Ukrainians Feel West’s Fatigue With Their Chaotic Country
(Bloomberg) -- After two uprisings, perpetual promises to end corruption and only a distant prospect of European Union membership, frustration is consuming Ukraine as it prepares to choose its next leader.
The March 31 vote pits the incumbent president, billionaire confectionery magnate Petro Poroshenko, against former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and front-runner Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a television comic with no political experience. A runoff will take place three weeks later.
There was an air of hope in 2014 following the country’s second revolution in a decade. In overthrowing the Kremlin-backed leader, demonstrators locked the former Soviet republic on course toward European integration supported by staunch Western backing. Instead, anger at the revolution’s broken promises will shape the election.
Living standards have fallen and a war with Russian separatists rumbles on in the east, trapping Ukraine in a broader east-west geopolitical tussle that’s reignited Cold War hostilities. Hundreds of thousands of citizens have left for other parts of eastern Europe.
Conversations across the country and beyond found voters who have endured a deep recession and a currency devaluation are now wondering how long before the U.S. and western Europe lose interest in their beleaguered country.
The View From the Capital
“Expectations were high after the revolution, but economically not much was delivered,” says Mykola Savka, 37, a former soldier in Kiev who has welcomed a new era of national identity. “What’s good is that I hear the Ukrainian language more often now in Kiev,” he says, referring to the greater presence of Russian in the past. “I personally like to speak Ukrainian.”
“It would have been worse without the revolution. We’d have turned into North Korea. There would have been no freedom of speech. But I think Poroshenko could have handled the conflict better. He promised to end the war quickly and hasn’t.”
“Western politicians have taken a pause on Ukraine. They’re waiting to see who’ll win the election as corruption scandals are undermining confidence in Poroshenko. He and Tymoshenko have lost trust. Zelenskiy isn’t a serious candidate for a country at war.”
On the Edge of a War
“We’d have been better off without the revolution -- people wouldn’t now be obsessed with the national idea,” says Alla Zhilka, 69, a pensioner in Mariupol, 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the conflict zone. “Instead, poor people are hurting, pensions are low and there are no jobs for young people.”
“It’s harder for me to live now than it was before, it’s harder to buy food, to pay utility bills. It’s very difficult to make big purchases. Before we were buying new furniture, fridges and TV sets; now we just make do with what we have.”
“Poroshenko is handling Russia very badly. He doesn’t want dialog, he wants to decide everything himself. The rebel republics aren’t the right authorities, of course. But one needs to talk to President Putin.”
“It seems to me that the West is laughing at us because we’re constantly begging for money. We could have boosted our economy and opened factories ourselves, without asking for help. Corruption remains as it was. In healthcare, in education, everywhere -- money, money, money.”
Straddling the Divide
“Visa-free travel was a huge deal for me,” says Anastasia Vavarina, 35, an artist and jewelry designer in the city of Odessa, where ethnic Russians make up more than a quarter of the population. She was speaking about the freedom to head to the EU and back.
“In the last year and a half, most of my friends who hadn’t been to Europe went there, and it really changed their mentalities. There was even one guy who was part of a nationalist brigade in the army. He went skiing in Europe and came back with big eyes, saying ‘Wow -- we have to change.’”
“We’re a big country and we’re sick with corruption. I’ve tried to get away from it – I gave up salaried work and set up my own company. But I still have to deal with corruption.
“I got pneumonia in November and I had to pay a doctor to treat me outside the system. No one wants to give Ukraine money because we still have this corruption. But we don’t just need money, we need investment.”
“I’m furious with the West because we were promised protection. Now we’ve lost Crimea and there’s a war on our border. Who protected us?”
In Russia’s Shadow
“Of course, living standards have deteriorated, but it could have been worse – the country could have fallen apart,” says Oleksandr Butskrikhidze, 19, a student in Kharkiv, 30 kilometers from the Russian border. “I’m glad Poroshenko stopped the war, it could have expanded further. It could easily have reached Kharkiv and even Kiev.
“I didn’t see anything good in the revolution itself – after it, the war started and we lost part of our territory. But our county needed change. I’m happy foreign policy has been changed, less so about domestic policies. But it’s good that we got an independent church and I think that could only be achieved by Poroshenko. The current leadership has also built an army, which is a plus.”
“What I like about Ukraine right now is that unlike in other ex-Soviet countries, there’s democracy here. Lots of candidates have the chance to win the election and nobody can tell you at the moment who’ll be the next president.”
The View From the Diaspora
“Coming to Poland 19 years ago like my mother did, I really hoped I wouldn’t need to do this physical work for so many years as things at home would change for the better and I’d be able to have a normal life back there,” says Halina Krawchenko, 44, a cleaner in Warsaw. “I actually really hoped the revolution would be my way home but every year things just get worse. We’re left with hopelessness and war.
“My son, who has a university degree in biology, can’t find decent work at home. He’d need to bribe someone just to get a job, and he wouldn’t be able to survive on his earnings anyway. So a third generation of my family is about to seek a better life in Poland. He’ll work on a construction site and save every zloty to exchange for dollars, hoping one day he’ll be able to live his life and not just survive.”
“Another generation is being pushed abroad. Soon there won’t be many left, just oligarchs, corrupt officials, soldiers and the handicapped.”
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.