KYIV, UKRAINE - Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko spent his first year in office struggling against Russia-backed rebels in the east, a crumbling economy and deep-rooted corruption. While facing unprecedented challenges, Poroshenko has put Ukraine on a European path. But political analysts say more reforms are needed to satisfy supporters in the western part of the country while winning over the Russia-leaning east.
The Ukrainian president has taken the first steps toward Europe, said Olexiy Haran, a professor of comparative politics at Kyiv Mohyla University.
“He performed a lot," he said. "But definitely ... the tempo of reforms is not enough and the challenges are huge.”
Standing near a photograph of Poroshenko taken when he spoke at the university as a businessman before becoming president, Haran listed his achievements, including signing a European Union Association Agreement, holding successful elections and establishing an anti-corruption bureau.
“So, there were a lot of things which we should be proud of," he said. "At the same time, definitely there are difficulties. There are difficulties in economics, there’s difficulties connected with the tempo of reforms, there’s difficulties in fighting with oligarchs. Again, it’s very difficult in times when you have war. Nevertheless, the first steps were done.”
In his first year in office, more than 6,000 people were killed in the fighting between Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed rebels in the east. The fighting in eastern Ukraine followed the Russian takeover of Crimea, which began with Russian special forces seizing Ukrainian military bases in the Black Sea peninsula and ended with Moscow annexing it.
Road map to solution
In February of this year, Poroshenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin and the leaders of France and Germany signed off on a road map for a political solution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine, beginning with a cease-fire.
But the cease-fire has never fully taken hold, as the Russia-backed rebels seek to take more territory and the two sides exchange fire and move in heavy weapons in contravention of the deal.
Rebel leaders say too much blood has been spilled for the east to remain part of Ukraine. Rebel Colonel Alexander Kurinkov feels this personally and vows they will “liberate” more Ukrainian territory.
“My son was killed in this war," he said. “And, do you think my wife can forgive it? I don’t have any brothers on that side. I hate when they say this is a war of brother nations.”
Amid war, Ukraine is struggling to keep its economy afloat and restrict the influence of oligarchs. Some of the big businessmen who control major industries also fund controversial battalions that have been compared to private militias. Some members of the battalions hold fascist views that Kremlin propagandists have seized on to portray Ukraine's pro-European revolution as a right-wing movement wanting to annihilate Russians.
Poroshenko, an oligarch himself with a chocolate and candy business, has sought to incorporate the battalions into the regular Ukrainian armed forces. In March, he fired Ihor Kolomoisky, a powerful tycoon, from his job as governor of the eastern industrial region of Dnipropetrovsk, after armed men loyal to Kolomoisky threatened staff at a state-owned oil monopoly because authorities removed allies of Kolomoisky at the firm.
Since the conflict in Ukraine broke out, Ukraine's currency has lost almost two-thirds of its value, and Kyiv is negotiating to refinance its debt with creditors, which could strike another blow to the economy.
Despite the challenges, the nation appears to be pulling together, said Kyiv developer Petro.
“Thank God we survived and are still strong and keep defending against Russian aggressors,” he said. Standing on Kyiv's Independence Square wearing a T-shirt with a trident, the national symbol of Ukraine, he went on to voice skepticism about those in power in Ukraine. “But, this is all thanks to us ordinary Ukrainians and not the authorities,” he said. “And, maybe even despite the authorities.”
Independence Square was the site of the mass demonstrations of 2013 and 2014, when hundreds of thousands protested against the decision by then-President Viktor Yanukovych to pull out of the EU Association Agreement in favor of a trade deal with Russia. The Euromaidan Revolution, also known as the Revolution of Dignity, devolved into clashes with riot police and the killing of dozens of activists by mysterious snipers. Yanukovych fled to Russia, and the Kremlin moved to seize Crimea and support rebels in the east.
Poroshenko took office at a perilous time, said Kyiv lawyer Irina, while acknowledging Ukrainians want faster reforms. “Our authorities should concentrate less on the creation and development of their own business,” she said. “They should instead pay closer attention to taking care of people, employment possibilities, and the prices of food and other products.”
But reforms are taking root, said the deputy head of the Ukrainian presidential administration, Rostyslav Pavlenko.
“In the next year, citizens should start to feel the change for the better,” he said — to feel “those things which were launched, such as judicial reform, the fight against corruption, economic reforms," that there is "more justice," and that the economy is starting to recover.
Economic development is also key to winning back the rebel-held east, where fewer products are available and prices have shot up.
Leaders of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic have “nationalized” Ukrainian grocery stores and set up their own bank. They say they will bring autonomy but still fly a Russian flag over their headquarters, and the region is increasingly dependent on Russia.
Products 'simply absent'
Donetsk coffee shop owner Elena said deliveries are delayed up to 10 hours at checkpoints between Ukrainian-controlled areas and rebel-controlled ones. As a result, more Russian products are appearing on shelves. “We were directly touched by this situation,” she said, “because most of the products are simply absent."
Pensions are paid in rubles, leaving few guesses as to where the money is coming from.
The rebels wanted to become part of Russia until Moscow dismissed those plans. Most analysts say the Kremlin wants a frozen conflict so it can hold influence over Kyiv.
Deputy presidential administration chief Pavlenko said Kyiv will negotiate autonomy, and restore financial ties, only after the fighting in eastern Ukraine stops and elections are held there under Ukrainian law.
“This will allow the state to be sure that those social commitments could be done in full and that payments will go to the people who should get them, and not the people with guns,” he said.
But winning over Russia-leaning hearts and minds in the rebel-held east also means restoring peace to a war-weary people, most of whom watch Russian state TV and believe Kremlin propaganda.
In some neighborhoods of Donetsk where shelling is routine, families sleep underground in bomb shelters.
They voice an increasingly common view — that they do not care who is in charge as long as the fighting stops.
In a rare anti-war protest in Donetsk, hundreds of residents gathered Tuesday outside the rebel headquarters to demand that the fighting be moved away from their neighborhoods so they are not in the line of fire.
If Poroshenko can show European standards of stability and prosperity, fewer people in eastern Ukraine will look to Russia for their future.