Maidan revolutionaries
Credit: Dan Peleschuk

KYIV, Ukraine — Few would envy Yehor Sobolev's job.

As head of the government’s newly christened Lustration Committee — the result of a popular mandate during the months-long protests against Viktor Yanukovych — he’s meant to be spearheading an effort to cleanse Ukrainian politics of any traces of the ousted president, as well as the official abuse for which his regime was toppled.

Sobolev’s task might be easier if his committee had any real power, he says, or if the country’s new ruling coalition were to show any real interest in passing legislation aimed at purging the old elite.

But, according to Kyiv's leading moral crusader, the popular demand for lustration voiced on Independence Square, the “Maidan,” has fallen victim to politicians looking to save their own skin.

“It looks more like an attempt to fool the Maidan with this idea,” he says.

With the new government looking forward to a presidential election in May, some may think the revolution here has run its course.

But observers say the looming danger of a return of business as usual — the opaque crony politics that have plagued Ukraine for more than two decades — coupled with the presence of hardened protesters still camped out in the streets suggests the revolution isn’t finished.

Whatever the case, some experts say the window for the government to make good on its promises — amid Russia’s apparent attempts to stoke separatist passions in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east — is narrowing.

“We’re seeing that Ukrainians are already beginning to lose faith in the current government,” says Sergiy Solodkyy of Kyiv’s Institute of World Policy.

Distracted by the unrest in the east, Ukraine’s top politicians are nevertheless preparing for the first elections since Yanukovych’s ouster.

Among the front-runners are billionaire chocolate magnate Petro Poroshenko, the only oligarch to have openly supported the protest movement, and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, jailed for more than two years on what critics said were politically motivated charges.

Poroshenko has earned the respect of voters who, despite their traditional distrust of oligarchs, see the so-called Chocolate King — he owns Roshen, Ukraine’s largest confectionery manufacturer — as an effective and principled manager.

Others see him as an old hand with a questionable past.

If Sobolev’s Lustration Committee had its way, Poroshenko would be barred from political office because the chocolatier once served in Yanukovych’s government as a minister of trade and economic development.

“We’re proposing to lustrate all high-ranking government officials who served under Yanukovych because they all saw what was happening, and in one way or another took part in it,” he says.

But Sobolev adds that many lawmakers are cool to the idea of such sweeping legislation, fearing it would extend to many others in Ukraine’s notoriously inbred political landscape, where allegiances regularly shift to suit political and economic interests.

That’s also partly a reflection of just how contested the issue of lustration is in Ukraine, where there’s little consensus about just how far it should reach.

In an attempt to shore up the country’s democratic forces, Poroshenko has teamed up with boxing-champ-turned politician Vitali Klitschko, who bowed out of the presidential heat to run for Kyiv mayor in elections slated for the same day.

But they’ve already come under fire for allegedly meeting with Dmytro Firtash, an oligarch with close links to the Yanukovych regime who still wields political influence and is wanted by US authorities on corruption charges.

Kyiv’s chattering classes are abuzz with talk of an “alliance” among them, a charge Poroshenko was recently forced to deny.

Meanwhile, critics accuse the tycoon of using his television network — Channel 5, one of Ukraine’s most respected — as vehicle to bolster his presidential bid.

They say that resembles a tried-and-true tactic in a country where elites have regularly put their media empires to work for them.

“Of course, as an owner, Poroshenko can use his property as he pleases,” Serhiy Leshchenko, a leading Ukrainian investigative journalist who’s covered elites and oligarchs for more than a decade, wrote in a blog post last week.

“But then you can’t tell him that he’s positively different from Firtash or [fellow Ukrainian oligarch Rinat] Akhmetov, for whom the media is an instrument for political competition.”

While Poroshenko, Tymoshenko and other presidential contenders are gearing up for the election, there are few signs on the streets that much has changed since Yanukovych’s removal.

Protesters have shifted from fending off phalanxes of riot police to ostensibly maintaining order on the military-style encampment that remains sprawled around the Maidan.

Field kitchens continue spewing thick clouds of smoke into the sky while self-defense forces — celebrated for their part in chasing out Yanukovych — remain posted along the perimeter.

They appear less interested in the elite politics of the presidential campaign than in the wholesale systemic change they’ve called for since the protest movement began last November.

Yevgeny Shogin, a 40-year-old former energy worker from Crimea, joined Kyiv’s self-defense forces just before the Black Sea peninsula voted to join Russia. Having left behind a wife and three children, he says he won’t be satisfied until Crimea is returned to Ukraine.

The majority of his compatriots will leave the streets only when the authorities begin to “very clearly respect their own people,” he adds.

“That means, for example, when a prosecutor no longer tells a mother whose son is serving three years in prison on unknown charges that ‘that’s the way it is,’” Shogin says.

Ukraine’s parliament took one step closer to that end on Tuesday by approving a law — supported by Sobolev’s Lustration Committee — aimed at cleaning up the notoriously corrupt judicial system by imposing special checks on judges.

On Thursday, it passed another law aimed at weeding out corruption in the public procurement process, a move stipulated by the International Monetary Fund before it releases a $14-$18 billion bailout package to Ukraine.

Although approximately 54 percent of the population supports the new government today, only around 20 percent of that is unconditional, according to a poll released Wednesday by the Razumkov Center think-tank in Kyiv.

Some experts say the country’s leaders have been too hobbled by alleged Russian meddling in Ukraine to fully focus on the reforms demanded by the Maidan.

Solodkyy, of the Institute of World Policy, says that under normal circumstances, critics would be well within their rights to slam the authorities for not acting faster.

“But there’s one solid counterargument here: the Ukrainian government simply doesn’t have enough time,” he said.

Others seem virtually impossible to satisfy. 

They include Right Sector, the militant nationalist organization that once helped spearhead the protests but now poses a liability to a government seeking to shore up its authority.

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Renewed controversy over the group erupted last week after a gun battle broke out between one of its fighters and another from a different self-defense unit, provoking sharp criticism from both protesters and officials.

Right Sector appears to have few discernable aims besides continuing the revolution by lambasting the authorities and pushing for legislation that would legalize personal gun ownership.

They’ve also drawn criticism for staying on the streets even after having become the darlings of a Russian media campaign that’s hoisted the group as an example of the “fascism” the Kremlin claims dominates Ukraine.

Andriy Tarasenko, Right Sector’s second-in-command, dismisses charges his group is playing into Moscow’s hands or that it’s armed and dangerous.

But he acknowledges that squeezing out its members will be a challenge for the new authorities.

“Our main weapon is our minds, and they’re afraid of us not because we have a few pistols or automatic rifles, but because we carry with us ideas that are dangerous for them,” he said.

“That’s how it was on the Maidan, that’s how it is now, and that’s how it’ll remain in the future.” 

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