On eve of election, Ukraine protesters feel let down but fight on

On eve of election, Ukraine protesters feel let down but fight on

Pro-West chocolate baron expected to win, but 'the revolution is not over,' says one of those still entrenched in Kiev's Independence Square

Anti-government protesters shout slogans at Independence Square, in Kiev, Ukraine, on Friday (photo credit: Bulent Kilic/AFP)
Anti-government protesters shout slogans at Independence Square, in Kiev, Ukraine, on Friday (photo credit: Bulent Kilic/AFP)

The military-style tents and makeshift barricades of black tyres, barbed wire and rubble are still standing in the shadow of charred buildings on Kiev’s Independence Square, three months after the bloody protests that forced out a pro-Kremlin regime.

Red carnations lie strewn on cobbled streets near clusters of multi-coloured candle holders and rows of plastic-covered pictures of men pinned up in a poignant tribute to those killed in the February bloodbath.

But the revolutionary fervour of the protest movement in the square known locally as the Maidan has been replaced by an air of disenchantment in Ukraine’s riverside capital city.

“I am disappointed,” 32-year-old archaeologist Olena Onogda said glumly, chatting to AFP in a cafe near Independence Square shortly before Sunday’s presidential election.

“The country is in ruins and the government is having a very tough time. Of course you want them to wave a magic wand and fix everything, but things cannot change that fast.”

In stark contrast to the industrial eastern regions in the grip of a pro-Russian insurgency for six weeks, daily life goes on pretty much as normal in Kiev.

Commuters swarm out of metro stations in the morning rush hour, street vendors are out hawking their sunglasses and T-shirts, and children clamber on a plastic climbing frame on a grassy patch between apartment blocks.

But the mood remains distinctly sombre, with the violence in the east threatening to further divide a country also on the brink of bankruptcy.

“Of course, Russians out,” Irina, a stallholder in her 30s, says as she tends to the trinkets she sells on Khreshchatyk Street in the heart of Kiev.

Nearby a collection of banners hangs alongside the barricaded street, bearing the slogans “Shout for Ukraine” and “Peace For U”. A little further along, people take pictures of each other in front of a dark green armoured vehicle draped in camouflage netting and, oddly, a multitude of colourful balloons.

“People come to look. I want (them) to buy. Whoever is our president must work saving Ukraine,” Irina says in broken English.

Officially 21 candidates are on the ballot paper, although several have dropped out of the race, and victory is almost a certainty for pro-Western chocolate baron Petro Poroshenko.

But some voters have complained about the lack of fresh faces to choose from.

The lineup includes a number of former ministers, and some — like Poroshenko — with links to toppled leader Viktor Yanukovych, whose regime was widely accused of being corrupt and authoritarian.

“I view most of the presidential candidates with disgust. They all represent the old regime,” spat Kiev museum worker Andriy, 29.

His sentiments were echoed by Sergiy Nedilko, 63, a professor at Kiev’s Taras Shevchenko National University.

“We are not seeing any changes for now, but I am not blaming the authorities for this. The old system that took hold through the years is very difficult to tear down.

“A new regime that comes to power must know that if it also starts stealing and turning the police into a punitive agency whose only job is to take bribes, this regime will be ousted — and much more quickly and violently than Yanukovych was.”

He said he did not regret coming out to demonstrate in the Maidan protests, despite the killings in the last days of the Yanukovych regime and the chaos his fall sparked out in the mainly Russified east.

Nedilko reserved most of his anger for the Kremlin.

“It’s a shame we cannot start building a new country at this point. All we are doing is exerting our energy on fighting the Russian aggression and wasting time.”

The ultra-nationalist Pravy Sektor (Right Sektor) paramilitary group that emerged as a potent — and often violent — force during the Kiev protests, vowed that its struggle will go on.

“For us the national revolution isn’t over,” said leading Right Sektor member Andriy Tarasenko.

“National revolution means changing the political system and the people in power. For now there has only been a change in the people so we will go on fighting.”

Now a political movement whose leader Dmytro Yarosh is running in Sunday’s poll, Tarasenko said he hopes the process would help improve the image of a party “demonised as terrorists and extremists”.

But IT specialist Dmytro Korba, 24, said he considered the Maidan movement was now well and truly over.

“It did its job and overthrew the authorities. Now, everything is up to the Ukrainian people themselves.

“You cannot stand around on Maidan for two years chanting ‘shame!'” he said.

“I think people are surprised with what they have achieved. No one thought they would be able to actually topple Yanukovych… and no one out on Maidan came up with specific ideas about change, or policies or laws.

“We need these elections to pick a legitimate president. But I am not sure that the person who comes to power will really represent Maidan’s interests or actually change anything.”

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