A Moment Series: Democracy in Retreat
After massive demonstrations & new elections, Ukrainians have let it be known that they are ready for democratic and economic reforms. But that won’t be easy, given the country’s history of corruption and the bloody war with Russian-backed separatists.
By Yigal Schleifer
Picture this: An ostrich-filled menagerie, a petting zoo with cows and sheep, an antique car collection, several lavish residences fitted with gold bathroom fixtures and an artificial lagoon where a replica of a Spanish galleon that served as a floating banquet hall is docked. That’s Mezhyhirya, sprawling across 350 acres on a high bluff overlooking the Dnieper River, about a 30-minute drive from Ukraine’s capital of Kiev. One of the country’s largest and certainly most unusual estates, Mezhyhirya evokes both the overwrought grandeur of Versailles and the unhinged loopiness of Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch.
Something else makes it unusual: Despite being the residence of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych until he was deposed last year after months of massive protests, Mezhyhirya didn’t officially exist. Surrounded by a high fence, the opulent estate was built without any government sanction or supervision, a black hole that sucked up an untold amount of state funds with no record of how the money was spent.
When Yanukovych fled Kiev on February 21 for his home base of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine and ultimately asylum in Russia, Mezhyhirya was abandoned. Its gates were left unwatched and its exotic animals unfed. Word quickly spread among members of Kiev’s anti-Yanukovych protest movement that the ex-strongman’s estate was now accessible. Soon there was a solid line of cars making their way from Kiev to its front gate.
One of the first to make it inside was Bogdan Tytsky. A 25-year-old journalist with a wispy goatee and pale skin, Tytsky belongs to a group of activists that helped launch the anti-Yanukovych protests in Kiev in November of 2013. That month, the president abruptly stepped back from signing an agreement that would have deepened the economic and political ties between Ukraine and the European Union. “Before anybody came to Mezhyhirya, there were a lot of rumors about it, but they seemed like an exaggeration,” he told me shortly after I arrived in Ukraine last summer. “But it was even worse than we imagined. We couldn’t believe the size of the territory, how expensive and well-maintained everything was, especially in comparison to how the rest of Ukrainians live.”
President Viktor Yanukovych’s estate, Mezhyhirya, is now a popular tourist attraction.
Tytsky offered to accompany me to Mezhyhirya, and we met in the parking lot of his shabby Soviet-era Kiev apartment building to take a taxi out to the estate. This time he didn’t need to crash Mezhyhirya’s gates; instead, the two of us lined up to buy tickets for about one dollar each from a booth at the entrance. It was a sunny weekend day, and a long line of visitors was waiting ahead of us. Inside, we saw several women in wedding gowns posing on Mezhyhirya’s manicured lawns, having formal pictures taken with their bridal parties. Elsewhere, people were feeding ducks in ponds or stopping to ogle the penned ostriches. It was clear that Mezhyhirya had become Ukraine’s newest national attraction.
Inside the grounds, we bought another ticket to inspect Yanukovych’s vast array of mostly Soviet-era Russian collectible cars. Then, after stopping to buy soft-serve ice cream from a truck vendor, we walked along a winding wooded road until we arrived at a two-story villa. Tytsky said it is called “Putin’s House” because of a rumor that this was where the Russian president stayed when he visited his now-deposed ally. “We expected our former president to live in a very lavish way, but when we saw all of this, we realized the level of stealing and corruption was much bigger than we thought,” he said. “Yanukovych built a feudal system and this was his castle.
“If last November you would have told me that six months later I would be walking here, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Tytsky added, taking another lick from his ice cream cone.
It was a feeling that seemed to be shared by those around us, many of whom were in a state of giddy wonder. When we reached what had been Mezhyhirya’s golf course, its greens still carefully manicured, we saw a man remove his shoes and socks and take pictures of them lying on the grass. The man told us the photographs were for his Facebook page. “People are calling this the eighth wonder of the world. I agree,” the man, an electronics store manager named Alexander, said with a smile. “I’ve been to many parks, but nothing compares to this. This is how Yanukovych brought Europe to Ukraine—he built a European-class park!”
Alexander said he had come to Yanukovych’s residence with his wife and son, driving 186 miles from the city of Shostka. “This is freedom!” the barefoot Alexander said triumphantly. “For a long time people couldn’t visit this place, but this shows we are now free.”
If only it were that simple. Yanukovych was a late Soviet-period apparatchik who, after being elected president six years ago, systematically dismantled many of the democratic changes put into place in Ukraine since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. His departure was certainly an important step forward for the country. But its political system remains bedeviled by deep-rooted dysfunction. Mezhyhirya itself is a case in point: “Putin’s House” today serves as the office of Denys Tarachkotelyk, a former Kiev businessman who, in the confusion following Yanukovych’s departure, was somehow able to take over the estate and declare himself its “commandant.” He has vowed to return Mezhyhirya and its contents, estimated to be worth over $1 billion, to the state once he feels assured it has shed all traces of the corrupt previous regime.Tarachkotelyk has certainly taken good care of the massive grounds, but—just as during the residence of Yanukovych—there is very little transparency or accountability regarding what happens here.
It’s a state of affairs that seems like an apt metaphor for Ukraine itself. The end of the pro-Russian Yanukovych’s authoritarian administration may be Ukraine’s best chance since gaining independence from the Soviet Union to reform its democratic institutions and to create stronger ties with the West. But with a centralized government riddled with widespread corruption—a legacy of Ukraine’s integration into the Soviet Union—the country is still a work in progress. Ukraine is still dominated by the oligarch-billionaires who made their fortunes during the abrupt turn to capitalism in the post-Soviet period. According to the watchdog group Transparency International, Ukraine is the most corrupt country in Europe, ranking alongside countries such as Cameroon, Nigeria and Iran. And large parts of the country’s bureaucracy, the judiciary in particular, are broken after decades of mismanagement.
The people of Ukraine have finally asserted their power and made known their desire for a democratic future. One of the biggest problems now is that, like someone who has gotten used to watching a television with a blurry static-filled screen, few in Ukraine have a clear picture of what a functioning democracy looks like.
Months after the massive Maidan protests were over, barricades built by demonstrators remained.
The perfect starting point to understanding the chaos of Ukraine’s emerging democracy is the Maidan, Kiev’s Independence Square. The expansive Maidan (maidan means “square” in Ukrainian) serves as a central meeting place for the city’s residents and is surrounded by government buildings, cafés and restaurants. A short walk from Ukraine’s Parliament—known as the Rada—it is in many ways the symbolic heart of Kiev. Since the start of the country’s independence movement in 1990, the square has been the traditional place for political rallies, including four large-scale protest campaigns: the 1989 student “Revolution on Granite”; the 2001 “Ukraine without Kuchma”; the 2004 “Orange Revolution”; and most recently, the massive demonstrations that led to Yanukovych’s ouster.
During my visit last summer, Kiev was a few months past the demonstrations. But a jittery feeling remained in the air. A new, more Western-leaning government had been appointed, and a promising new president, Petro Poroshenko—sometimes referred to as Ukraine’s “Chocolate King” thanks to his ownership of Roshen, the country’s largest confectionery company—had been elected. But the fighting in the east and the aftereffects of the Maidan demonstrations, in which security forces killed more than 80 civilians had colored daily life.
The Maidan still had the look and feel of a massive protest camp. Many of the barricades surrounding the square were still up, as were dozens of old army tents serving as housing for demonstrators who weren’t quite ready to call it quits, or perhaps had nowhere else to go (local authorities were finally able to clear out the square in August). A large screen on a stage in the center of this pro-democracy shantytown showed propaganda films of Ukrainian soldiers in action in the East while singers in military uniform performed patriotic tunes.
To enter the square, I passed through a checkpoint manned by a trio of self-appointed guards in camouflage fatigues. When a car wanted to pass, one of them would move aside a crude metal gate made out of what looked like a balcony railing covered in barbed wire. “We are standing watch over the place where our comrades died. The streets were filled with blood,” said a 53-year-old “guard” with piercing blue eyes and a few missing front teeth. “We could also go fight in the East, but we have to stay at the barricades. It’s a symbol of what happened at the Maidan. It’s a reminder to the president that it’s the people who are in charge of him.”
The new Ukrainian era began on the night of November 21, 2013. That’s when some 700 people gathered to vent their anger over the government’s U-turn regarding signing a long-negotiated agreement strengthening ties with the European Union. Amped up by social media networking and the Yanukovych regime’s heavy-handed response, the protests quickly grew in size, first to tens of thousands and, by early December, to hundreds of thousands. After security forces tried to break up the protests, barricades were erected, made of tires and other scrap materials the demonstrators could scavenge. Soon the area around the square became an ersatz fortress.
During the demonstrations, the failed 2004 Orange Revolution—an earlier period of great hope—loomed large in the protestors’ minds. Yanukovych played a major antagonizing role in that revolution, too. From 1997 to 2002, Yanukovych served as the governor of Donetsk Oblast, a province in eastern Ukraine that borders on Russia. Yanukovych then served as prime minister of Ukraine under President Leonid Kuchma from 2002 through 2004. In a 2004 run-off vote, he was elected president, triumphing over popular pro-Western central banker Viktor Yushchenko. But the voting was widely perceived as rigged, and hundreds of thousands of young people filled the Maidan, sweeping Yushchenko into power. (Yushchenko had survived a massive dose of dioxin poisoning that Russian agents were suspected of putting in his food, leaving him severely disfigured.) Yushchenko’s prime minister was his fiery-tongued Orange Revolution co-leader, energy executive Yulia Tymoshenko.
Journalist and new Member of Parliament Svitlana Zalishchuk;
Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Danylo Lubkivsky.
The promise of the Orange Revolution was short-lived, with Ukrainian politics quickly reverting to its old ways. So much so, in fact, that despite being discredited by the electoral shenanigans that preceded the Orange Revolution, Yanukovych’s Party of Regions was able to tap into frustration with the country’s mismanagement and win the 2006 parliamentary elections. Four years later, Yanukovych ran again for the presidency. This time he didn’t have to resort to tricks. But while his predecessors might have been inept or corrupt, Yanukovych introduced into the office of the Ukrainian president an element of autocracy that had not been seen before. He jailed Tymoshenko, his most vocal opponent, on dubious charges and stifled the opposition media.
A few days after my first visit to the Maidan, I returned to meet with Max Yakover, a 31-year-old Jewish Ukrainian who was among the protestors who first gathered in the square on November 21—and one of a visible number of Jews who participated in the revolution. Yakover, an entrepreneur whose current project is running a shared workspace for Kiev creative types, has a boyish face and a small paunch. We met near the stage in the heart of the square, where loud music was blaring from large speakers and a group of men were marching in formation. Many of them sported the “Cossack”-style haircut—shaved sides of the head with a longish Mohawk on top that is combed forward—that seemed to be in vogue at the Maidan.
Yakover told me that Ukraine under Yanukovych had begun to look more and more like Vladimir Putin’s Russia. “It was a period when one man ruled the whole country and his family could do anything,” he said as we sat at a café near the Maidan. “The economy was stable. We could do business. But we understood that in five or ten years, we wouldn’t have a Ukraine that we wanted to live in. Yanukovych and his family were doing all these things that should have put them in jail and we realized they would never go. There was no hope for reforms. If you had a good business, they could just come and take it away from you.”
The early protests, Yakover said, were “filled with people like me—designers, computer programmers, people who earned money.” Like most of the people who came to the square on that first night, Yakover learned about the protest through Facebook. “After Yanukovych didn’t sign the EU agreement, we realized how much corruption there was, how much we hated Yanukovych, how he was taking our country toward a crash,” Yakover told me. “If there was a light at the end of the tunnel, on that day it was turned off.
“Nobody could believe that we could make Yanukovych go away. We just wanted to say we are here and can’t understand how one man can make a decision and move the country’s position 180 degrees.”
I asked Yakover what had changed since the demonstrations and Yanukovych’s departure. His answer echoed what I had heard from the uniformed protestor manning the roadblock leading to the square. “After Maidan, people recognized that they are the real instrument of democracy, not the politicians,” Yakover said. “The politicians now need to take steps to show that they are doing a lot of work to change things.” And if they don’t? “We will have some questions!” Has there been significant progress, I asked? Yakover shook his head, but added: “The light at the end of the tunnel is on again.”
During my time in Ukraine, I met few people who denied that the “light at the end of the tunnel” was back on. But there was plenty of disagreement about whether it was getting any stronger.
One look at the country’s geopolitical location explains why. Lying on the northern shores of the Black Sea and Sea of Azov, Ukraine borders Poland, Slovakia and Hungary to the west, Belarus to the north, Moldova and Romania to the southwest, and Russia to the east. Over the centuries, Ukraine’s vast fertile plains have frequently been ruled by other countries and its people subjected to brutal treatment. Upon becoming part of the Soviet Union in 1922, Soviet authorities suppressed the expression of Ukrainian language and culture and used the country as a testing ground for Moscow’s experiments in collectivization and agricultural “modernization,” which ultimately contributed to the Great Famine of 1932-33 and the deaths of millions from starvation. When the Nazis wrested Ukraine from the USSR in 1941, they, too, had plans to turn the country into their own breadbasket.
After the Nazis were defeated, Ukraine again became part of the Soviet Union, and remained so until its independence in 1991. But Russian pressure remains. Moscow considers Ukraine within its sphere of influence. President Vladimir Putin would like to see Ukraine become a member of his Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), whose current members are Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and is often described as a Russia-led rival to NATO—and a bulwark against the Western alliance’s eastward expansion. Ukraine is also of vital strategic importance to Russia: It is a conduit for its oil and gas to reach Europe.
The Kremlin has not shied away from exerting its influence to steer Ukrainian politics in the direction that it wants. In 2009, for example, after a dispute about gas transit fees, Russia cut off the supply to Ukraine (and to numerous other countries in the process), leaving tens of millions across Europe shivering in unheated homes. More recently, Putin showed his displeasure over Yanukovych’s ouster by orchestrating a military takeover in Crimea by soldiers in unmarked uniforms (“little green men,” as Ukrainians have come to call them). This led to a subsequent referendum resulting in the Black Sea peninsula—part of Ukraine since 1954—declaring its intention to rejoin the Russian motherland.
More distressingly, Kiev is locked in a bloody, drawn-out battle with Moscow-backed separatists in the country’s east, who accuse Kiev of threatening their rights as a minority and are fighting to establish independence. The conflict has so far cost the lives of nearly 5,000 people and displaced half a million of the 4.5 million people in the affected area, which is about 5 percent of Ukraine’s territory, 10 percent of its population and produces about 20 percent of the nation’s GDP. Yanukovych’s home province, Donetsk, is at the heart of the separatist movement, and like Crimea, is predominately ethnically Russia. “The war in the east is not a “civil war, not a liberation movement, not an insurgency,” Danylo Lubkivsky, Ukraine’s 38-year-old deputy minister for foreign affairs, told me during an interview in his spacious office. “It’s a war of terror waged against Ukraine by Russia. This is not only about Ukraine, about Crimea, but about an ill ideology that exists in the minds of the political authorities in Russia. They hit us when we were weak. They took Crimea, illegally. And then they tried to undermine the clear alternative that is being built in Ukraine to their so-called democracy. They are afraid of a successful, prosperous Ukraine.”
With Moscow playing such an outsized role, it’s easy to see why many Ukrainians feel they have little agency. “A lot depends on Russia, whether it allows breathing space for reforms,” Andrew Wilson, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told me in November. At the time, Moscow was moving large numbers of troops and armored vehicles into eastern Ukraine, in defiance of a ceasefire agreement with Kiev. “Indications are that it [Russia] won’t, since it wants Ukraine to fail.”
Former Svoboda Member of Parliament Yuriy Syrotyuk wears a “Fuck-U-Putin” bracelet.
Maidan protester with “Cossack”-style haircut.
Given the situation, many people I spoke with were surprisingly optimistic about the country’s ability to reform itself. They see President Poroshenko, a pro-Western liberal billionaire who did very well for himself under the previous administrations, as a strong leader who is willing to push for a long list of reforms, ranging from a new constitution to implementing new safeguards against continuing graft. Most significant are the reforms related to establishing democratic standards, rule of law and government accountability in a country that has had precious little experience with those concepts.
In Kiev, I met a European Union official with extensive experience in Ukraine who seemed buoyed by Poroshenko’s election. Like Yakover and the self-appointed guard at the Maidan, the EU representative—who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of Ukraine-EU relations—believes that Ukrainian politicians have finally realized they have to be more accountable to the people. “This is pushing Poroshenko to stay on the reform track,” he said. “There is a chance now that we can break the neck of this post-Soviet oligarchic system. It’s not like the 2004 Orange Revolution, when one president was reshuffled with another but the system remained unchanged. This time people are determined to see it through.”
However, Oleksiy Orlovsky, who runs a program that develops democracy-building initiatives at the International Renaissance Foundation, one of Ukraine’s leading think tanks, believes the window of opportunity for far-reaching constitutional reforms has largely closed. “Our main actor should be, according to the constitution, the Ukrainian people,” said Orlovsky, who served for 12 years as a city council member in Odessa. “But all the changes proposed by the president are only about changing the relationship between different public institutions. In this sense, the reform process looks very one-sided.”
The government asks for patience. “This cabinet has only been in power for a few months,” Lubkivsky told me. “We just started. We have a war with Russia. We had Crimea occupied by Russia.” Lubkivsky is a career diplomat who quit the ministry in disgust in 2010 after Yanukovych came to power and only returned earlier this year after being invited back by the new foreign minister. He listed a host of reform challenges facing the new government. “This cabinet and this president need to ensure the transparency of everything they do,” he said. “This is a difficult task because there is no experience in doing this. There is always the danger that this post-Soviet way of doing things will come back.” But he is hopeful. “I do believe that all issues in terms of reform—anti-corruption, constitutional changes and creating a better life for our citizens—will happen.”
One of those elected to parliament in this past October is Svitlana Zalishchuk, a former television reporter who is now executive director of Centre of United Actions, a five-year-old organization that serves as a kind of clearinghouse for democracy building, working on a number of projects related to fighting corruption and promoting government transparency. During the anti-Yanukovych protests, CentreUA helped create and moderate a EuroMaidan Facebook page that was an important source of news and a coordinating tool for demonstrators, on some days receiving close to four million visits.
I met Zalishchuk, 32, who has the polished, self-assured manner of someone accustomed to being in front of a television camera, in a small meeting room with a view looking out over Kiev. She had just come from a meeting at the Parliament, where she was among a group of civil society activists pushing forward a raft of reforms. “The overall situation can’t change in one day,” she told me. “You need to build a new culture. It’s not just about decrees. I think the mission of the new president and administration is to install a new ‘software,’ but that will only start working in five or seven years. Then we will be able to see change.” For now, Zalishchuk told me, the most significant visible change is the new people in the government. “We’ve definitely had a change of faces, not just the president but the whole government. Half of the government now are my friends, people who reflect the aspirations of the circles they come from,” she said. Then, she excused herself to hurry to another meeting.
Since summer, progress has been made. In October, the Parliament passed a new anti-corruption bill—not to everyone’s liking, but still with more teeth than what had previously been proposed. More significantly, that same month new parliamentary elections were held. The parties of Poroshenko and that of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk won the largest number of seats, followed by several other pro-European integration parties.
“By all appearances there should be the possibility to form a coalition that could have enough votes to pass constitutional changes,” Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who was the American ambassador to Ukraine between 1998 and 2000, recently told me. “That’s if they can do this. My hesitation is because historically the Ukrainian parliament has not been a place for compromise and collaboration. It’s critical that they do it.”
Perhaps the most encouraging result of the October 2014 parliamentary election is not who got into the Rada but who failed to do so. Prior to the election, there was concern that some far-right and extreme nationalist parties, which rose to prominence during the Maidan protests when their members took a leading role in fighting Yanukovych’s security forces, might be able to parlay that visibility into increased political power.
Before the election, the right’s influence seemed to be growing. Svoboda, a nationalist party that entered the Rada in 2012, was able to orchestrate the repeal of a two-year-old law that allowed for languages other than Ukrainian to be used for official business in the country’s various regions. The repeal—which itself was eventually repealed—created concerns among the country’s large population of Russian speakers that Ukraine’s new era might not be friendly toward them. And in a country that has had a profoundly disturbing history of anti-Semitism—Ukrainians were among the Nazis’ most enthusiastic and brutal collaborators in rounding up and murdering Jews en masse during the Holocaust—the prospect of a stronger xenophobic right was particularly worrying.
But the results of the October elections dealt the right a blow. None of the far-right parties, including Svoboda, which earned 10 percent of the vote in 2012, made it into parliament. Additionally, there was some indication that Ukrainian society—and perhaps some of the parties on the right—are evolving in interesting ways. The issue of anti-Semitism is a telling example.
While in Kiev, I met with a visiting representative of a major American Jewish organization. He was making the rounds in Ukraine to gauge the mood of the local community and measure levels of anti-Semitism, and asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of his mission. Although there had been a few isolated incidents during the Maidan protests and the period following it, the American—who knew Ukraine well—told me he was stunned by the relative absence of anti-Semitism in the country today. (He cautioned that this might be a temporary result of Ukrainians now having a common enemy: Russia’s Vladimir Putin.) In fact, he said, considering the prominent involvement of young Jews in the Maidan and the visible support some Jewish oligarchs gave the protests, the idea of the more than 200,000-member Jewish community as an essential element in rebuilding Ukraine is now very strong. Bolstering this American representative’s argument is the fact that in November the newly elected Rada chose as its speaker, Volodymyr Groysman, a member of Poroshenko’s party and the first Jew to hold the position.
During the recent round of Maidan protests, Russian media and the Kremlin frequently claimed that the protests were being led by anti-Semites and neo-fascists. But soon after Yanukovych’s ouster, the top leaders of Ukraine’s Jewish community issued an open letter to Putin telling him to stop using the charge of anti-Semitism for his own political objectives. “Your certainty about the growth of anti-Semitism in Ukraine…does not correspond to the actual facts. Perhaps you got Ukraine confused with Russia, where Jewish organizations have noticed growth in anti-Semitic tendencies last year,” read the letter, which was released March 4, 2014.
[box type=”shadow” ]
JEWS IN UKRAINE TODAY
Moment’s Rachel E. Gross interviews Mark Levin, executive director of the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry.
How do Ukrainian Jews feel about the events of the past year?
Ukrainian Jews are hoping that this time around the political reformers don’t allow infighting to destroy any chance to create a true economic and political renaissance. That doesn’t mean they aren’t worried about other issues, or that emigration hasn’t gone up. It has—more than 5,100 people this year made aliyah from Ukraine to Israel—but there is still a significant Jewish population. And they want to live in a country where the rule of law means something, where there is true economic reform and corruption is being addressed. In that sense they very much reflect the views of their fellow citizens: They’re hopeful.
What is the level of anti-Semitism in Ukraine today?
We’re not wearing rose-colored glasses. Things are not perfect for the Jewish community; no one is suggesting that anti-Semitism has been eradicated. But today it is much better than it has been. This is evidenced by the fact that we don’t have far right parties in the government, by the fact that many Jews fought alongside non-Jewish compatriots. What I’ve been telling people is: There has been anti-Semitism in Ukraine, there is anti-Semitism in Ukraine, and there will be anti-Semitism in Ukraine. But its significance isn’t different than in many other countries.
How have attitudes toward Jews changed?
There have been a number of highly publicized incidents, but those incidents have been more provocations than actual anti-Semitic incidents. And we’ve been able to work with this government when incidents have occurred. Ukrainian Jews know the history of their own country better than almost anybody else. They’re aware of the potential for things to go badly. But the Ukrainian Jewish leadership is comfortable with this government. There have been some positive developments and we have to see whether they’re going to take root or not. You don’t change history in one year. But the situation is moving in the right direction.
How have Jews been impacted by the war?
Those in the eastern and southern parts that have been involved in the conflict have been deeply affected, from the loss of jobs, home, any semblance of a normal life. Like other Ukrainians, if they had the means or wherewithal to leave they have. There are only a few thousand Jews remaining, and those are probably elderly. Meanwhile, the Jews living in the other parts of the country have been affected more economically than anything else. At least they’re not living in a war zone.[/box]
Even Svoboda, whose leaders are known for their past anti-Semitic remarks, appeared to be coming around to a new Ukrainian reality. One afternoon at an outdoor café in Kiev, I sat down to talk with Yuriy Syrotyuk, at the time a member of Parliament with the party. A former teacher and journalist, Syrotyuk readily admitted his party had a problem with anti-Semitism, even listing a few instances where Svoboda leaders had said offensive things. But, he told me the party has changed. “We realized that we can no longer use the same expressions as were used in the middle of the 20th century. It’s not about being more careful, but because we understand that we can’t live in the past,” said Syrotyuk, who was wearing a bracelet given to him by his children that had small circular tiles with letters written on them that spelled out in English “Fuck U Putin.”
Syrotyuk told me that the period following the Maidan protests had been something of an eye-opener for Svoboda regarding other European far-right and nationalist parties. “In the beginning, we thought our partners in Europe would be nationalists, like the National Front in France or Jobbik in Hungary. But this war with Russia showed us that they support Putin and made us realize we are different.” As a result, “we stopped our connections with European nationalists and are trying to develop connections with social conservative parties,” he added. “We have evolved. If we want to move in a European direction, then we have to change the way we do things.”
Svoboda’s home base is in the area surrounding the western Ukrainian city of Lviv—known as Lvov in Russia, Lwow in Polish and Lemberg in German and Yiddish. During World War II the region was home to anti-Soviet Ukrainian partisans who collaborated with the Nazis in their fight against the USSR, leaving western Ukraine with the reputation as a hotbed for anti-Semitism and extreme nationalism.
Today, Lviv is perhaps Ukraine’s most pleasant city. With its historical Renaissance and Baroque buildings and numerous outdoor cafés, the former Austro-Hungarian provincial capital evokes Prague and other Central European towns. The city wears its partisan reputation proudly—not far from the railroad station is a towering statue of Stepan Bandera, the controversial Ukrainian nationalist leader who allied himself with the Nazis. Just off Lviv’s main square is a kitschy “partisan”-themed restaurant where a man in a leather jacket holding a World War II vintage machine gun answers an unmarked door, and asks would-be-diners for the password to gain admission. Anyone who says “Glory to Ukraine”—a slogan that is coming back into vogue—is allowed into the restaurant, which is designed to look like a roughly constructed underground bunker. There are usually long lines of people waiting to give the password and get in.
At another establishment near the square, a stylish restaurant called Café 1, I met with owner Mark Zarkhin, who owns the place. A successful businessman, Zarkhin is a member of the small Jewish community that remained in Lviv after the ravages of the Holocaust, Zarkhin owns several other restaurants in town and is one of the main forces behind Lviv’s booming tourism trade. A squat man with a wide ruddy face framed by a wispy goatee and long, wavy gray hair, Zarkhin resembles a Dutch burgher in one of Rembrandt’s paintings. When I asked him if he was concerned about about a rise in anti-Semitism or of right-wing parties, Zarkhin scoffed. “I’m a Russian-speaking Jew who lives in Lviv,” he said. “According to Russian propaganda, I should have been killed long ago.
“We can see a growth of nationalism, but it’s not a dangerous nationalism,” Zarkhin continued. “It’s not targeting Jews or Russian speakers. It’s for protecting our nation, our culture.” Ostap Drozdov, a Lviv television journalist who covers local politics, agreed. As he described it, “patriotism” is rising, but anti-Semitism is becoming less visible. “It’s become something negative, an anachronism,” he told me. “During Maidan, Jews showed themselves to be great Ukrainian patriots. Anti-Semitism is an anti-trend now. It’s no longer fashionable.” In fact, he pointed out to me, Lviv would host its sixth annual Klezmer festival the upcoming weekend.
Considering the chaos that came in the wake of the Maidan revolution, the annexation of Crimea, the brutal fighting in the east, the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over its soil—Ukraine seems surprisingly stable. But it’s a fragile stability, one that could easily be upended, especially in a country filled with people trying to unlearn the misguiding lessons of the past.
There have been continued signs of progress: In December, the Rada voted 303 to eight to repeal the non-alignment status that stood in the way of possible future NATO membership. New legislation was also passed to address economic reforms that the EU, U.S. and international lending bodies have pushed the government to adopt. Meanwhile, the war in the East drags on, draining the country’s resources. But even there, there is some movement. As of now Putin has agreed to meet with Poroshenko in January. The talks, which will take place in the Kazakh capital, Astana, will also include German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande.
The question remains: Can Ukraine reform itself with a war raging? “The Ukrainians themselves have changed their minds about this somewhat from about April to about October,” Andrew Wilson said. “They initially said, ‘We can’t do the difficult reforms because we are at war.’ But now they say, ‘Maybe we can do them both.’”
Funding for this article was provided by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Yigal Schleifer is a journalist based in Washington, DC. Between 2002 and 2010 he worked as a correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor in Istanbul, Turkey.