainians have placed the blame for the slow pace of progress on one person in particular: President Petro Poroshenko.

Aivaras Abromavicius, the Lithuanian-born former economy minister, quit Ukraine's government in February, saying he wouldn't be a "puppet" for Poroshenko allies, whom he accused of blocking economic reforms and pressuring him to appoint "dubious people" to senior positions in state-controlled companies.

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili last month resigned from his presidential appointment as governor of Odesa in the south, accusing Poroshenko and his circle of unbridled corruption. Saakashvili ally Yulia Marushevska, known for her English-language "I am a Ukrainian" video before Poroshenko appointed her to head the Odesa customs department, tells RFE/RL that in the Black Sea port city she and Saakashvili found their "green light [to reform the region] turned to a red light." Almost immediately, she says, they were confronted by "a complete absence of political will and an absence of any real desire to change" from Poroshenko's allies in government, especially Prime Minister Volodymyr Hroysman. Marushevska resigned a week after Saakashvili.

Former Odesa Governor Mikheil Saakashvili (left) and Yulia Marushevska, former head of the Odesa customs office, both resigned from their posts, accusing President Petro Poroshenko of corruption and a lack of political will.

Former Odesa Governor Mikheil Saakashvili (left) and Yulia Marushevska, former head of the Odesa customs office, both resigned from their posts, accusing President Petro Poroshenko of corruption and a lack of political will.

Anticorruption campaigner Oleksandra Drik, president of the Kyiv-based Civic Lustration Committee, an NGO that monitors anticorruption reforms, says that Poroshenko and the government of Volodymyr Hroysman are treading the line between making "just enough" changes to appease Ukraine's Western backers and preserving the "old, corrupt system" that has enriched oligarchs and bled state coffers since the country's independence in 1991.

Of course, some impediments are beyond Kyiv's control. The ongoing, Russia-backed war in Ukraine's east, which exploded in the weeks after Yanukovych's ouster, and the Kremlin's forcible annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, are also strangling Ukrainian reform efforts. Poroshenko announced during a trip to the front line on December 6 that after 31 months of fighting, the conflict had reached a grim milestone: More than 10,000 people, including at least 2,500 troops and 7,500 civilians, have been killed since April 2014. Moscow has used the war as a lever to destabilize Kyiv, dialing up when it sees fit a war that Poroshenko has said costs Ukraine about $5 million a day.

The West has sought to be supportive of Kyiv. But Washington and Brussels have become increasingly annoyed by the slow pace of reforms in Kyiv and Poroshenko's personal lack of commitment to change, two diplomats from Western embassies tell RFE/RL. Officials from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) visited Kyiv in November but left without assuring it another aid tranche, saying decisive steps must first be taken to combat corruption and prosecute and convict corrupt high-level officials. A European Court of Auditors report published on December 7 said that EU funds meant to help Ukraine reform have had "limited impact."

Dmytro Shymkiv, a deputy head of the presidential administration: "If we stop, that's going to be a challenge for the country. I don't think there is a way back."

Dmytro Shymkiv, a deputy head of the presidential administration: "If we stop, that's going to be a challenge for the country. I don't think there is a way back."

Dmytro Shymkiv, a deputy head of the presidential administration, tells RFE/RL that keeping a steady pace is more important than being speedy.

"If we stop, that's going to be a challenge for the country," he says. "I don't think there is a way back."

It hasn't been all gloom and doom. Ukraine has managed to launch new government anticorruption agencies, introduce electronic systems for the disclosure of public officials' assets and public procurement, modernize its military, and decrease its energy dependence on Russia (Kyiv has not purchased Russian gas for over a year), among other things.

Perhaps the most visible reform has been that of its police forces, infamous for being corrupt and violent.

"Three years ago, we were standing against the police, and now we are standing for them," says Kateryna Kruk, 25, an activist who gained notice outside of Ukraine by informing the world of Euromaidan events through Twitter.

And in December, the government adopted a series of landmark reforms that the current health minister, U.S.-born Ulana Suprun, tells RFE/RL will overhaul Ukraine's notoriously bureaucratic and corrupt health-care system. Suprun, who played an instrumental role in the makeshift medical services provided at Euromaidan, says the "revolutionary" improvements being unveiled on January 1 will guarantee that all Ukrainians have access to primary health and emergency care.

Ukrainian officials have hoped it is all enough to convince the European Union that it is worthy of a special relationship -- including a freshly minted deal to allow Ukrainians visa-free travel to the EU's Schengen zone, a key demand of Euromaidan.

But it may not be enough to convince many disaffected Ukrainians that there's still momentum for change here.

"The chance for real reforms died with the breakup of the 'Dream Team,'" Abromavicius says, in a reference to the technocratic government that he was a part of under former Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. It also included an American-born finance minister, Natalie Jaresko, another favorite in Washington. That government was ousted in April.

Now, as 2016 rumbles to a close and Yurash sits in the shadow of the burned-out Trade Unions building that once housed his Euromaidan PR operation, he says he remains optimistic, despite everything. But, he adds, he is disappointed in Ukraine's leadership and what he sees as a squandered opportunity.

"Those now in power don't realize that they missed their chance to go down in history as the new Ukraine's founding fathers," he says. "Poroshenko could have been the Ukrainian George Washington. He's lost that chance."

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    Christopher Miller

    Christopher Miller is a correspondent based in Kyiv and covers the former Soviet republics. He can be reached at millerjchristopher@gmail.com

     

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