KYIV — As Ukrainians brace themselves for Sunday’s presidential election, frustrations are growing.
At least 21 have been killed since Thursday in escalating violence in east Ukraine.
And there are fears that the election may not mark the end of the months-long Ukraine crisis but the start of just another stage in the conflict.
Odessa-native and activist Lisa Smith – she kept the family name of an ex-American husband – said she is frightened.
“I am very worried that a war will start,” she said, speaking just yards from where she was on February 20 when more than 50 protesters of the old government were gunned down by snipers.
The 23-year-old documentary-maker said she still hasn’t recovered from the turmoil and bloodshed she witnessed in Kyiv’s Independence Square, or Maiden, during the weeks-long effort to topple ex-President Viktor Yanukovych.
And she frets that nothing might change after the election.
“My other big fear is that the person who gets elected will be the same as our last president – a person who steals everything from the country,” she said. “I think we need reform in every ministry.”
Ukrainians appear eager to vote and replace an interim government that is widely unpopular and seen by many in the east and south as illegitimate.
Pollsters expect at least a 70 percent turnout.
The latest opinion survey this week suggests that election-front-runner Petro Poroshenko, a pro-Western billionaire nicknamed the “chocolate king” for his candy empire, is widening his lead over second-placed Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister.
The poll shows Poroshenko getting 44 per cent support among those planning to vote and Tymoshenko just 8 per cent.
Polling data is prompting media commentators to wonder if the businessman and former minister will secure 50 percent of the vote on Sunday, making a second round next month unnecessary.
Tymoshenko is seen as a throwback to a graft-filled past that Maiden activists want to leave behind.
“The Yanukovych regime was an alliance of corrupt politicians and oligarchs,” said Vadim Baranski, an advertising executive, who took time off work to protest through the winter at Maiden.
Taking coffee in a café in Pushkinskaya Street in central Kyiv, the 32-year-old looks up at the warm spring sun and smiles ruefully at the cold he endured in mid-winter on the barricades in the Maiden. He said he doesn’t want that struggle to be wasted and remains suspicious of the “chocolate king.”
“Poroshenko might not be too bad but Kyiv has turned to oligarchs to help them against the eastern separatists,” he said, referring among others to Ukraine’s richest oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, the coal and steel magnate. Akhmetov last week threw his weight behind the pro-unity cause and urged his workers in east Ukraine to see off separatists.
Continuing corruption remains the biggest fear of voters.
In an opinion poll conducted for the U.S. non-profit the International Foundation for Electoral Systems in May, those surveyed were highly pessimistic that the engrained graft linking politics and business could be overcome.
Fifty-six percent said most Ukrainians looked at corruption as a fact of life in the country and more than 90 percent said they have had to pay a bribe to the police and the courts.
Keen for change
For the young in Kyiv as they prepare for the polls, there is a determination not to let the Maiden sacrifices be in vain. They want new faces.
Activists have been campaigning for long-shot candidate physician Olga Bogomolets, who was nicknamed the “White Angel” during the uprising because of her role treating injured protesters.
But the blond-haired doctor will likely be an also-ran when the count comes in.
With Poroshenko having served in governments before, his practical skills are what appear to be driving his surge in the opinion polls.
For some, he is at least a fresher face than Tymoshenko.
If the confectionary magnate doesn’t want to face a Maiden backlash, if elected he will have to move fast on reforms, starting with the police and the judges.
“The police who were shooting us and beating us at Maiden are still working,” activist Smith said. “They understand that if reform comes, they will end up in prison and they will try with the old politicians to stop change.”