Deafeningly, thousands shouted, “Hero! Hero! Hero!” into the night.
It was a stark message to the politicians gathering onstage. This is our revolution, these were not your sacrifices, don’t play political games the way they’ve been played here for the past 20 years.
That was Wednesday. By Saturday, Ukraine’s new leaders were engulfed in the full-blown Crimea crisis, facing a powerful adversary in Russia. How they handle it could determine whether the revolution is snuffed out in the starting gate. Even if they manage to survive the Crimean emergency, Ukraine is facing an extraordinarily difficult road ahead.
The country has no money. The bureaucracy is riven with corruption and incompetence. The radicalization of the Maidan protesters over the past three months has left them unwilling to trust anyone who was a politician previously, even those in the opposition. Converts to the cause are suspect. A toll of more than 90 dead, by the latest count, has not left people in a forgiving mood.
“I’ll be in Kiev a long time,” said Volodymyr Parasyuk, 26, who just over three months ago was making wedding videos in Lviv, in western Ukraine. Now he’s in camouflage, a member of one of the protesters’ self-defense groups and still on the Maidan, Kiev’s Independence Square. “I’ll be here for the building of the government, the building of the country — but doing it right. When this is a normal country, a democratic one, I will go home.”
Parasyuk had his moment of fame on Feb. 21. That was the night President Viktor Yanukovych and the three main opposition political leaders signed a compromise that would have allowed Yanukovych to remain in office until new elections in December. When Vitali Klitschko, head of the opposition UDAR party, went to the Maidan to explain its terms, Parasyuk burst past a guard, got onstage and grabbed the microphone.
Yanukovych had to go — right away, he declared, to the cheers of the crowd. It was a powerful expression of will and a humbling moment for Klitschko. And, as it turned out, the Ukrainian president fled Kiev the next day.
If he had stayed in office for 10 more months, Parasyuk said, “there was a strong possibility we’d all go to prison.”
Now the people on the Maidan are reviving a word that the Czechs made current after their Velvet Revolution of 1989: lustration. It means discovering — and purging — those in the government who were associated with Yanukovych’s illegal acts.
Lustration should not be used for revenge, its advocates say, but to ensure that the people most responsible for the brutal attempts to crush the protest be removed from positions of authority.
But on the street, protesters call for lustration of members of parliament, too.
“There are a lot of politicians who were for the regime we fought against then quickly changed their minds,” said Konstantin Bravo, a member of Parasyuk’s group. “The key question is, where were you before? People are demanding that everyone guilty be judged in court — and quickly, before people start forgetting about it.”
A question, though, is how far lustration can be pursued, as emergencies crowd in. There is no easy answer.
Yanukovych ruined the government ministries by stocking them with loyalists on the take, said Igor Burakovsky, head of the Institute for Economic Research and Policy Consulting here. “So, how do you make them work now?”
Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the new prime minister, has inherited a state that is weak, corrupt and inefficient, Burakovsky said. The official economic numbers are terrible; the real numbers are probably worse.
Ukraine’s budget is in deficit, and although it projects a 16 percent increase in revenue in 2014, to a total of about $45 billion, the government’s income has been declining since last year. Foreign reserves are almost gone. Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, which supplies all of Ukraine’s natural gas, said Friday that Kiev has fallen behind in its payments by $1.5 billion.
On top of all that, Ukraine now embarks on a quick presidential election, scheduled for May 25. That means that for the next 10 weeks, candidates will be doing everything they can to persuade voters that Yatsenyuk’s government is doing a lousy job. (Yatsenyuk is not a candidate himself.)
“I have worked and paid taxes all my life,” said an electrician in Kharkiv, in the Russian-speaking east, who gave her name only as Sveta. “What do I care if my money lines the pockets of Yanukovych or someone new who comes to power? It won’t make any difference. I’ll still have to struggle to live off my pension.”
It comes to less than $100 a month, but right now the government will also have to struggle to keep up with the payments.
Ukraine’s crisis began over a trade deal with Europe. Parasyuk, back in Lviv, thought the agreement would be good for him and his country and believed Yanukovych when he said he would sign it. Then, under pressure from Russia, Yanukovych backed out at the last moment — and the way that was done, without warning, was like a slap in the face, Parasyuk said.
He went to Kiev, with his father on Nov. 24 and said that the crystallizing moment for him came six days later, when police brutally beat up a group of students.
But Parasyuk’s upbringing had prepared him for the role he was going to play. Every summer he had attended camps run by Ukrainian nationalists, studying everything from history to marksmanship. It was like the Boy Scouts, he said.
Western Ukraine, once the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia, was never part of the Russian empire and only came under Moscow’s rule as a result of World War II. A hero there is Stepan Bandera, who raised an army to fight against the Soviet invasion of Galicia during the war. In eastern and southern Ukraine, which suffered terribly under the Germans, Bandera is considered a Nazi collaborator and traitor.
A banner with a large portrait of Bandera hung next to the Maidan stage for months, leading to the inevitable charges in Crimea and elsewhere that the protesters were “Banderites” and fascists.
One of Parasyuk’s grandfathers fought with Bandera. The other? He was a Soviet soldier.
The revolt against Yanukovych was not simply west against east. By the end he had little support anywhere. And the distrust of politicians is widespread, too.
“It’s a power grab by one clan from another,” said Alexander Serdyuk, a law student in Kharkiv.
The question is whether the divide — in language, sensibility, historical memory — will reassert itself in the hazardous months ahead.
“There is a lot of pain in the hearts of our people,” said the mayor of Lviv, Andriy Sadoviy. “And there are so many illusions.”
A council of prominent activists called the Circle of Trust has formed on the Maidan. It has drawn up a list of seven conditions that must be met before the Maidan protesters go home. They range from the arrest of Yanukovych, to the lustration of police and courts, to constitutional reforms that would include the right to bear arms, to tax reforms, to “dividing business from politics.”
Getting all of that would be an astonishing achievement, even without crises. What Ukraine needs now, Sadoviy said, are “time, the truth and God’s grace.”
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