Ukraine: Reuniting a House Divided

“Everyone knows what they’re fighting against, but no one knows what they’re fighting for.”

I recently traveled to Ukraine to take the temperature of what so many pundits have described as the new Cold War. Traffic on the road from the main airport to the center of town slows to a crawl as cars and trucks pass one by one through a roadblock. A few yards on, a decorative soccer ball and whimsical billboard welcome visitors to the 2012 European Championship, a stark reminder of a time before Euro became an aspirational prefix to freezing, flame-lit nights on the Maidan. Inching through the checkpoint, I remembered coming to Ukraine that summer on the slow train from St. Petersburg and the pleasant evenings I had spent in Donetsk’s parks and Kiev’s cafes. It was joked around the capital then that the last time so many Swedes had descended upon Ukraine was the Battle of Poltava. This summer, the invasion is real and has nothing to do with soccer or Swedes.

Over the course of two weeks, I spoke with journalists, local politicians, academics and private citizens, less as a journalist myself and more as an analyst and an interested student of the Soviet past. I asked what Maidan meant for them, what the country might look like in five years and how its systemic problems might be addressed in a manner acceptable to its diverse constituencies. Barring good answers to tough questions, I asked them if they were hopeful that the worst was over. I found optimism tinged with perplexity, hope melded with denial, and faith that power may be derived from principle.

Underneath the veneer of confidence generated by the recent presidential elections, lies deep confusion about what to do and profound worry about whether the country is up to the tasks that confront it. The temptation to blame Russia for Ukraine’s myriad problems is understandable, but Russia has neither caused, nor can it resolve the cultural and economic contradictions of Ukrainian society.

Ukrainians turned out for Poroshenko, despite an afternoon thunderstorm in Kiev that drenched voters, because most of them knew that his victory was sooner or later inevitable. A Yulia Tymoshenko voter, Natalia, told me, “I voted for her not because I thought she would win, but because I trust her, and our problem is that no one trusts anyone here.” More typical were the undecideds who broke for Poroshenko because Yulia (it is always “Yulia” in Ukraine—a branding blessing and a feminist curse) was too much of a known quantity. “We’re tired of her,” Denys, a software engineer, told me, “tired of her false self-presentation and her shady deals. Some of my friends wish she had never been let out of jail.” More than once I heard it presented as an indisputable fact that she faked her famous back injury to draw attention to herself. In the end, the heroine of the Orange Revolution came in second with a mere 13 percent. This year was the first time in the history of Ukrainian presidential balloting that a candidate has won in the first round, and however skeptical the country is of turning power over to an oligarch and a former government official, they cast their votes strategically to give him a mandate for decisive action.

Many, including the newly elected mayor and former boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, hoped that these elections would turn a corner in Ukraine and that the Maidan would disperse. In the words of Viktor, a Ukrainian banker working in London, the elections would provide “a chance to build and create something new.” Some on the square have heeded the call to return home to build civil society or to take up arms with the newly formed National Guard, but most remain in their shanty town surrounded by piles of paving stones. While for now, the ability to reassemble at Maidan is by far society’s greatest check on future abuses of power, the square today is a blight on the city, resented by those who feel that their efforts are cheapened and their site of memorial profaned by the unwashed radicals in fatigues.