After 25 Years of Independence, Ukrainians Yearn for a ‘Strong Leader’

Nearly three years after the Maidan revolution, the rampant corruption and behind-the-scenes oligarchical rule remain unchanged in Ukraine. The revolution’s main goal – to integrate with the West – still seems a distant prospect.

Self propelled howitzers drive during a rehearsal for the Independence Day military parade in the centre of Kiev, Ukraine, August 19, 2016. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

Self propelled howitzers drive during a rehearsal for the Independence Day military parade in the centre of Kiev, Ukraine, August 19, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Valentyn Ogirenko

Ukraine marked the 25th anniversary of its independence from the USSR this week. It also marked nearly three years of Maidan revolution triggered civil conflict and a still-intensifying split with Russia. The occasion was saw a military parade in central Kiev and defiant talk of fighting until victory is achieved against Moscow-backed separatists in the country’s troubled east.

As tanks, missiles and squads of troops marched by the reviewing stand in a very Soviet display of military might next to Kiev’s Maidan Square – where pro-European revolution triumphed less than three years ago – President Petro Poroshenko declared that Ukraine was at war with Russia, but with the help from the West, would eventually prevail in that conflict.

“From this parade, our international partners will get the message that Ukraine is able to protect itself, but needs further support,” Poroshenko said to the crowd. “Our enemy is a country [Russia] which takes up a ninth of the world’s land and has a military budget tens and tens of times larger than our own. . .  Our main guarantor is the Ukrainian armed forces.”

But beneath this stirring martial rhetoric, little has changed since last year’s independence day, in Ukraine’s grim outlook. Only a few of the promises of the Maidan revolution have been realised.

Economic collapse, rampant corruption and the behind-the-scenes oligarchical rule remain unchanged. The revolution’s main goal – to integrate with the West – still seems a distant prospect. The revolution, however, gave Russia the pretext to annex the mostly Russian-populated Crimea and triggered separatist rebellion and the still simmering war in the country’s east.

Though the revolution was conducted in the name of democracy, one of the most ominous findings of a June survey of Ukraine’s demoralised population, conducted by Ukraine’s premier public opinion agency, the Kiev International Institute of Sociology (KIIS), was that 82% of Ukrainians now yearn for a “strong leader” with sweeping powers to save the country from its various crises.

Ukraine’s most worrisome problem, highlighted by 76% of respondents in the KIIS poll, remains to be the war in eastern Ukraine. All efforts to broker peace under the Moscow-Berlin-Paris sponsored Minsk II peace accords have hit a brick wall, with Kiev’s inability to deliver constitutional changes that would give special status to the two rebel republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, and with the separatists’ refusal to hold local elections under the Ukrainian law.

Fighting has been spiking in recent weeks, leading to fears that the deadlock will lead one or both sides to return to the battlefield.

“If we can’t get constitutional changes done, then nothing will alter the relationship between Kiev and the Luhansk-Donetsk republics,” says Vladimir Panchenko, an expert with the International Center of Political Studies in Kiev. “There is nothing happening right now that could influence positive change in our situation.”

But the plan of granting autonomy to the rebel republics, as stipulated by the Minsk deal, is profoundly unpopular among the Ukrainian nationalists who make up Poroshenko’s main bloc of supporters. Attempts to pass the necessary constitutional amendments have been stymied by angry street demonstrations and foot-dragging by the parliamentarians.

“Poroshenko is talking war and selling war, because he lacks the political resources to sell peace,” says Vadim Karasyov, director of the independent Institute of Global Strategies in Kiev. “Under such circumstances, it might be normal to hold new elections, to ask the population for a decision. But with the popular approval ratings of the president and most leadership at all time low, they know they would be swept away in new elections. So, this stalemate continues.”

Two-thirds of respondents in the KIIS survey said they wanted to see the conflict resolved through “the continuation of international peace negotiations,” while just under 20% favoured settling things through a renewal of hostilities. But the Minsk process has stalled, while war talk intensifies and no one seems able to suggest an alternative path.

The Kremlin also appears to have abandoned much of the optimism it seemed to have had a few months ago that the Minsk accords might be made to work and has returned to saber-rattling as a means of pressuring Kiev and its Western backers.

President Vladimir Putin, visiting the annexed territory of Crimea last week, accused Kiev of plotting “terrorist” acts, including sabotage and assassination, while Ukraine warned that Russian troop buildups threaten to ignite an “all-out war.”

Putin will meet French and German leaders on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in China next month to discuss the Ukrainian crisis, but few analysts in Russia or Ukraine expect any diplomatic breakthroughs.

“Had Minsk II been implemented as it was agreed, the way would be open for a pragmatic improvement in relations between Moscow and Kiev,” says Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the Kremlin-funded Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow. “Everyone can see that the situation has become completely frozen.”

The Kiev government has defied terrible odds by surviving more than two years of extreme hardship and it still faces almost daily rumors of its imminent demise. But, in one of the few bright developments, government paralysis was relieved by a reshuffle that consolidated president Poroshenko’s grip on power last April. Nevertheless, the economy is moribund, the bulk of the Maidan’s bold reformist agenda remains unfulfilled and there are ubiquitous signs that public patience is running out.

The most comprehensive recent KIIS survey found that 68% of Ukrainians think the state of the economy is bad, 76% believe the country is headed “in the wrong direction” and just 14% trust the leadership of Poroshenko.

Another red flag is that support for joining the European Union the signature goal of the Maidan revolution has fallen to less than half – 46% – while the idea of joining NATO is at 44%. Ukrainian experts point out that pro-Russian policy options fare much worse in the polls, but admit that the revolutionary spirit of most Ukrainians does appear to be waning.

“The population is disillusioned. They do not trust their own authorities and there seems to be no alternative on the horizon they can believe in,” says Karasyov. “Strange to say, many Ukrainians these days say they wish the country had a leader like Putin and was more like Russia.”

The growth of “Ukraine fatigue” in the West, especially events like the April referendum in the Netherlands to reject economic association with Ukraine and Britain’s vote to leave the EU altogether, has contributed to the popular loss of confidence. Some analysts say the perceived anti-Ukrainian posture of Donald Trump in the US election campaign, widely covered on Ukrainian and Russian TV, is also working to demoralise Ukrainians and embolden the Kremlin.

“The ideological goals of the Maidan revolution are increasingly exhausted and seem to be unattainable,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign policy journal. “The West is unhappy with Ukraine for its failure to implement promised reforms. Russia is not backing down. Ukrainians are miserable for any number of good reasons. The situation is [a] total deadlock.”

For much of its 25 years of independent existence, Lukyanov says, Ukraine navigated skillfully between East and West, extracting advantages from both Moscow and Europe, while mollifying the deep social divisions between its more nationalist western half and its largely Russia-fied east.

The Maidan revolution ended that uneasy equilibrium by handing the government to western activists who rushed to enact their own favoured agendas, including joining the EU and NATO, slashing relations with Moscow, and passing “decommunisation” laws that deeply irritate the conservative eastern Ukrainians who tend to be nostalgic of the Soviet era.

Most disquieting of all for eastern Ukrainians, whose grandfathers mostly served in the Red Army, has been a new law that gives “national hero” status to Ukrainian nationalist fighters of the Second World War, who fought against the USSR and often collaborated with the Nazis and participated in anti-Jewish and anti-Polish pogroms.

Some Russian experts insist, perhaps too optimistically, that the Russia-Ukraine rift is like a “family quarrel” that seems explosive, but quickly dies down. Zharikhin, who works for a Kremlin-funded institute, says he is confident that the pendulum will swing back toward better relations with Russia in the long term.

“Do you remember the Russian-Georgian conflict in 2008? It seemed that there would be hatred between our two countries forever, but never say never. Things have normalised greatly in Russia’s relations with Georgia and the same will eventually happen with Ukraine. No matter how things look now, reconciliation is in our future. Of that I am certain.”