Even if Ukraine solves Crimea crisis with Russia, it has a rocky road ahead

March 1

Moments before the nominees for Ukraine’s new cabinet were introduced to protesters in Independence Square, eight pallbearers walked through the crowd at the base of the stage, past the mountains of flowers and votive candles lit in memoriam, carrying in an open coffin one of those who died fighting the old government.

Deafeningly, thousands shouted, “Hero! Hero! Hero!” into the night.

It was a stark message to the politicians gathering onstage: This is our revolution. These were not your sacrifices. Don’t play political games the way they’ve been played here for the past 20 years.

That was Wednesday. By Saturday, Ukraine’s new leaders were engulfed in the full-blown Crimea crisis, facing a powerful adversary in Russia. How they handle it could determine whether the revolution is snuffed out in the starting gate. Even if they survive the Crimean emergency, Ukraine is facing an extraordinarily difficult road ahead.

The country has no money. The bureaucracy is riven with corruption and incompetence. The radicalization of the Maidan protesters over the past three months has left them unwilling to trust anyone who was a politician previously, even those in the opposition. Converts to the cause are suspect. A toll of more than 90 dead, by the latest count, has not left people in a forgiving mood.

“I’ll be in Kiev a long time,” said Volodymyr Parasyuk, 26, who just over three months ago was making wedding videos in Lviv, in western Ukraine. Now he’s in camouflage, a member of one of the protesters’ self-defense groups and still on the Maidan, as Independence Square is known. “I’ll be here for the building of the government, the building of the country — but doing it right. When this is a normal country, a democratic one, I will go home.”

Parasyuk had his moment of fame Feb. 21. That was the night President Viktor Yanukovych and the three main opposition political leaders signed a compromise that would have allowed Yanukovych to remain in office until new elections in December. When Vitali Klitschko, head of the opposition UDAR party, went to the Maidan to explain its terms, Parasyuk burst past a guard, got onstage and grabbed the microphone.

Yanukovych had to go — right away, he declared, to the cheers of the crowd. It was a powerful expression of will and a humbling moment for Klitschko. And, as it turned out, the Ukrainian president fled Kiev the next day.

If he had stayed in office for 10 more months, Parasyuk said, “there was a strong possibility we’d all go to prison.”

A desire for purification

The people on the Maidan are reviving a word that the Czechs used after their Velvet Revolution of 1989: lustration. In this sense it means discovering — and purging — those in the government who were associated with Yanukovych’s illegal acts.

Lustration should not be used for revenge, its advocates say, but to ensure that the people most responsible for the brutal attempts to crush the protest be removed from positions of authority.

But on the street, protesters call for lustration of members of parliament, too.

Police detained activists that released doves into the air to protest the invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean Penninsula. (Reuters)

“There are a lot of politicians who were for the regime we fought against, then quickly changed their minds,” said Konstantin Bravo, a member of Parasyuk’s group. “The key question is, where were you before? People are demanding that everyone guilty be judged in court — and quickly, before people start forgetting about it.”

A question, though, is how far lustration can be pursued as emergencies crowd in. There is no easy answer.

Yanukovych ruined government ministries by stocking them with loyalists on the take, said Igor Burakovsky, head of the Institute for Economic Research and Policy Consulting here. “So how do you make them work now?”

Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the new prime minister, has inherited a state that is weak, corrupt and inefficient, Burakovsky said. The official economic numbers are terrible; the real numbers are probably worse.

Ukraine’s budget is in deficit, and although the government projects a 16 percent increase in revenue in 2014, to a total of about $45 billion, its income has been declining since last year. Foreign reserves are almost gone. Gazprom, the Russian energy giant that supplies all of Ukraine’s natural gas, said Friday that Kiev has fallen behind on its payments by $1.5 billion.

On top of all that, Ukraine is embarking on a quick presidential election, scheduled for May 25. That means that for the next 2½ months, candidates will be doing everything they can to persuade voters that Yatsenyuk’s government is doing a lousy job. (Yatsenyuk is not a candidate.)

“I have worked and paid taxes all my life,” said an electrician in Kharkiv, in the Russian-speaking east, who gave her name only as Sveta. “What do I care if my money lines the pockets of Yanukovych or someone new who comes to power? It won’t make any difference. I’ll still have to struggle to live off my pension.”

That comes to less than $100 a month — and the new government will struggle to keep up with the payments.

Ukraine’s crisis began over a trade deal with Europe. Parasyuk, back in Lviv, thought the agreement would be good for him and his country and believed Yanukovych when the president said he would sign it. Then, under pressure from Russia, Yanukovych backed out at the last moment — and the way it was done, without warning, was like a slap in the face, Parasyuk said.

He went to Kiev with his father on Nov. 24. The crystallizing moment for him came six days later, he said, when police brutally beat a group of students.

But Parasyuk’s upbringing had prepared him for the role he was going to play. Every summer he had attended camps run by Ukrainian nationalists, where he was taught history and skills such as marksmanship. It was like the Boy Scouts, he said.

Not simply west against east

Western Ukraine, once the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia, was never part of the Russian empire and came under Moscow’s rule only as a result of World War II. A hero there is Stepan Bandera, who raised an army to fight the Soviet invasion of Galicia during the war. In eastern and southern Ukraine, which suffered terribly under the Germans, Bandera is considered a Nazi collaborator and traitor.

A banner with a large portrait of Bandera hung next to the Maidan stage for months, leading to the inevitable charges in Crimea and elsewhere that the protesters were “Banderites” and fascists.

One of Parasyuk’s grandfathers fought with Bandera. The other? He was a Soviet soldier.

The revolt against Yanukovych was not simply west against east. By the end, the president had little support anywhere. And the distrust of politicians is widespread, too.

“It’s a power grab by one clan from another,” said Alexander Serdyuk, a law student in Kharkiv.

The question is whether the divide — in language, sensibility, historical memory — will reassert itself in the hazardous months ahead.

“There is a lot of pain in the hearts of our people,” said the mayor of Lviv, Andriy Sadovyi. “And there are so many illusions.”

A council of prominent activists called the Circle of Trust has formed on the Maidan. It has drawn up a list of seven conditions that must be met before the Maidan protesters go home. They include the arrest of Yanukovych, the lustration of police and courts, and constitutional changes such as the right to bear arms, tax reforms and “dividing business from politics.”

Getting all of that would be an astonishing achievement, even without crises. What Ukraine needs now, Sadovyi said, are “time, the truth and God’s grace.”

Isabel Gorst in Kharkiv contributed to this report.

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