Issue 5, 2014. October-November


From Fierce Maidan to New global order

A reporter's view from Ukraine

Helena Bedwell

Central Kyiv is looking less sad now, months after the Euromaidan Revolution, when unimaginable violence occurred as the previous government attempted to break up anti-government demonstrations.

Once the capital's buzzing Independence Square, today it is simply called Maidan. When one walks across the square now, portraits of the deceased and flowers scattered across the area still remind one of the atrocities that occurred there.

Today, however, Maidan is full of sunshine and is calm. People are walking around completely freely and, for most part, it's business as usual: customers are sipping cups of coffee from the numerous cafes in the district; cars circle the area; buses and tourist minibuses are picking up visitors, going places. The most favored destination for tourists, ironically enough, is the in famous Mezhyhirya residence, the lavish home of the runaway president Viktor Yanukovich, complete with his personal zoo!

I was here last March, while on my way to Crimea; I stood where I stand now, then smelling the burnt tires and the aroma of military kitchen food that surrounded the area. It felt like a scene from a Hollywood disaster movie. A huge stage had been erected where the most amazing motivating addresses were delivered to the crowds during the times of the Maidan.

In those days of violence, the bravest and most vocal of the protestors were brutally targeted and fell onto the cobbles and barricades. But their slogans - Слава країні!, GEROYAM SLAVA [Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the Heroes!] - made them immortal in the hearts of Kyiv's citizens and abroad.

This bravery was rewarded when the pro-Russian government was deposed in February, followed by other whirlwind events like the giving up of Crimea without firing a shot. But eventually the residents of Kyiv grew tired of the black smoke, rallies and clashes.

Maidan was cleaned; commerce and city life returned.

The Ukrainian Crisis

Under the Maidan, however, there is a shopping mall called "Globus" where the revolutionary spirit lives on in the countless souvenir shops, where bubbly shopkeepers offer one anything one desires, from a simple Slava Ukraini brooch to Putin KHX t-shirts, from Ukrainian hero Bandera shirts to toilet paper illustrated with mockeries of Yanukovich and his closest allies. Or, if one is not feeling that humorous about it all, one can purchase Ukrainian national-dress-inspired clothing.

Natalya, who runs one of the coffee shops at Globus, told me that she fully supported Maidan when it first started, but was not pleased with the way it had progressed.

People are still searching for justice for those who lost their lives, but others have even forgot about the sacrifices made during the Maidan protests because — as some of my local friends remind me — today Ukraine faces even bigger problems.

"There is a war, which is wrongly called a 'Ukrainian crisis.' It's a Russian invasion, the same as it was in Georgia in 2008, masked as a separatist conflict," said Kakha Bendukidze, a former Georgian Minister of the Economy who is now chairman of the Free and Agricultural Universities and was recently invited to join the Advisory Board for National Reforms Council (NRC), President Poroshenko's initiative to coordinate reforms in Ukraine.

There is wide popular public support for radical reforms. People are sick and tired of corruption, regulations and want lean government with less spending.

"Ukraine is the most important country in the world today because the future of new global order, which was invented in the Ukrainian city of Yalta following WWII, depends on what will happen here," Bendukidze says.

Georgia's former economic minister is not alone in his thinking.

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who spoke in Tbilisi earlier this month, also said that the world order has held fairly dramatically and effectively since WWII. But now Putin's actions have truly raised some questions about this world order

Pundit Mark Mullen noted in an email interview that Putin is known to be erratic - and is not a leader who prioritizes stability and predictability like many democratic leaders instinctively do. With his actions, Mullen said, the Russian president has led many Ukrainians to define their nation in opposition to Russia - a mentality shift that will prevail in the end unless Russia is able to change itself.

After Maidan: Live Free or Die

Despite the crisis, Ukrainians have remained united.

Many tell me that they should have never left Crimea because it fed Putin's appetite.

Today many western Ukrainians are also fighting on the front line in eastern Ukraine, against the Russian-backed separatists.

Vladymir Drozd, a taxi driver, drove me around the city and even took me to look around the ousted President Viktor Yanukovych's estate, Mezhyhirya. It is hard to concentrate in that tasteless—albeit sumptuous—concrete, wood and glass residence, so I decided—with my friend and several Ukrainian immigrants we met on the trip—to bicycle along the waterfront and simply talk about what they expect now thatMaidan is over.

It is clear men want to fight. Stepan Grono, who left Ukraine years ago, even brought his sons to Kyiv to awaken patriotic feelings.

"They should have stopped them right in Crimea and ended this then. If they call me to go to war, I will go! What else shall I do, wait when they come to Kyiv? But you are Georgian, and you know how Russia does things; you must live free, or die."

A shaky ceasefire was announced on September 5th, by which time 2,905 civilians (including 31 children), and 935 soldiers had been killed in Russia's war against Ukraine, the Kyiv Post newspaper reported, citing official statistics.

Russia also has another powerful tool to make the world cringe: media propaganda, something everyone is talking about in Ukraine, like the atrocities Ukrainians supposedly committed, including the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 and the "stopping" of humanitarian aid of buckwheat and rice.

"If we want to live in this new reality with Russia claiming more and more territories and taking on weak neighbors, calling them [Russia's] nearest neighborhood — if we will let Putin get away with this — we will all lose. If not, we will win, simply,"Bendukidze said.

The current Georgian government, however, has been trying very hard to find a common language with Putin by being reasonable. But it has rarely received a proper response.

Waiting on the West

The civilized world must certainly do more to help Ukraine; it should pay more attention to Ukraine's reforms, provide financial aid and even provide weapons. Sanctions may work and many may think that Putin is in some kind of deadlock, but time doesn't wait. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's visit to the U.S. ended without a pledge of weapons to fight pro-Russian rebels.

When I came back to my hotel, a group of German financiers were eager for me to draw parallels between Georgia's and Ukraine's respective struggles for freedom. After listening to some of the voices gathered in the streets, one of them ironically said that it all sounded like Fox News television propaganda.

So it's true. Ukraine still has not gotten what it deserves. It appears to be going at it alone, while people from both sides - even those Russians who did not chose to be there - die, are wounded or are displaced.

My Russian hairdresser Olya, from Mariupol, located on the coast of the Sea of Azov, had her whole family, including her seven-year-old niece Nastya, evacuated to Tbilisi. They were even too scared to talk about it to me when I called them in Tbilisi. All they would say was that they want peace and Nastya cannot sleep after having heard explosions.

My Russian friend from Donetsk, who runs a successful business in Tbilisi but whose whole family remains in Donetsk says, "I am Russian, but I am helpless in this; there is nothing I can do."

On my way back to Tbilisi, I remembered my good friend Sergey the taxi driver, who helped to drive me around Crimea during the referendum period and even managed to smuggle me out of the country when it was officially declared as having joined Russia, making me an unwelcome Georgian citizen.

"Please don't call me anymore," Sergey begged, "we have enough problems here as it is. I do not wish to speak on the phone about it. Stay well and happy."

Helena Bedwell is a Bloomberg journalist who has travelled to, and reported from, Ukraine throughout the crisis. the opinions expressed in this article do not reflect the opinion of the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia or staff.