Ukrainians Vote, in Europe’s Only Country at War

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A campaign billboard for President Petro O. Poroshenko in Kiev, Ukraine. He was elected in 2014, just three months after an uprising.CreditBrendan Hoffman for The New York Times

Under a campaign billboard for President Petro O. Poroshenko declaring “there are many candidates but one president,” Ukrainians picked through the meager selection — instant coffee, canned milk, bananas — on sale at a makeshift sidewalk stand in Kiev, emblematic of the country’s economic hardship.

Ukraine plans to hold an election on Sunday that will be the first genuinely contested presidential vote since street protests five years ago evolved into a revolution that deposed a widely despised, Russian-aligned leader.

Ukrainians will vote in a country divided between east and west, between corruption and a desire for honest government, between struggling, ordinary people and an ultra-wealthy business oligarchy.

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Even by the standards of former Soviet societies, Ukraine is a country of chronic pain, where people suffer from the dysfunction of their leaders, losses in war, and poverty. It is also a country with living, vibrant politics.

Looking out over the Podil neighborhood in Kiev.CreditBrendan Hoffman for The New York Times
The family of Andriy Sayenko visiting his grave in Fastiv. Mr. Sayenko was killed on the protests’ deadliest day, Feb. 20, 2014, when government snipers shot and killed dozens.CreditBrendan Hoffman for The New York Times
Valentin Kocherzhuk, a captain in the Ukrainian army, smoking outside the command headquarters for the Second Battalion, 92nd Brigade in Avdiivka, eastern Ukraine, last year.CreditBrendan Hoffman for The New York Times

On the five-year anniversary of the uprising — known as the Maidan protests — as families tended to the graves of those killed by snipers on Maidan square in central Kiev, Ukrainians were less thankful for their new leaders than for the freedom to vote them out of power, polls showed.

“What is happening in our country doesn’t suit us patriots,” said Viktor Lomonos, a 52-old civic activist who took part in the uprising.

Today, Mr. Lomonos is in many ways typical of the Ukrainians who stomped and chanted on the square for months, drawing the world’s attention — only to discover, after they won, that they disliked the new leader, too.

Mr. Poroshenko, a billionaire chocolate company owner, backed the protests and was easily elected president in a snap vote in 2014, just three months after the uprising. Now he has support from only about 16 percent of voters.

Mr. Lomonos said that deeper connections to the European Union and NATO are the only way to guarantee Ukraine’s future. The same view animated the protests that toppled a government, but five years later, he is unimpressed with the results.

“If there were no war, we would definitely revolt again, 100 percent,” Mr. Lomonos said, this time against Mr. Poroshenko.

Ukrainian presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky, center, on set during the filming of his television show. Mr. Zelensky, a well-known comedian, has parlayed his performance as a fictional teacher vaulted to the presidency after an anti-corruption tirade went viral into a serious campaign.CreditBrendan Hoffman for The New York Times
A workshop in Kharkiv that trains volunteers in street theater and other nonviolent political action. Diana Berg, right, the founder of the group that organized the workshop, became an activist after she was driven from her home in Donetsk.CreditBrendan Hoffman for The New York Times
A volunteer for the presidential campaign of Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister, handing out literature before a rally in Kiev.CreditBrendan Hoffman for The New York Times

The war in eastern Ukraine looms over the election as the issue most concerning voters. Russian-backed separatists who asserted that the new leaders in Kiev were fascists revolted soon after Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in March 2014.

Though mostly out of the news, the conflict has smoldered as a bloody stalemate. It is both a regional war and a violent expression of the broader conflict between Russia and the West, including the Kremlin’s efforts to influence Western elections.

In the east, along a front that hasn’t moved in years as politicians hash out failed peace deals, soldiers live and fight in a landscape of mud and sandbags, waging an anachronistic trench war resembling the conditions of the First World War.

The port of Mariupol. The war flared most recently in a naval skirmish between Russia and Ukraine over control of a strait leading to the Azov Sea.CreditBrendan Hoffman for The New York Times
Men awaiting evaluation of their fitness as military reservists at the local military commissariat in Mariupol.CreditBrendan Hoffman for The New York Times
Stanislav Pereuznyk, 48, awaiting treatment at the veterans’ hospital in Kiev. Mr. Pereuznyk fought in eastern Ukraine as a member of a Ukrainian Army air assault brigade, but retired because of injuries to his knees, feet and spine.CreditBrendan Hoffman for The New York Times

“I felt like someone came into my home, walking with dirty boots, telling me what to do, and saying ‘we want your apartment,’” Diana Berg, a former resident of the eastern city of Donetsk, said of being driven from her home by war.

Ms. Berg, one of the country’s nearly 1.5 million internally displaced people, turned personal catastrophe into a creative venture: She now leads a group, Platforma TU, that trains volunteers in street theater and other nonviolent political action.

“Now I’m an activist,” she said. “We have to remind people we can be free.”

For Ukrainians, said Ms. Berg, 39, “everything is political now. You can’t be apolitical.” The strong showing of opposition politicians in the presidential race and the proliferation of volunteer groups and civic organizations show “dissatisfaction with what’s happening,” she said.

While the proliferation of political activism in Ukraine is positive, she said, it is a symptom of the country’s deeper fault lines and failures. “The dark side of activism is unhappiness,” she said.

A concert during the Plan B Festival in Kharkiv, which combined lectures and workshops with creativity to work toward a vision of Ukraine as a country of engaged citizens and responsive government.CreditBrendan Hoffman for The New York Times
Municipal workers clearing ice in Kiev. Average salaries in Ukraine are among the lowest in Europe.CreditBrendan Hoffman for The New York Times
Alyona Hutsenko, center, leading an anticorruption walking tour in Kiev. The tours began in 2017 as a way to help empower Ukrainians to feel that corruption can be stopped, though they are also popular with foreigners.CreditBrendan Hoffman for The New York Times

The war flared most recently in a naval skirmish between Russia and Ukraine over control of a strait leading to the Azov Sea. Under a treaty, the two countries share sovereignty over the sea. Once an emblem of cooperation, that treaty today has become one more issue to fight over.

“I’d like to imagine that it will end, because a lot of families are waiting,” said Veronika Pugachova, 37, a history teacher whose husband is serving on the front.

She worries about him, not least because her brother-in-law, also a soldier, was killed in the conflict in 2015. “I try to believe that when there’s a new government, in some way all of these issues will be dealt with,” Ms. Pugachova said.

“We’re all patriots and I’m very proud of my husband,” she said. “Of course it’s hard, it’s hard to wait, because when he leaves it’s not for less than six months. Of course it’s hard. We believe in him, we support him, our whole family does.”

In this election Mr. Poroshenko is seeking a second, five-year term. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote on March 31 — which polls show is very likely — an April runoff will decide the winner.

Mr. Poroshenko is running on his record of overhauling the army and winning independence from Moscow for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, saying he provided a calm harbor of faith in a turbulent country.

Metropolitan Epiphanius, center, the head of the newly independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, leading a service at St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery to commemorate those killed during the Maidan protests.CreditBrendan Hoffman for The New York Times
Mihailo Strashok, right, with Oleksandr Semenikhin, in Mr. Semenikhin’s apartment in Kiev. Mr. Semenikhin, a veteran, survives on a small military pension; both men rely on free meals provided by local charities.CreditBrendan Hoffman for The New York Times
Veterans of the Afghan war, which lasted from 1979 to 1989, gathered to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Soviet troops’ withdrawal in Kiev.CreditBrendan Hoffman for The New York Times

Among the dozens of registered candidates, broad name recognition and a populist proposal to cut natural gas prices propelled Yulia V. Tymoshenko, a former prime minister, into the top tier of contenders.

Younger voters and those disillusioned with traditional politicians have channeled their anger into supporting the quirky, social media-based campaign of Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian without political experience who plays the president in a popular television show.

Mr. Zelensky has appealed to eastern voters by speaking Russian in public and on his television show. But, paradoxically, Russia’s military intervention five years ago has weakened the pro-Russian bloc in Ukrainian politics. Russian-leaning politicians lost millions of voters to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for eastern separatism.

For Mr. Poroshenko, whose backing mostly comes in the west, a deep recession eroded support for the post-revolution government.

Mihailo Strashok, 72, relies on a food bank to supplement his meager pension and takes a glum view of the government’s calls for support and for sacrifice in a time of war.

“We won’t sacrifice our bodies and souls” he said, “for these bandits in power.”

The daily Kiev-Moscow train leaving Kiev. Ukraine cut direct flights to Russia after the war broke out, and the infrastructure minister has proposed cutting rail service as well.CreditBrendan Hoffman for The New York Times

Brendan Hoffman contributed reporting.

NYT > World

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