Ukraine parliament elections fail to inspire enthusiasm as war, troubled economy dampen mood

Gazing across the Maidan square, Evelina Martirosyan recalls how euphoric she was as she joined protests that changed Ukraine's history. Since the revolution that toppled a despised president, her dreams of a better future have been blunted by war and near economic collapse.

Parliamentary elections on Sunday promise to usher in a fresh class of politicians, but for millions of Ukrainians change is no promise of improvement

Unbridled jingoism has papered over social fissures that seem to grow wider by the day, as the economy founders under the weight of a ruinous war against separatists in the east.

"Maybe new people will come, but everything will be exactly as it was before," Martirosyan said. "It is just that people now wrap themselves in these slogans of 'I love Ukraine.'"

At age 25, Martirosyan is young enough to have no strong memories of the country's Soviet past. Her decision to take part in the Maidan protest movement — named for the square where the events unfolded — was sparked by rage at Yanukovych's decision to freeze ties with the European Union. Turning Ukraine away from the West, possibly irreparably, was more than thousands of activists her age could bear. And when Yanukovych fled, there was palpable excitement about Ukraine entering a new era within the Western fold.

"There was a real conviction that something would move forward," she said. "They had to reckon with us, there were so many of us."

With the winter freeze again about to grip Ukraine, thoughts are now turning to the mundane task of everyday survival.

As the government tightens spending to salvage collapsing finances, ordinary people are saving money to make sure they have enough to spend on household heating during the coldest months. Unemployment and low salaries drive masses of Ukrainian abroad to take up menial labor. With the economy projected to shrink 6.4 percent this year, the labor drain will not be reversed soon — boding long-term trouble for the economy.

Meanwhile, Bentleys, Porsches, Jaguars and Range Rovers cruise the streets of Kiev — a symbol of a growing wealth gap in a city where average salaries of $600 are being eaten away by galloping inflation.

It is these reminders of disparity that fuel cynicism and despair among people like university lecturer Mykola Kuznetsov.

Kuznetsov and his 28-year old son, Ihor, for a while became potent symbols of the Maidan movement when they were photographed bloodied and stunned after receiving a beating from riot police.

"The expectations of society are far greater than anything this political system can provide," Mykola Kuznetsov said, speaking in his Soviet-built apartment piled with books in every available space. "Those running the country are not worthy of the people that died on the Maidan."

Kuznetsov said it has been difficult to focus on the elections as war rumbles on in the east despite a truce called last month.

"Our best boys are dying on the battlefield," he said. "All our thoughts and help are going to them."

If politics divides people along party lines, most Ukrainians living away from the fighting staunchly support the troops and the volunteer battalions fighting the insurgency.

Yet support for the war effort has also fueled a surge in rightist sentiment that many find alarming. In Kiev earlier this month, hundreds of young men in camouflage from the notoriously far-right Azov Battalion went on a march that culminated in a rally at which crowds shouted slogans coined by the World War II Ukrainian partisan army that allied briefly with invading Nazis.

Election apathy is also pervasive in the east.

At the northern entrance to Mariupol — a smog-plagued port city only a few miles away from rebel lines — soldiers at checkpoints express no great interest in the elections.

"These elections are absolutely not needed at this moment in time," said soldier Yaroslav Bondarenko. "All this political commotion, this jostling for positions when people are dying, I don't even know what to call it."

Across the city, campaign posters have to be replaced frequently as they are often pelted with paint. The election indifference is a symptom of a deeper lack of interest in who ultimately wins the war raging nearby.

"The feeling is that troops should be pulled out of the city and let residents live a normal life," Mariupol resident Vladimir Dotsenko.

Dotsenko said he didn't particularly mind if the rebels came into his city.

"We just want the money we earn here to stay here," he said, "and not to be taken off to Kiev or somewhere else."

In areas under separatist control, where hundreds of thousands live, no voting will take place at all as the self-appointed authorities there no longer accept they are part of Ukraine.

Instead, they plan their own elections in early November which they hope will lend them authority they have so far only managed to establish through force.

Even rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko, who has put himself forward to become an elected head of his would-be state, admits the separatist command has no popular mandate.

"These are not people were elected by population," he said. "An election is a brick that will help to build a good, working government for the people."


Chernov contributed to this report from Mariupol, Ukraine.