In the early weeks of Ukraine’s Maidan revolution, Oleh Mikhailik was severely beaten on the streets of his native Odessa, by men wearing knuckle-dusters who apparently objected to his criticism of corrupt rule in his city and country.
As Ukraine marks five years since the start of protests that would oust Russian-backed leaders and align it with the West, Mikhailik now has a bullet lodged 4mm from his heart and no doubts about how life has changed for activists like him.
“It’s definitely more dangerous,” he says, two months after being shot and almost killed in central Odessa while returning home from a demonstration against shady land deals in the port city.
“Before Maidan, those who criticised the authorities or took them to court could get a beating,” adds Mikhailik, local leader of the small People Power party. “But they didn’t get killed.”
In July, 200km along the Black Sea coast from Odessa in the city of Kherson, attackers poured a litre of sulphuric acid over the head of activist Kateryna Handziuk (33), inflicting the severe burns that led to her death this month.
“I know I look bad now,” she said in a video address from her hospital bed in September.
“But at least I’m being treated. And I’m sure I look better than justice and the judicial system in Ukraine, because no one is making them better . . . There have been over 40 attacks [on activists] in the last year. Who ordered these attacks? Who is covering up for those who ordered them? Why are investigations being blocked?”
Civic and political figures in Ukraine were sometimes targeted before Maidan – the murder in 2000 of journalist Georgiy Gongadze and 2004 poisoning of then opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko are infamous – but the wave of recent attacks and the feeble official response have been chilling.
For many Ukrainians, the authorities’ failure to protect civil society is a betrayal of the revolution, which began on November 21st, 2013, when students and activists rallied against the government’s decision to scrap a partnership deal with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Moscow.
Through the depths of winter, Ukrainians protested in Kiev’s Maidan Square and other towns and cities, defying president Viktor Yanukovich until his security forces shot dead scores of demonstrators and he fled to Russia in February 2014.
His billionaire successor, Petro Poroshenko, has introduced an anti-corruption bureau and obligatory electronic asset declarations for officials and deputies, but other vital anti-graft measures have been diluted or delayed.
While Ukraine’s leaders assure the West of their commitment to reform, their allies in law enforcement and the regions often see activists and reporters as troublemakers who embarrass them and hinder their work or money-making schemes.
“They’re going down Russia’s path, towards labelling activists as ‘foreign agents’ and ‘grant-eaters’,” says Vitaliy Shabunin, who with colleagues at Ukraine’s non-governmental Anti-Corruption Action Centre has faced physical, legal and media attacks due to their efforts to fight graft.
“They’re trying to separate civil society from the rest of society, to say that these activists don’t represent society,” he adds.
“When they started to attack activists on the national level, it sent a message through the whole system that you can wipe out activists. To the Kiev elite, to wipe someone out would mean a PR attack or provocation. But at the regional level, it literally means you can wipe them out.”
Like Mikhailik, Vitaliy Ustimenko has been repeatedly targeted in Odessa, where pro-Russian feeling and opposition to the Maidan movement were strong and a venal elite does not welcome public criticism.
As Ustimenko (25) left a television studio in the city centre in June, he was attacked by two men who slashed the back of his head and stabbing him in the leg.
“On the fifth anniversary of the revolution, it’s absolutely clear that local groups that dominate the regions do so with Kiev’s agreement,” says Ustimenko, a co-ordinator for activists’ collective CentreUA and a fierce critic of Odessa mayor Gennadiy Trukhanov and the city’s rampant corruption.
“The local powers promise to deliver results in the elections for the current authorities and preserve the power of the central elite,” Ustimenko explains, predicting a ruthless battle in next year’s presidential and parliamentary ballots.
“In exchange, the central elite lets regional groups do whatever they consider necessary. It’s a blatant, brutal barter, and it comes at the expense of our resources, our interests, our health and our lives.”
On Maidan, Poroshenko stood with protesters and promised change.
Five years on, he is accused of preserving a system of murky links between politicians, businessmen and the security services, which allows local strongmen like Trukhanov to retain power and brush aside those who ask uncomfortable questions.
“It’s getting worse,” Mikhailik says of impunity in Ukraine, which has failed to jail those responsible for the Maidan massacre, the 2016 murder of journalist Pavel Sheremet and scores of other attacks on critics of the authorities.
Goal of survival
“Until the presidential elections in March, the main task will be survival,” says Mikhailik, who has received an offer from Germany to have surgeons remove the bullet from his chest.
“I hope I’m wrong,” adds the father of two, “but I think more people will be killed.”
Yet like countless others across this country of 45 million – Ukrainians launching small businesses, doing volunteer work or fighting Russian proxy forces in the east – activists refuse to lose hope in the Maidan revolution.
“All these threats and attacks are terrible, of course, but there is also a positive side,” says Shabunin.
“Yes, it is getting more dangerous for activists, but that is because civil society is now a real danger to the authorities – they react more strongly against us because our influence is growing.”