A Ukrainian protester wrapped in the EU flag during the pro-European revolution on Kyiv Maidan, 2014. Photo by: Maksim Belousov
Article by: Jared Feldschreiber and Anguelina Piskova
“Ukraine will definitely not be able to become a member of the European Union in the next 20 to 25 years, and not of NATO either.” European Commission Chief Jean Claude Juncker, March 3, 2016
In his blistering speech at The Hague, Juncker underscored to Dutch voters that this year’s free-trade agreement between Ukraine and the EU would not represent a first step toward joining the politico-economic union of 28 member states. The European Commissioner’s sentiments likely dashed the hopes for many Maidan protesters who braved the cold winter in Kyiv two winters ago, which led to the subsequent resignation of Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Kremlin Ukrainian president.
“Maidan’s our big hope for a better life,” Tetyana Gomon, a wide-eyed 36-year old piano teacher explained at the time of the protests. “And this hope gathered [throngs of] people every day and night… at the Square of Independence for three months in freezing temperatures…” After the violent protests in February 2014 ended, Yanukovych and many other high government officials fled the country.
One of the main reasons protesters endured the harsh wintry climate was their indomitable commitment to stand up to Yanukovych’s increasingly authoritarian rule of law, abuse of power and his deliberate methods of centralizing political corruption. Following Yanukovych’s ouster, hopeful Ukrainians who had been gearing for revolutionary change remained enthusiastic all through the presidential elections, which saw Petro Poroshenko receiving 54% of the national vote.
Two years later, however, it appears much of the initial faith and enthusiasm for a peaceful revolution and the fruits of democracy have led to a degree of unexpected disenchantment.
This level of disappointment has been exhibited largely by a stalemate with the citizens’ standard of living. It remains the same as during the Yanukovych reign, and Ukraine is far from achieving necessary reforms for a true democracy.
Corruption has been pervasive in Ukraine “fed by close-knit ties between politicians and oligarchs and a weak justice system,” read a New York Times editorial on Thursday. The Times also cited a speech by Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador who said last September that corruption was as dangerous for Ukraine as was Russian support for a military insurgency in the East. Vice President Joe Biden also recently described rampant corruption in Ukraine as “like a cancer.”
Maksim Belousov, a Maidan protester and photojournalist, told us that his compatriots “did not believe that Poroshenko would recycle many of the political bureaucrats as during the Yanukovych era.”
The Chocolate King, as President Poroshenko is sometimes cynically known as for his oligarchic past, has not kept his promise to relinquish his previous business ventures, which made him a billionaire. The chasm has only widened between the wealthy and the average Ukrainian. Oligarchs like Rinat Akhmetov and Igor Kolomoisky remain as powerful as they have been in the past, and the economic system also has proven to be corrupt and inefficient. It remains beholden to the International Monetary Fund for loans, especially in the last nine months.
Above all, peace has not come to the volatile East region where pro-Russian separatists continue to quarrel with Kyiv’s forces. The Minsk Agreements have largely failed.
In February 2015, at a 2-day summit, leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany signed on to a package of diplomatic measures in hopes of alleviating the ongoing war in the Donbas region. The talks were overseen by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Last August, while meeting with Juncker, Poroshenko stressed that Russia needed to abide by the Minsk agreements and to immediately implement a ceasefire.
“Minsk – III cannot happen. We have the Minsk agreements and it is necessary [for Russia] to fulfill them. The meetings were among other things devoted to the fact that Russia [has not] respected its own commitments,” declared Poroshenko. “The support of the EU is essential for us. War and Russian aggression against Ukraine are not the reasons for avoiding reforms. As President, I firmly stand on the position of an effective continuation of reforms,” he added.
The violence in the East has led to squabbles domestically. The ruling coalition formed after the parliamentary elections last October broke down following a series of misunderstandings on all sides. This dissension led to Poroshenko asking for the resignation of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk since he lost the support of his coalition. Later, that same day, however, the Ukrainian parliament voted the cabinet’s work as unsatisfactory but rejected a call for a vote of no confidence.
It was announced on Tuesday that Ukraine’s three major parliamentary parties agreed to form a new coalition and nominate parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Hroysman to be the country’s new prime minister, as reported by Reuters.
This deal is said to potentially quell some of the domestic political unrest of recent months, which has included new corruption allegations, which stymied reforms demanded by the West and derailed negotiations for a new $1.7 billion loan from the IMF. Hroysman is a 38-year-old former mayor and an ally to Poroshenko.
Some Maidan supporters like V. Liagushko, an Ukrainian émigré in the U.S., however, does have some degree of sympathy for Poroshenko’s arduous responsibilities. “The situation he has is a difficult one and it is in the best interest of Mr. Putin to paint Poroshenko with the wide black brush [in order] to further destabilize the situation in Ukraine,” she told us.
Some of Ukraine’s newly minted fears remain that withdrawn Russian forces in Syria could be redirected to the East to fight Kyiv’s army. During the 2008 NATO Summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a rather telling remark: “If Ukraine joins NATO, it will be without Crimea and the East,” Putin ominously said. Sure enough, Putin’s guarantee was fulfilled in March 2014 as Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula.
Bulgaria, a former communist country like Ukraine, had a better chance to join NATO and the EU before Putin grew stronger with his territorial ambitions, and his overall mission to restore the vaunted Russian empire. Putin has only felt emboldened in the past few years as he continues to exert the Kremlin presence on former countries of the Soviet Union. Aside from confronting Putin’s Russia, disillusionment persists in Ukraine, as the chasm between its society and government appears to be growing.
Nonetheless, as part of any true revolution, one must remain idealistic:
“The world changes and recent events [may] give Ukraine the hope that its situation will not freeze as it did in Georgia, Moldova and the former Yugoslavia,” Belousov reminds us.
All photos taken by Kyiv based photojournalist Maksim Belousov who specializes in portraits. His portfolio can be found at www.mbelousov.com