Live from the struggling streets of Kiev, Ukraine
Arriving in Kiev two years after the coup that overthrew the corrupt but democratically elected Yanukovich government has been an interesting exercise in parallel reality.
Despite official declarations of progress marred with occasional reshuffling of politicians at the top, the vision of ‘EuroMaidan revolutionaries’ has turned out to be a grotesque exercise in wishful thinking bordering on delusion.
As the idealist fervor of the masses on the ground promised the ‘new’ Ukraine free of graft and firmly associated with the European Union (EU), peace, stability and economic prosperity remain as elusive as ever.
Nothing spells out the reality in Kiev like Kreschatik Street, the commercial center of the city where once luxury stores and representative offices of businesses thrived are now showing big gaps of vacant space. The Trade Union building and its press center, which was a seat of the revolution, has now been reduced to a burned out hulk covered with a canvass-like contraption hiding its mortal wounds sustained in Feb 2014. Instead of providing an illusion of normalcy, it is a mere reminder of unfinished business that Kiev seems to inherit ever since Ukraine gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
In a twisted way this also represents the national zeitgeist; on the surface Kiev's political instability, economic hardship and civil war in the East is hardly noticeable. The restaurants, streets, subway cars and buses are full of people going about their lives. However, under the calm surface the frustration with the new reality is everywhere.
"The Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk government has been a complete disaster for the city and the country," said Tatiana who was selling homemade food to passersby at the Pozniaki subway station. "We are now barely surviving with gas, food and other prices skyrocketing while our wages are effectively frozen," she lamented.
This point is clearly visible in the retail sector, which is also hurting due to the economic plight of the population. For example, in Billa supermarket stores, prepackaged meat, cheese and seafood are displayed with electronic anti-theft devices attached to them to prevent theft. As the population is going hungry, and the average salary hovering around 3,500 Hryvnia ($140), extreme times require extreme measures to keep it honest.
Passing through the cash registers, Ochrona security details stand nearby, resembling a security check-in line at the airport rather than a customer friendly shopping environment. The situation is unstable to the degree that anytime and anywhere spontaneous protests erupt with people sick and tired of byzantine bureaucratic rules that give officials an opportunity to extort money.
Early afternoon on April 4th, a group of about 50 shopkeepers and business owners staged an impromptu rally in front of Kiev Mayor Vitali Klitschko's office. The issue was over a forced shut down and relocation of the group of merchants due to alleged code violations. However, it has been also alleged that a Klitschko political ally and friend also had an eye on the property, therefore the relocation, the protesters alleged, was driven by politically connected economic interests rather than the rule of law.
The protesters did not mince their words about Klitschko’s checkered past. The self-declared ex-presidential hopeful and alleged enforcer for Kiev's underworld boss Viktor "Ryba" the fish Rybalko, Klitschko is no stranger to brutal tactics in and out of the boxing ring where he made his career.
In addition to being a German resident, Klitschko became the leader of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR) party in April 2010. During the 2010 Ukrainian local elections, the party won big in municipal and regional elections.
Klitschko became a de facto partner of German Christian Democrats, while receiving support from the German Government and Konrad Adenauer Foundation. According to information published by the German magazine Der Speigel, the idea was to "set up Klitschko purposefully as a new strong man in Kiev – in order to counter this way the Kremlin's growing influence.” The plan did not pan out exactly as planned as the now infamous phone call intercept between neocon US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt showed.
Meanwhile, as the situation at the mayor's office grew increasingly confrontational. Klitschko's assistant came out and informed the group – that included three men in Ukrainian military uniforms - they will be met shortly by the appropriate official. He promised an audience with only two representatives of the group who were told to bring documents that prove the merchants' eviction was illegal. After the mayor failed to appear for over an hour, the group got increasingly desperate and agitated. "I think they will start calling us ‘separatists’ as they obviously don’t care what we have to say here and why we are driven to this desperate act,” said a middle-aged man who introduced himself as Sasha. “You as a foreign journalist should see what this country has come to, that we the simple and honest hardworking people have to resort to this just to have our government even listen to us. Not to solve the problem yet, but just to listen.”
Soon a group of five clean shaven and muscular guys appeared. They were greeted with a quiet sign of resignation as the word “bezpechnost” - signaling the KGB security service - went around, indicating the situation had escalated to a new level. The three policemen on duty nearby sympathized with the protesters, however, stating that they are also in a similar situation. They said they had to obey orders, but they were having a hard time feeding their families as well.
Eventually, two protesters were allowed to present their petition to the overall pessimism of the group. “If this is not addressed soon, we will be back,” exclaimed a tall blond woman who claimed her shop had been illegally shut down. The event concluded without violence.
The popular sentiment is that officially Ukraine has its institutions and the state but they are not functioning. Such sentiments are widespread not only among the population, but the political class as well. A few blocks away from the Verkhovna Rada (the parliament), the new era of a political mosh pit ushered in by the EuroMaidan was being personified by the ‘5.10 Party’ readying for the upcoming electoral joust. It presents a platform of classic economic thrill kill dressed up as a political movement. The political program is as crazy as one can imagine in the unreal new reality of trickle-down economics and neoliberal leap of faith making it the Opus Dei of unbridled capitalism.
“We are going to make Ukraine a new Singapore or Hong Kong,” declared Gennady Balashov, the party leader and businessman whose latest model of Mercedes-Benz is adorned with the red party banner, making it resemble a blast from the Communist past.
"We believe that Chicago School of Economics will work wonders for Ukraine and lift all of its population from object poverty that you see now. My 5.10 plan (flat percent tax on sales and income, respectively) will be successful and we will make the country rich as it should be," Balashov told me without a hint of irony.
The vision presented by the 5.10 will perhaps materialize as one part a Singapore-like authoritarian state, whose economics will surely miss the boat of prosperity judging by the history of countries where it has been implemented. The poster-child of Milton Friedman's success story: Chile and whose experiment came on the bayonets of a ruthless military coup d’état, had serious economic and societal problems that put its economic orthodoxy of neoliberalism on hold.
As if Ukraine already did not have enough problems, this new vision of socio-economics on top of the civil war simmering in the east can surely result in the official breakup of the country - not only on ethnic lines, but economic ones as well.
Balashov dismissed this point, stating that "Ukrainians are tough people and they can handle anything," he told me through his interpreter. Thus the period of instability in Kiev is here to stay for a while with no end in sight. This sentiment also pervades the supposedly safe environment of the diplomatic zone where the newly opened Hilton hotel operates. When I complained about being followed inside of the hotel the response from its general manager was:
“Due to the current political unrest within Ukraine in general and Kiev in particular, our security measures and procedures are on a high level as it is our priority to ensure safety and security of our guests and team members. Therefore, on behalf of the entire Hilton Kiev team I would like to apologize for any inconvenience that you have encountered or any situation that might have made you feel uncomfortable at any point.”
The atmosphere of uncertainty is also present in what was the center of the revolutionary fervor in the west of the country, the Praviy Sektor faction's self-declared homeland. When I brought the issue up to the employee of local administration in Ivano-Frankivsk the response was not very optimistic. "Our political system is broken and whatever has been leftover from the revolution that was good has been betrayed by the political class," said an employee who preferred to remain anonymous as he was not authorized to talk to the media.
"'The new EuroMaidan' is coming in two to three years and it will be even more bloody and unforgiving. This time it will not be full of nice rhetoric and promises. It will be hard and vicious as people are even more fed up with what happened since the revolution and I don't think anyone, including the government in Kiev will be able to control it unless they are willing to send tanks and planes," he concluded.
On the way out of Ukraine I visited the region of the country called Zakarpatska Oblast with its capital of Uzhhorod right near the Slovak and Hungarian borders. The region is multilingual and cosmopolitan due to the large minorities of Slovaks, Rusyn, Hungarians and Poles living in the region, and many who work abroad to support their families.
"We are here called the most separatist region of the country after the east," said Maria, who was preparing to get a visa at the Hungarian Consulate in order to spend her summer on working holiday in the EU. "Of course if the situation continues the way it is it might be possible that if the local population feels unprotected from violence that might come this way we can ask the neighboring countries for protection."
With the most extreme fighters of the EuroMaidan - including the right wing and neo-Nazis - decamped to the east to hold the front and occasionally fight in US-trained and partially equipped National Guard units, the change of power appears to be in the offing.
During last month's nuclear summit, President Obama signaled the Poroshenko administration to move out while promising $1 billion of assistance to a new government that should come after. Ukrainians are so tired of the mess that most regard the political chess game as a mere distraction to the priority of everyday survival.
Unfortunately two years ago my report predicted that what comes next after the "revolution" might not be better from what it replaced. I wish I had been wrong.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.