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The "Winter on Fire" of 2013-2014 saw Ukrainians oust a kleptocratic leader in violent protests, in the name of closer ties with the EU and adherence to its values of good governance. What did they achieve? Our reporter Gulliver Cragg, who covered the protests at the time, went to meet some of those whose lives were profoundly affected by Ukraine's Maidan Revolution.
When Ukrainian protesters first took to Maidan Square in central Kiev in November 2013, few believed they could actually get rid of President Viktor Yanukovich. But when they finally did, in February 2014 after exactly three months camped out in freezing temperatures on the Square, the joy was mitigated by grief. The protests had shown how people could come together and brought out a spirit of collective action and solidarity that was a wonder to behold, but they had also turned violent, and in the end more than a hundred protesters had been killed.
And though Yanukovich had been unpopular across the country, not everyone supported the revolutionaries. Moreover, the politicians that came to power after the revolution were not really such new faces: many had served in previous governments and were suspected of corruption themselves. In this context Russian and pro-Russian forces tried to stir up trouble in the Russian-speaking regions of Eastern and Southern Ukraine, where the Maidan movement was less popular. They fully succeeded in just two of those regions: Donetsk and Luhansk. But there, as breakaway Russian-backed “people’s republics” were declared, the situation descended into all-out war between the Ukrainian army and volunteer battalions on one side, and groups of Russian volunteers and mercenaries, local pro-Russian militants, and regular Russian soldiers on the other.
No high-level figures jailed for corruption
The shock of war to some extent distracted attention from the pro-Western reforms Ukraine’s new leaders had promised, and made the economic and social context far more difficult. But civil society had been energised by Maidan, and has been pushing the government to carry out those reforms – most importantly those aimed at ending the corruption that has hamstrung Ukraine’s development ever since independence in 1991.
Ask Ukrainians now how they feel about what’s been achieved, and you get a wide range of opinions. Many are bitterly disappointed. Corruption is still rife and no high-level figures have been jailed, either for corruption or their role in the killings on Maidan (most of Yanukovich’s associates fled to Russia). The current government manifestly resists attempts to pass necessary anti-corruption reforms and only caves in under pressure from civil society and the foreign donors that keep the economy afloat. To many Ukrainians, including Artem Lymar and his wife, in this report, it seems almost absurd to suggest that so little change could be worth so much bloodshed.
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But many others disagree. The key message you get from the optimists (if we may call them that) is that if you feel disappointed because things are bad now, you don’t fully understand how bad they were before, and how much worse they could have got had Yanukovich stayed in power and brought Ukraine fully under the Russian yoke. Anti-corruption campaigners such as Vitaliy Shabunin point to huge numbers of reforms that have been passed largely thanks to their lobbying efforts. They may not have borne much fruit yet, they say, but they will.
Another character in this report, Viktor Varenytsia, who lost a brother on Maidan, wrote to me on 21 November, the anniversary of the start of the protests, that he didn’t know whether the day should be a day of grief because of his family tragedy or a celebration because it was the start of the process where Ukraine finally broke free of Russian domination and affirmed its commitment to European values.
Too much has happened in Ukraine since Maidan to cover everything in one report, but this is the story of some people whose lives were profoundly affected by the events, each in different ways.