Angry reformers depart as Ukraine braces for protests
While the faces in power have changed frustration grows over continued corruption
Mikheil Saakashvili, former governor of the Odessa region, describes Ukraine’s political elite as “corrupt filth”. Photograph: Roman Pilipey/EPA
November can be a stormy month in Ukraine. It was in 2004 when hundreds of thousands of people filled Maidan square in central Kiev to overturn the fraudulent election “victory” of pro-Russian presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovich.
Nine Novembers after the Orange Revolution and having finally become president, Yanukovich scrapped Ukraine’s historic integration deal with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Moscow.
That decision sparked three months of rallies that ended with Yanukovich and his clique fleeing to Russia after police shot dead scores of protesters on Maidan.
On Monday, Ukrainians will mark the third anniversary of what they call “Euromaidan” or the “Revolution of Dignity”, but few have much to celebrate.
During another troubled November, snowy Kiev is braced for anti-government protests that the security services claim are part of Russia’s plan to destabilise Ukraine, as it continues to battle Moscow-backed separatists in the east.
Ukrainians’ fragile faith in their post-Maidan leaders is draining away, due to continued corruption, economic stagnation and the departure of high-profile reformers who accuse top officials and their “oligarch” friends of blocking change.
“They betrayed the ideas of the Ukrainian revolution and the only motivation for their existence is to fill their pockets, strengthen their [business] clan and rob Ukraine blind,” Saakashvili said.
During a turbulent 17 months in Odessa, Saakashvili accused Ukraine’s government and latterly its president, Petro Poroshenko, of secretly helping shadowy businessmen block anti-corruption and other reforms.
Addressing Poroshenko and his allies during a scathing resignation speech, Saakashvili said: “I just want to ask – how much can you steal and deceive?”
A week later, former Maidan activist Yulia Marushevska resigned as the head of the Odessa customs service, citing the sabotage of reform plans, and Khatia Dekanoidze stepped down as Ukraine’s national police chief.
“I will be honest and say that we never were able to root out corruption from our agency,” said Dekanoidze, complaining of an impasse between “those who want to change and those who are stuck in the past”.
“I am asking, and even demanding, that politicians and officials refrain from interfering in the affairs of the national police. They will have to understand that, or be doomed sooner or later to a new confrontation with society.”
This month’s resignations follow those of US-born former investment banker Natalie Jaresko as finance minister, Lithuanian-born Aivaras Abromavicius as economy minister and a host of other reform-minded officials and prosecutors, who lost power struggles with groups intent on preserving a corrupt and opaque system.
Yanukovich hailed from eastern Ukraine and his four years in power saw a massive enrichment of influential figures from there; rather than lose their privileges and face prosecution after Euromaidan, some moved to Russia and others backed the separatists who now control parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
The current ruling elite has fewer ties to Moscow – though the confectionary empire that made Poroshenko a billionaire includes a factory in Russia – but still it often pursues personal and business profit over the national interest.
Reforms mean at the very least discomfort for most politicians, as when they were forced to reveal their wealth last month under a new law backed by the western states whose financial aid keeps Ukraine afloat.
The declarations showed that deputies who officially make only a few thousand euro a year have somehow acquired vast property portfolios, collections of luxury art and cars and many millions of dollars in cash.
No leading politicians or businessmen have been jailed since Euromaidan, however, and Monday’s anniversary events will remind Ukrainians that no one has been convicted over the killing of more than 100 protesters during the revolution.
The police and national guard have deployed 5,000 officers to monitor demonstrations in icy Kiev that have so far been relatively small and uneventful.
Poroshenko will hope for continued calm as he prepares for next Thursday’s summit with EU leaders, and urges them to ease visa restrictions for his people – but he knows from experience that Ukraine can take nothing for granted in November.