Saturday

17th Feb 2018

Feature

Uneasy calm in Kiev on eve of Sunday elections

  • The Maidan three months after the revolution (Photo: Marco Fieber)

Andrei, 44, walks up and down Khershchatyk Street in Kiev city centre, dressed in jeans and a polo shirt, with a pistol in a holster on his belt.

The former businessman, from Zaporizhia, in south-east Ukraine, is a mid-level commander in Self-Defence, a volunteer brigade formed during the revolution, who was given a special ID badge and a licence to carry firearms by Ukraine’s new authorities.

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Asked by EUobserver on Saturday (24 May) if there is a risk of violence in Kiev during the presidential election on Sunday, he said: “Anything is possible. There are many people who don’t want this election to take place.”

Khershchatyk, the main boulevard leading from the Maidan, the plaza at the heart of February’s uprising, is still barricaded to traffic by piles of tyres, bricks, and logs.

It is lined with tents where men and teenage boys in military-type clothes, attached to other volunteer corps, mill around talking, eating, or smoking.

The pavement remains patched by holes where people tore up stones to throw at riot police three months ago.

The view is dominated by two structures: the burnt-out hulk of the trade union building, where many people died, and a half-built shopping mall, draped in a six-storey-high, yellow and blue Ukrainian flag with the slogan: “United Ukraine.”

The mall is owned by Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man, a leading sponsor of the former regime whose business empire is based in the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed rebels recently declared independence. He put up the banner to cover graffiti, such as: “Rinat - Are you with us, or against us?”

Normal life is also returning to the city centre.

Shops and trendy cafes are open for business. Families in summer clothes stroll up and down with their children. Makeshift kiosks sell Maidan souvenirs: fridge magnets with pictures of molotov cocktails; little EU flags; dolls in folk costumes. Maryna, 38, a Russian-speaker from Kiev, sells red and white caps with an acronym which stands for “Putin: Go fuck yourself.”

The jibe against the Russian leader is part of a sense of optimism alongside people’s concern about the future.

For her part, Lydia Smola, 40, a psychology professor at the National University in Kiev who comes from Lviv, in western Ukraine, told this website: “Putin got the situation all wrong. Before the war [with Russia], we were just Ukrainian speakers and Russian speakers who lived on the same territory. But he made us into a nation. Now, we know we are different to Russia: We believe we are free and that we can choose our own politicians and our own foreign policy.”

“People just want to forget this war and start building a normal life,” she added.

Self Defence’s Andrei is not the only one who fears worse to come, however.

Vasyl, 27, a gas industry worker from Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine, who is part of the Bandershtat volunteer brigade, says his job is to check people’s IDs on Khershchatyk to “make sure they are not bandits, people sent by Russia to make trouble.”

Asked if he is armed, he said: “Of course. I have an AK-47 [assault rifle] and I keep it nearby.”

Asked if he is a “fascist” - the Russian term for western Ukrainian militants - he laughed, saying: “People say a lot of things about us. It doesn't mean they're true.”

EU countries’ diplomats in Kiev are also wary of what Sunday might bring.

One diplomatic source told this website: “Many of the original Maidan protesters have joined the army as reservists and left. Nobody, not even the Ukrainian intelligence services, knows who the people left on the Maidan really are, how many weapons they have, or who controls them. If you were Putin, would you miss the opportunity to send your agents into this grey zone?”

Meanwhile, outside the capital, the clashes in eastern Ukraine continue to escalate.

Russia-backed rebels on Thursday killed 16 Ukrainian soldiers. At least six more people died in fighting the next day.

Andrei, the Self-Defence commander, told EUobserver that he visited Donetsk, in the east, on Friday.

'Civil war'

“It’s a real civil war,” he said.

“But it’s complicated. Some of the groups in Donetsk sent armed men to protect us so that we could speak with their leaders. They told us they reject the government in Kiev, but they want things to get back to normal when there is a new president. Other groups are shooting at everyone - soldiers, civilians. We were told there are mercenaries from Chechnya, and even from Africa, who are ready to kill anyone for money. It’s like Yugoslavia [in the 1990s].”

The EU diplomat said: “It’s not a ‘civil war’.”

“If you call it a ‘civil war,’ you are falling into a trap of Russian propaganda. There is no genuine separatism in eastern Ukraine. There is a well-planned and well-financed Russia-backed insurgency.”

For its part, Odihr, the European election-monitoring body, says it is impossible to predict how many of the 5 million-or-so voters in the conflict zone will get a chance to cast their ballot.

Its spokesman, Thomas Rymer, told EUobserver: “In some places, voting materials have been stolen or destroyed. We have credible accounts of intimidation, kidnappings. A normal election should take place in a safe and secure environment, but people here clearly don’t feel safe or secure.”

He added: “I’ve been with Odihr since 1991, and, to my knowledge, we have never observed an election like this.”

Jock Mendoza-Wilson, the head of investor relations at Akhmetov’s firm, System Capital Management, said: “There won’t be any voting in Donbass cities. But it’s possible in rural areas. Maybe 50 percent of people will get a chance to vote.”

With Akhmetov’s businesses at risk if he backs the losing side, the Donbass baron is trying to keep everyone happy.

Mendoza-Wilson said Akhmetov does not support rebels who want to split from Ukraine and become part of Russia: “We have a very clear position: There should be a strong Donbass in a strong, united Ukraine."

But when asked whether Ukraine should sign a free trade agreement with the EU, or join Putin’s Customs Union, he replied: “As a business, we believe the European Union direction and the [EU-Ukraine] association agreement will help Ukraine to make reforms, to establish the rule of law. But we don’t see EU trade or Russia trade as an either/or question … Ukraine should also continue developing its long-term, historical relationship with Russia.”

EU countries have urged Russia to help end the crisis by recognising the results of the election if Odihr says it is free and fair.

“Successful elections will be a major step to de-escalate tensions and restore security and political stability … The OSCE/Odihr has deployed an observation mission to assess the elections' compliance with international standards and on the basis of that assessment results must be respected by all,” they said in a joint statement on Friday.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel added: “I expect Russia to respect the OSCE's assessment, which will without doubt be objective; after all it [Russia] belongs to this organisation itself.”

Thumbs up?

Odihr itself is keen to underline that its verdict, due on Monday, is unlikely to be black or white.

“People want us to give a thumbs up or thumbs down. But any observer mission is more complex than that,” Odihr’s Rymer said.

“We’ll give an assessment which points out any shortcomings. Our main mission is to make recommendations how to improve the electoral process in future. But when you have a situation in which authorities are trying to organise an election in good faith, but they are being prevented from doing so, then what kind of recommendations can you make?”

Putin himself, at a press conference in St. Petersburg on Friday, said: “I want to make it clear that we also want things to calm down eventually, and we will respect the choice of the Ukrainian people.”

He added: “But, strictly speaking, no presidential elections can be held under the current [Ukrainian] constitution, as [the ousted] President Yanukovych hasn′t left presidential office in a constitutional manner … What kind of election rules do they have? We can see that it goes against all modern standards. Well, any election is better than nothing at this point.”

An EU diplomat in Moscow told EUobserver his remarks do not amount to a promise to recognise Odihr’s report.

“He is choosing his words carefully to create ambiguity. He said he will ‘respect’ the outcome, but he left himself room to say the elections are not legitimate because there is no voting in parts of the country, and in the same press conference he blamed the West for orchestrating a coup d’etat in Ukraine,” the contact noted.

“We have learnt to judge Putin by his actions, not his words.”

Ukraine: The other European election

Separatists killed 16 Ukrainian soldiers on Thursday, as Ukraine prepares to elect the man or woman who will try to end de facto Russian rule.

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The European Commission called on Ankara to refrain from doing "damage to good neighbourly relations", after Turkish vessels stop a rig from reaching a gas drilling zone.

EU warns Turkey over 'threat' to Cyprus

The European Commission called on Ankara to refrain from doing "damage to good neighbourly relations", after Turkish vessels stop a rig from reaching a gas drilling zone.

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