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Taking Measure Of The Ukrainian Mind-Set

A statue of Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin is toppled by protesters during a rally organized by pro-Ukraine supporters in the center of the eastern city of Kharkiv on September 28.

How have Ukrainian attitudes toward the EU, Russia, and NATO changed? Is it possible to conduct opinion polls in the Donbas? And why is support for the Ukrainian Communist Party in decline?

On the eve of critical parliamentary elections in Ukraine, Dmitry Volchek of RFE/RL's Russian Service speaks to Kyiv-based sociologist Iryna Bekeshkyna, director of the Democratic Initiative polling fund.

RFE/RL: Since the emotional months of the revolution, we've seen a return to everyday problems. The new government isn't perfect. There's still inaction, corruption. Russia felt the same letdown in 1992 after the uplift that followed the Soviet collapse. Has the cooling-off period already begun in Ukraine, or is it still in the romantic phase?

Iryna Bekeshkyna: The fact is that we can't have a classic postrevolutionary syndrome here, because the revolution was immediately followed by military action and actually an undeclared war. So public enthusiasm has continued, only in a different form. According to our data, 35 percent of the population has given money to the army. That's a lot. Twenty-five percent have helped refugees by donating food, clothes, etc. You can't call this a romantic phase. It's more that active members of the population realize that they have to support the government, at least in certain ways, while there's a war on. If there's wasn't a war, these activists would be focusing their actions the other way around.

RFE/RL: The Ukrainian revolution began because then-President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union. Now that deal has been signed. How do ordinary Ukrainians feel now about the process and prospects for EU integration?

Bekeshkyna: I wouldn't say that the revolution began because of the refusal to sign the agreement. People started to protest after that, but it was mainly young people, and very modest little protests. The mass demonstrations started after these students were brutally beaten. That was the last straw. "They're beating us!"

This revolution was called a revolution of dignity. People came out in order to show their values. The main motive was not so much the signing of the European integration deal but how to remove the regime. The regime was removed. Not all of Maidan's [eds: the antigovernment protest movement based on Kyiv's Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square)] goals were met, although a majority of them were, including early presidential and parliamentary elections. But the people who are guilty of repression have yet to be punished. Corruption remains unresolved.

RFE/RL: Is the desire to punish Yanukovych and his inner circle still as strong as it was several months ago?

Bekeshkyna: I think it's not as strong, but it's still there. A lot of the old guard still remain in their posts at the local level. And the anger is no longer directed only at the former authorities. People are angry at the current government as well.

RFE/RL: Another important consequence of the Ukrainian revolution has been de-Communization -- tearing down Lenin statues, getting rid of communist symbols, and arguing about banning the Communist Party. Has your center looked at public views regarding the Communists?

Bekeshkyna: I think the most telling demonstration of how people feel about the Communists will be their results in this election. In the last elections they took 10 percent. Now it's entirely possible that they won't get into parliament at all. It's clear that their support has fallen by more than half.

RFE/RL: How important are improved NATO ties for most Ukrainians?

Bekeshkyna: There's been a dramatic change compared to last year. In recent years, people generally preferred the idea of neutral status. Neutrality had 45 to 50 percent support; NATO membership generally got between 12-14 percent. This year, support for the notion of neutral status has fallen by half. Now neutrality has 22 percent support and NATO membership has 44 percent. Support for a military alliance with Russia has fallen from 26 percent to 12.

This revolution was called a revolution of dignity.... The main motive was not so much the signing of the European integration deal but how to remove the regime.

We posed a question about the possibility of a referendum on NATO membership. This referendum would pass simply because opponents wouldn't turn out. But I think it would be premature to hold such a referendum now, because it would just divide society all over again. The east is still strongly opposed to NATO membership. Now is the time for stitching the country back together, not tearing it apart for the sake of certain issues.

RFE/RL: Sociologists in Russia have noted a sharp rise in anti-Ukrainian sentiment there. What about Ukrainians? How has their attitude toward Russia changed?

Bekeshkyna: It's also gotten worse. But Ukrainians still are much more positive about Russians than Russians are about Ukrainians. Unlike Russians, Ukrainians differentiate between the Russian government and Russian people. There's no mass anti-Russian propaganda in Ukraine.

RFE/RL: Do views on issues like NATO and the Communist Party vary drastically from region to region?

Bekeshkyna: On NATO, yes. Because if it used to be just western Ukraine where you would see majority support for NATO membership, now the country is basically divided in half on the issue. As regards EU membership, it's become much more consolidated. Only the Donbas remains opposed. The Donbas is also the only place where the Communists have any support, and even that is only 14 percent.

RFE/RL: So it's possible to conduct polls in the separatist territories?

Bekeshkyna: They were part of a nationwide survey. It wasn't on a wide scale -- we used the same quota we always use. We had about 140 people working in Donetsk Oblast and close to 100 in Luhansk. There's no problem doing poll work in the liberated territories, but we also managed to work in the occupied territories because there's still a network of sociologists. Some left, but some stayed, and they're happy for the chance to earn some money. We're planning to conduct large-scale surveys in Slovyansk and Kramatorsk soon, but only in the liberated territories.

RFE/RL: Have attitudes toward separatism changed in the liberated territories?

Bekeshkyna: Yes. They're changing in both the liberated territories and the territories held by the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk people's republics. If you take an indicator like the wish for the region to leave Ukraine and join Russia, only 10 percent of people in the liberated territories are in favor. In the so-called DNR and LNR, that figure goes up to 30 percent, but it's not the majority. Generally, the desire to join Russia in the areas has fallen sharply since May.

RFE/RL: Back in 1991, Russians were interested in many of the same issues that Ukrainians are interested in now -- NATO membership, EU integration. Nobody could have predicted that 20 years later Josef Stalin would have returned as a kind of national idol and the West would once again be seen as an enemy. Do you think that Ukraine will experience the same kind of reversal?

Bekeshkyna: Here in Ukraine, where much of the population was affected by the Great Famine, Stalin will never be an idol. As regards the appeal of a powerful authoritarian leader...Ukraine never threw itself behind political idols the way Russia did. Ukrainians are more skeptical. Even in European surveys, Ukrainians stand out from other Europeans as huge skeptics. Ukraine isn't inclined toward tsarism.