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Monday, July 21, 2014

Українець, частина 2: Життя після ЄвроМайдану (The Ukrainian, Part 2: Life After EuroMaidan)

In February, I interviewed Andriy, a student at Ivan Franko University in Lviv, a city in Western Ukraine, about the EuroMaidan Uprising. Shortly after it was published, President Viktor Yanukovych left office and was replaced by interim President Oleksandr Turchynov. EuroMaidan had become a revolution, Ukraine's second in ten years.

That interview can be read here.

Five months later, Ukraine is still in turmoil. Only a week after Yanukovych left office, Russian troops surrounded and took control of Crimea, an autonomous peninsula in southeastern Ukraine. The Kremlin gained de facto control of the peninsula in the biggest land grab in Europe since World War II.

The European Union and United States promptly passed sanctions against top Kremlin officials and oligarchs, but that didn't stop President Vladimir Putin of Russia from going forward with a referendum on Crimea's status. Russian nationalism and pride swelled as did Putin's approval rating. Ukrainians were furious.

A pro-Ukrainian protestor holds the flag of the Crimean Tatars at a demonstration in front of the White House. Tatars in Crimea were vehemently resistant to joining Russia. Photo by Kyle Menyhert. 

Crimeans went to the polls on March 16th, 2014, and voted overwhelmingly to join the Russian Federation, in a vote that few outside Russia recognized. The peninsula is still claimed by Ukraine. It remains recognized as part of Ukraine by the United States and European Union, but Russia controls it.

To make matters worse for Ukraine, pro-Russian separatists declared independence in two Ukrainian oblasti (provinces) in the eastern Donets basin and their central cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. The rebels renamed the oblasti the "Donetsk People's Republic" and "Luhansk (also spelled Lugansk) People's Republic", in hopes that they would gain independence from Ukraine and eventually be absorbed by Russia.

Pro-Russian demonstrators hold the flag of the "Donetsk People's Republic". 
Photo by Irina Gorbaseva, RIA Novosti. 

Ukrainian forces managed to cling to power in the eastern, Russian-speaking cities of Dnipropetrovsk and Kharkiv. After months of fighting, the Army, now under the command of recently-elected President Petro Poroshenko, advanced into the Donets basin (often called the "Donbass"), a densely populated region in southeastern Ukraine.

A few days ago, Ukrainian forces retook the rebel stronghold of Slovyansk, a city north of Donetsk, and have advanced towards Donetsk and Luhansk. President Petro Poroshenko met with inhabitants of Slovyansk as Ukrainian soldiers handed out food to residents.

Ukrainian forces are having trouble re-establishing order in Slovyansk, but they are advancing.

To shed light on the current happenings in Ukraine, Andriy has once again agreed to an interview. 

Independence Square in Kyiv, during EuroMaidan demonstrations.
Photo Credit goes to's 360-degree tour series.

How did you find out President Yanukovych was ousted from power? How did you and your friends react? Were people celebrating in Lviv? 

"We had been going to Maidan protests and rallies here in Lviv for many months. There were dozens on Lviv's Maidan in the days leading up to the revolution, staying there day and night. Of course, we're students, so we were on Maidan, but only every once in a while. It was exciting. When events in Kyiv (Kiev) escalated, we all held our breath for Yanukovych to leave. I suspected that he might leave after he became elusive."

President Viktor Yanukovych left office on the 22nd of February, 2014. Pro-western members of Ukraine's Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) belted out their national anthem in the chamber. The anthem's words are especially relevant to Maidan, as the hymn proclaims that

Душу й тіло ми положим за нашу свободу,
І покажем, що ми, браття, козацького роду!

"Souls and bodies we'll lay down for our freedom, 
And we'll show that we, brothers, are of the Cossack nation!"  

"I remember the exact moment, actually. I was talking with a friend in Kyiv. He asked if I had seen the news."

"We're holding our breath here in Lviv." Andriy replied.

"No, Yanukovych has left Kyiv."

"It was so casual, and yet, so powerful. We were so excited. Progress and change were finally coming to Ukraine. All the bars in Lviv were full and on every street, people were sharing food and liquor, singing, hugging. It was like we won the World Cup!"

The joy soon turned to rage.  

"Did you expect Putin’s annexation of Crimea? How did people react to that? Likewise, did you expect violence to break out in the Donbass?" I asked. 

"I do not know for certain how to answer this question. I was certain that Putin would attempt something but I was not aware that he could succeed. You've seen how people reacted to this...anger and violence. Our country was being torn apart. Russia pulls Ukraine to one side while Ukraine herself is trying to pull herself back together."

"And what of the reaction from the United States and European Union? What should and shouldn't they do?" I proceeded to ask. 

"What else can they do? Not much, I think." he replied. "It is understandable that they do not want to be involved in a war. It is a complicated conflict, unfortunately nobody wants to be involved. It is a matter of standing by and watching and waiting. Of course, showing support, spreading our message and broadcasting the truth rather than propaganda put forward by Putin and his government is important. Many people do not know any better, they must be taught the truth."

And what about you? How has life in L'viv changed since President Yanukovych was ousted?

I could sense pride and hope emanating from the answer.

"There is great hope here in Lviv. We are the European center of Ukraine, and I think we hold the heart of Ukraine. The spirit of EuroMaidan flourishes here, and we're excited for our brothers and sisters in the east to join us. As long as Lviv is standing, as long as Lviv is home to Ukrainian patriots like our president, we will endure. If Lviv falls, Ukraine has been lost.

In May, Ukrainians headed to the polls to elect a president. To learn more about the candidates that ran in Ukraine's 2014 Presidential Election, read my previous entry, A Guide to Ukraine's Presidential Election

"The days leading up to the elections were a time of great agitation", Andriy said. "This was the first time I voted in a presidential election. It was exciting, but scary. EuroMaidan would have been all for nothing had someone like Yanukovych won. Imagine how tense it was for us all!"

"Two paths of the future were in front of us, one of hopelessness and one of hopefulness. Thank God that we found the path of hopefulness," he continued.

The results weren't even close. Petro Poroshenko won easily with 54% of the vote. Yulia Tymoshenko came in a very distant second, securing a little less than 13%.

"Why was Petro Poroshenko so popular all over Ukraine?" 

"Poroshenko is popular for many reasons here. Western media hasn't stressed this much, perhaps they don't know it, but we consider Poroshenko to be one of us. Yes, he's a very wealthy businessman, but he has supported Ukrainians' desire for political progress for a long time. He knows Russia won't be going away, and he is a sensible man. He's pro-Ukrainian, but not unreasonably so. People like Poroshenko's pragmatism. And he's new to the height of Maidan, we'd have elected anyone over Yanukovych."

Andriy expressed pride in his country, but was able to admit its faults as well. And there are many of those in Ukraine. 

"People think up all kinds of reasons for Ukraine's problems. Some say it's Russia's fault, some blame the west, some still blame the USSR. Maybe the fact that there is no consensus in this country is the real problem.  There are over 200 registered political parties in Ukraine, with 5 or 6 main parties running in each major election. A former boxer runs a party in this country! There are a lot of people with clashing views fighting for different causes. I do not think that modern Ukraine has really had one leader that united us all. Maidan, to me, is what the Orange Revolution hoped to accomplish, and in a way it's a continuation of the Orange Revolution. Divisions are still present here. Young people want to be more Western while older people want to stay where it is comfortable in the shadow of Russia."

"Yulia Tymoshenko didn’t poll very well in the 2014 elections, only winning about 13% of the vote. Why not?" 

"Tymoshenko's old news. She was big in Ukrainian politics in the years immediately after the Orange Revolution until her imprisonment (roughly 2004-2011). Back then, she was a beacon of hope and the symbol of an unbroken Ukraine. Now, she has overstepped her bounds and it did not surprise me that she didn't poll well."

"I think many people just wanted new people in power. Maidan is about a new Ukraine with a new face. Poroshenko has been out in the world, he's a businessman, he knows how to deal with the West as well as Russia. Tymoshenko did a lot for Ukraine but her ego became absurdly large."

Andriy also expressed skepticism about Tymoshenko's speech at Maidan shortly after her release from prison.

"At her release from prison, she stepped onto Maidan as it was on the downslope and expected people to welcome her with open arms. Who is she? Мати Україна? (Mother Ukraine?) We rolled our eyes at her bravado."

I then turned the conversation to the recent insurgency in Eastern Ukraine. 

Do you know anyone who is currently living in the “People’s Republic of Donetsk” or the “People’s Republic of Luhansk”? What do they think of the rebels? 

I have a friend from secondary school living in Donetsk, but no one from Luhansk. I have not spoken to him about the situation recently but before he has said that he is a supporter of a Donetsk as an oblast of Ukraine. Unfortunately, I do not know anyone who lives in the Donbass. For the most part, people stay in their oblasti. If we do move, we hardly go east, especially if you are from western Ukraine.

Donetsk and Luhansk are under rebel control, but large eastern, Russian-speaking cities like Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk stayed under Kyiv’s control. Why?  

"Kharkiv is an industrial center for Ukraine, and Dnipropetrovsk is a political center. Those two cities were much more strategically important than Donetsk and Luhansk, and it was essential for them to stay in Kyiv's hands. Donetsk and Luhansk are significant parts of Ukraine, but I think Kyiv put more effort into keeping Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk Ukrainian."

Do people you know expect the Donbass return to return to Kyiv’s control? 

"Yes, I think so, for the most part. But this is relative. Even if Putin is pushed and returns Donbass to Ukrainian hands, there will still always be pro-Russian separatists living there. Russia will always have a foot there.

How did people react when the news came out that Slovyansk and Kramatorsk (two smaller cities in Eastern Ukraine near Donetsk previously under rebel control) were retaken by the Ukrainian Army? 

It was a big victory for us, a victory of great symbolism because it showed the world and ourselves that we are still a united country. We are currently being occupied by hostile outsiders but we are still Ukrainians. The words of our national anthem are truer than ever.
"Ще не вмерла України, ні слава, ні воля!" 

"Ukraine has not yet perished, nor her glory, nor her freedom!"

And President Poroshenko? What do you think of him?  Will he eventually advance to Crimea? 

Poroshenko is a smart man. He knows when to test Putin, and when to back up from confrontation. 

I think that he will advance to Crimea. Crimea is a strategic location, Ukraine needs Crimea for access to the Black Sea. Much of Ukraine's industry in the south rests on access to the Black Sea. And if Crimea was the first step in Russia's systematic overtaking of Ukraine, then it makes sense for Poroshenko to start to move in through there and take our country back completely.

Do you have confidence that Poroshenko will address and begin to fix Ukraine's other problems?

I think that Poroshenko, as an international business man, will help to solve our country's problems because he has a very Western-style mind. He has a good relationship with the West. He understands how your country, the USA, and how the countries of Western Europe do business and operate as nations. Maidan has solidified the voice of the people in government, and that is the biggest part of American democracy, is it not? Ukraine has democracy, and now we are starting to adopt the American model. As for our economy, Poroshenko's business background will be a great tool to fix the problems that plague the Ukrainian economy. He knows how to innovate and grow.

Both Andriy and I express our heartfelt condolences, thoughts, and prayers to the 298 victims of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 tragedy. Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, but it was shot down in the Donbass, killing all 298 aboard. We hope the perpetrators of this atrocity face justice, and may God give rest to those who died. 

Вічна пам'ять.
Вечная память.
Eternal Memory. 

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