Meet the Russians fighting for Ukraine.
Kiev, Ukraine – It is a busy night in a cafe close to Maidan – the scene of the protests two years ago, which became known as Euromaidan, and led to the war in the east of the country and a brief wave of optimism among many of its citizens.
But, today, conversation here revolves around the perceived failings of the government that came to power in the aftermath of the protests, the low turnout in the country’s recent local elections, and how many of former President Viktor Yanukovich’s allies are on course to be elected in the second round of voting taking place on November 15.
Olena Oliynyk, a civil society activist, was surprised by the low voter turnout.
“I asked people why there were so few votes. Firstly, they are disillusioned; there’s such a huge distance between what was expected [after Euromaidan] and what actually happened,” she explained, talking over the hum of the cafe and alternating between English and Ukrainian.
“People are exhausted by the economic downturn. The reform process they were expecting hasn’t come.”
Oliynyk, however, has not relinquished the optimism sparked by the protests of November 2013.
The former international contract lawyer gave up her job in the wake of Euromaidan to become part of Ukraine’s burgeoning civil society. She joined the hundreds of NGO workers and volunteers determined not to let the demonstrations and everything that followed stand for nothing.
Believe in Ukraine, the NGO Oliynyk co-founded, which gives legal advice to citizens, is only six months old, but she believes it has already accomplished some important work, especially around last week’s local elections, which were seen as a barometer of the mood of the country.
Yet, with low turnouts and majority votes for oligarchs and property tycoons, that mood seemed to be at best apathy and, at worst, disillusionment.
“We did so much work before the election,” said Oliynyk. “We held events called ‘I am for the fair elections’ and we explained to people the different methods of manipulation used by the politicians to get elected. Many were promising changes that wouldn’t be in their power as local officials.”
“And we explained that the oligarchs had control of most of the media because they have the money, and told people not to take everything they saw as real.”
The election’s most recent exit polls show a firm east-west split, with President Petro Poroshenko’s party maintaining its dominance in the west and centre of the country, despite the growing discontentment with the ruling party.
The eastern and southern regions are largely on course to elect oligarchs and representatives of the old regime.
In Kharkiv, Hennadiy Kernes, a former ally of Yanukovich, has already been elected after gaining more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round. In Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine’s third-largest city, two anti-Poroshenko politicians face a runoff.
Some newer parties, formed after Euromaidan, appeared to give voters hope, but with 130 parties splitting a 46 percent turnout, no single new force has managed to organise itself effectively, meaning that it is still those parties with powerful financial backers that get the majority of the publicity.
“[In the presidential elections] I voted for Poroshenko, but that was not a vote for him, that was a vote against Yanukovich and [the] old system. In fact, there were no better candidates,” said Anastasiia Chornohorska, who works for Euromaidan Press, a group that supports the Euromaidan protesters.
“I always vote in elections. I think every voice is important. Also, there were candidates and parties [in these elections] that I really like. Some of them I know personally. I voted with pleasure, and this is one the great achievements of this revolution: new, smart people in politics.”
This month marks the second anniversary of the Euromaidan protests. Analysts say Poroshenko’s failure to deliver on the reform he promised when he was elected is likely to be reflected in the demonstrations marking the day on November 21.
“There’s two aspects to this. There are people who did the repression and the murders, and the people who did the high-level thieving. And the average person doesn’t see that any of these people have been dealt with,” said Taras Kuzio, a senior fellow at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, at the University of Alberta.
“The average Ukrainian believes that he is bearing the brunt of the economic and financial crisis, not the elite, and thinks that that’s unjust, and therefore Poroshenko, I don’t think he’ll be removed from power, but he certainly won’t be re-elected,” he said.
“The politicians don’t respect voters. They think: ‘Today I’m not very popular, but I’ll do a few tricks with political consultants and advertising, I’ll promise some things and then I’ll not do it.’ It is a disrespect for what public opinion polls say about you, which is that the public thinks you’re doing something wrong.”
Kuzio said Ukraine finds itself at a similar stage to where it was in 2006, following the Orange Revolution, when an atmosphere of disillusionment permeated the country.
“One of the most emotional aspects of this will be the fact that nobody has gone to jail for the Euromaidan murders [the killings of protesters] and that will hurt him [Poroshenko] tremendously,” said Kuzio.
“Already last year he was booed by some of the survivors’ relatives, so this year he is going to be even more so.”
According to Kuzio, a major difference between now and 2006 is that the threat seemingly posed by Russia is keeping the coalition from public falling out.
“Most people are aware of that [the threat of Russia],” he said. “When there was a riot outside the Ukrainian Parliament and somebody threw a grenade, that was condemned by most people, including nationalists, and so they understand that we need to be careful and not to cross a line that can then be used by Russia.”
Alex, a TV producer living in Kiev who preferred not to give his surname, said he did not vote for Vitali Klitschko, who merged his party with Poroshenko’s before the elections and looks set to be re-elected as Kiev’s mayor, despite having high hopes for him when he first took up the post a year ago.
“[I thought] his years in Germany would give him a vision on how to transform Kiev into a modern European city, a comfortable place to live, not a cow milked by corruption schemes, especially in construction. But he never presented a clear vision and there was no long-term strategy in what he was doing,” said Alex.
“The reopening of a movie theatre that was … burned down a year ago during a showing of a gay-themed movie, was turned into Klitschko’s election event, while volunteers – who mobilised the public after the fire to make sure the cinema would be restored and not razed and the land given to a developer [and] who mobilised the public to volunteer at clearing the rubble – were not even invited to speak at the opening.”
But, despite this criticism, he did say that “Klitchko’s team is definitely a lot easier to approach by people with various initiatives than his predecessors”.
Alex was one of the people who protested at Maidan on November 21, 2013, with high hopes for change.
“I was on Maidan the very first evening when people gathered. No one could’ve imagined what we’d have to go through, especially the number of deaths.”
“But for some reason, I always felt that one day there would be this conflict with Russia,” he added of the war that followed in eastern Ukraine.
Still, he believes the demonstrations have led to improvements.
“[There have been] lots of positive changes…,” he said. “Ukrainians have become a lot more active, the civil society has flourished, people know they have to keep control of the politicians and initiate changes themselves, not wait for the government to do something.”
It is that attitude that keeps Oliynyk going.
“We are more intelligent than the politicians and the old guard,” she said.
“We have more resources and more ideas and we love Ukraine. We will not give up and let it slide back to the old ways.”
Follow Philippa H Stewart on Twitter: @Flip_Stewart