Eve of Election A Fractured Ukraine, United in Uncertainty
As the Ukrainian election approaches, citizens are both hopeful and skeptical about their country's future. But their biggest concern isn't the war in the east or Russian interference -- it's the country's need for a working state.
There are exactly 34,915 seats in the Lviv Arena, the football stadium in the Western Ukrainian city of Lviv. On the last evening of September, it was filled to capacity. The guest team that night was FC Porto, from Portugal. But they weren't here to play the local club, Karpaty Lviv -- their opponents, instead, were Shakhtar Donetsk, the black-and-orange-clad team from the eastern Ukrainian separatist-held city.
Since hostilities erupted, Donetskian billionaire Rinat Akhmetov has had his squad play in Lviv -- a city that many in the east see as a nest of fascists. On that night in September, the Shakhtar fans sat in the northern stands and waved their team's flag, having traveled 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) by bus to attend the game. The fans from Lviv were waving Ukrainian flags, but had also brought along a large banner that read: "Donetsk - we're with you."
After the kick-off, it quickly became clear that the Portuguese weren't just playing against Shakhtar - they were playing against Ukraine. "Shakhtar, Shakhtar," the spectators shouted, and in the 43rd minute, when the Donetskians launched a counterattack against the Portuguese, they all stood up and sang the national anthem: "Ukraine has not yet died (...) we'll stand, brothers, in bloody battle, from the San to the Don." The game ended in a 2-2 draw.
This display of unity between fans from eastern and western Ukraine was, on one hand, a sign of hope for the country. But it was also a sign that the situation in Ukraine is not as simple as one might assume.
It's been nearly a year since the protests erupted on Kiev's Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square. Since then, a president and a government have been toppled, Russia has annexed the Crimean Peninsula, war has erupted in the east and Ukraine has drifted toward bankruptcy. All of this has fueled speculation that the country could be on the verge of being torn apart.
On Sunday, October 26, a new parliament will be elected. Following his victory in the May 2014 presidential election, President Petro Poroshenko now stands a good chance of finally cementing his power by winning a majority in the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament. But it remains unclear whether he will use this power to end the war, combat corruption and stop the country's decline, or if Ukraine will continue to disintegrate, as many Russian nationalists and leading European politicians believe.
As the election approaches, SPIEGEL traveled to four different cities -- Lviv, Odessa, Kharkiv and Zaporizhia -- spread across a distance of 3,500 kilometers to find out what Ukrainians think about the current state of their country and its hopes for the future.
Lviv: 'Thank you God I'm not a Russian'
In Lviv -- a city that once belonged to Austria, then to Poland and then to the Soviet Union -- time looks like it's stood still. The streets are still paved with cobblestones from the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the central market square is flanked by many finely preserved Renaissance buildings. The ringing of the bells from the Catholic churches can be heard throughout the town.
Politically speaking, the people of Lviv can be relatively happy with recent events. After all, the protests on Maidan Square were entirely in their interests. Here, only Yulia Tymoshenko's party has hung up campaign posters -- with the slogan: "Ukraine will win" -- for the upcoming election. The city's notorious Ukrainian nationalism is hardly anywhere to be seen, aside from a handful of items for sale at the flea market in front of the theater, like toilet paper printed with Putin's image and T-shirts bearing the phrase: "Thank you God that I'm not a Russian."
On Freedom Boulevard, donations are being collected for the Ukrainian army -- a sign of the war in the eastern part of the country that is, despite an official ceasefire, ongoing. Another sign of the conflict: the increased amount of Russian now heard in Lviv, as thousands of refugees have sought shelter in the Ukrainian-speaking city.
"The mood at the beginning of the war went like this: We don't need eastern Ukraine. Without it, we would have been part of Europe long ago," says author Natalka Sniadanko. She is 41, has translated Kafka and Gunter Grass and tries to explain post-Soviet Ukraine in her own books. "We didn't know the people there, and I've only been to Donetsk once," she admits. "Now our soldiers are there and the refugees from there are here -- the war has brought us closer together. And we suddenly have this feeling that this is also our country. I believe that a united Ukraine is now more realistic than just a few months ago."
The only problem is, as her writer colleagues in Donetsk have told her: Western Ukraine may have sparked the Maidan protests, but it is living in peace. The east, on the other hand, is engulfed by war.
But life in Lviv is also attuned to the war. "It's amazing what's happening here," says Sniadanko. "People are pulling together, organizing themselves via Facebook and doing what the state is no longer capable of doing: helping our own troops. Without being asked, without any guidance, and with their own money." She talks about friends who went to Switzerland, used not quite legal channels to acquire military software for artillery, and then installed the programs on laptops in eastern Ukraine. Civil society has evolved much further than many people realize, says Sniadanko, who adds that the state now has to pay closer attention to the needs of its citizens for fear of a new Maidan.
In Russia the city of Lviv is often portrayed as a stronghold for right-wing extremists. The speaker of the regional parliament is a member of the ultra-nationalist Svoboda party, which garnered 38 percent of the vote here in the 2012 parliamentary elections. This result also swept them into the Verkhovna Rada for the first time.
Lviv has a memorial to the Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera, who once fought against the Red Army, Poland and Jews -- and, for a while, allied himself with Hitler. He is revered by Svoboda supporters. Not surprisingly, Ukrainians from the eastern part of the country see Lviv as the city of Nazi collaborators and, since a photo of Bandera was brandished at the Maidan, many pro-Russian Ukrainians have seen the revolt in Kiev as a putsch by the "Banderevtsi."
But Svoboda's opinion poll ratings have dropped dramatically since then and the party may fail to clear the five percent hurdle this Sunday. "We no longer believe in the patriotic rhetoric of the Svoboda party," says Sniadanko, who notes that the party has been discredited here following reports that Svoboda members pressured the media and abused their political power to line their own pockets. It has also emerged that one of the party's major donors was a Lviv millionaire with close connections to organized crime.
"The image that Svoboda people have of what it means to be Ukrainian is anti-modernist, and there is no longer a future for their ideal of Ukrainian villagers who are disdainful of mainstream culture," says Sniadanko.
Odessa: Open Future
Unlike Lviv, Odessa is plastered with campaign posters -- the future remains open here. This Russian-speaking city of over 1 million inhabitants on the Black Sea -- with its ornate architecture, plane trees and famous Jewish humor -- seems poorer and more Soviet than other Ukrainian cities, almost if the last 20 years had left no mark on the town. The airport doesn't even have a baggage conveyor belt: Suitcases are simply stacked on a table.
"We don't live here; we try to survive on an average monthly wage of $200 (157)," says the usher at the opera, where they are showing "Rigoletto" tonight. "The higher the dollar rises and the lower the Ukrainian hryvnia falls, the more expensive things become," she says, adding that the most expensive seats at the opera cost the equivalent of 9, and are state subsidized, otherwise no one could afford them.
Odessa still has a reputation for tolerance, even after the Maidan protests. But the disaster of May 2 still hangs over the city: After a street battle with pro-Ukrainian football fans, a number of pro-Russian activists fled into the city's trade union building. Someone started a fire and 38 people burned to death, suffocated or died after jumping in desperation out of windows. Police merely stood by as it happened.
The incident has not yet been cleared up. The interior minister maintains that the guilty parties have been arrested, but has revealed no details, fueling intense speculation on Internet forums: Was this merely the violent climax of a random street battle? Or did nationalists purposely set fire to the trade union building? Was it their way of showing, once and for all, that Odessa remains Ukrainian?
"A frighteningly large number of people died on May 2," says a businessman who asks that his name not be divulged. "But who knows: If that hadn't happened, we might now have a second Donetsk here, and thus another protectorate of Moscow." The disaster in the trade union building has made people in Odessa unwilling to talk openly about politics -- creating an eerie silence. Russian TV channels have been switched off and broadcasts from Moscow can now only be received via satellite dish.
The memorial to Catherine the Great still stands above the Potemkin Stairs. It commemorates the empress and Prince Grigory Potemkin as the founders of Odessa and modern Russia -- which, at least according to Putin, makes this city part of the Russian world. But there are rumors the statue will be hauled away soon.
A Lawless Zone
It's unclear who controls Odessa: There are no signs of state authority and people merely seem to be waiting to see what happens, even as the city declines around them. This even applies to the over-100-year-old famous Odessa Film Studio, down by the seashore. The studio is responsible for productions like the five-part cult TV mini-series "The Meeting Place Cannot Be Changed" and "Déjà Vu," a comedy-thriller about the criminal milieu of Odessa in the 1920s.
The studio hasn't produced any full-length feature films for a long time now. These days, only the Ukrainian TV series "Vitalka" is still shot there. "Now that there is war in Ukraine, no European comes here, although Donetsk is 200 kilometers away," says Andrei Zverev, who runs the studio. The Russians have also canceled six planned productions, preferring to shoot in Kazakhstan or Belarus. At times like this, who wants to travel to Odessa?
Zverev, 49, seems composed, but it's an act. He has the tough job of reviving the studio's flagging fortunes during this period of turmoil. They have to, he says, at least produce a few short films. The studio manager has informed his staff that they are "to leave politics out of the company," the only problem being that politics has long since come to it.
Odessa is now a lawless zone. Since the police don't know on which side of the political fence they should stand, they have gone into hiding. Now, men from the Ukrainian nationalist Right Sector party maintain order in the city. There are perhaps 100 of these ultra-nationalists in the city, but the fact that no one restrains them has encouraged them to take justice into their own hands.
In late September, they severely beat a Verkhovna Rada MP after he had extolled the virtues of the Donetsk People's Republic. They have seized drug dealers, painted them with red paint and tied them to street poles as a deterrent.
But the Right Sector apparently works at the behest of powerful men, who use the group to intimidate their enemies. The ultras recently showed up at the film studio: Fifty men, seeking to occupy the premises, drove up in cars with tinted windows. Zverev rallied his staff. They stood together and linked arms to prevent the group from entering.
The men seem to have been trying to take over the company by force. Complaints about this kind of activity can be heard everywhere in Odessa. In the confusion that followed the coup, the ownership of businesses and properties is being redefined -- and not always by legal means. These actions often seem to be plotted by warring oligarchs.
Half of the film studio belongs to the state, the other half to the oligarch Sergiy Taruta, who until recently was the governor of Donetsk. But now the governor of Odessa is the right-hand man of another oligarch: Ihor Kolomoyskyi, the most powerful man in Dnipropetrovsk, who is reportedly using the turmoil of the war to strip the Donetsk oligarch of his power. He may have also set his sights on Taruta's wealth -- and likewise on the studio in Odessa.
There's an atmosphere of fear, says Aleksander Orlov, deputy chief of staff of the Opposition Bloc party, which unites politicians from the former regime. "People know that their company could perhaps be taken from them outright. Or they are simply killed, as was common in the 1990s," he says. "We see Odessa as a permanent part of Ukraine," says Orlov, "but if the state continues to lose control, its citizens will increasingly favor separation."
- Part 1: A Fractured Ukraine, United in Uncertainty
- Part 2: Kharkhiv: 'Prepared for Aggression'