From Hope to Disenchantment: Ukraine’s Arduous Road

“Ukraine will definitely not be able to become a member of the EU in the next 20 to 25 years, and not of NATO either." 

In his blistering speech on March 3rd at The Hague, European Commissioner Jean ClaudeJuncker 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 Kiev two winters ago, which led to the subsequent resignation of Victor Yanukovych, the pro-Kremlin Ukrainian president.

“Maidan’s our big hope for a better life,” Tetyana Gomon, a 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 frigid temperatures 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% the national vote to be come president. 

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 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 cites 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 Kolomoiski remain as powerful as they were in the past. 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 Kiev's forces. The Minsk Agreements have largely failed.

In February 2015, at a two-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 Donbass 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 the Minsk agreements and it is necessary to fulfill them. Today's meetings were among other things devoted to the fact that Russia doesn't respect 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 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 that have stymied reforms demanded by the West and derailed negotiations for a new $1.7 billion loan from the IMF in hopes of propping up its fledgling economy. Hroysman is a 38-year-old former mayor and an ally of 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; to further destabilize situation in Ukraine,” she said.

Some of Ukraine’s newly-minted fears remain: that withdrawn Russian forces in Syria could be redirected to the East to fight Kiev’s army. During the 2008 NATO Summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a rather telling remark during the NATO summit: “If Ukraine joins NATO, it will be without Crimea and the East,” Putin ominously said. Sure enough, Putin’s guarantee was fulfilled as 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 not only felt emboldened in the past few years, but he continues to exert the Kremlin's presence on former countries of the Soviet Union. Apart 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 give Ukraine the hope that its situation will not freeze as it did in Georgia, Moldova and former Yugoslavia,” Belousov tells us.

Writer & Journalist Jared Feldschreiber often writes on security and diplomacy issues. Follow him @jmoshe80. Anguelina Piskova has worked with Bulgarian media for many years. The authors are grateful to Ukrainian photojournalist Maksim Belousov for providing his photographs from the Maidan protests for this article.