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Two years into new regime, grim realities persist in Ukraine

April 24, 2016 at 3:17 PM EST
Ukraine has faced many challenges in the two years since violent protests drove the country’s president from office. The Russian occupation of the Crimean Peninsula in particular sparked a military conflict between pro-Russian secessionists and Ukraine’s government. Correspondent Kira Kay and Producer Jason Maloney from the Bureau for International Reporting take us inside Ukraine to asses the country’s struggle for political change and stability.
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Protest footage courtesy Kateryna Panova.

Read the full transcript below:

Kira Kay: In the past two years, a new political movement has emerged in Ukraine. A coalition of former activists, analysts and journalists that now hold 27 seats in the nation’s 450 seat parliament – an institution notorious for the influence of the country’s mega-rich businessmen, known as “The Oligarchs.”

One of these new arrivals is Svitlana Zalishchuk.

Svitlana Zalishchuk: We would like to join European community, not just with the declarations but with the real reforms inside of the country.

Kira Kay: Zalishchuck works closely with her longtime friends, Sergii Leshchenko and Mustafa Nayyem. They were all elected in 2014, eight months after leading protests now known as the Euro-Maidan Revolution for Kiev’s main square, the Maidan. Demonstrators favored closer ties with Western Europe and less alignment with Russia.

Today, these reformers call themselves the “Euro-Optimists.”

Sergii Leshchenko: To be an optimist in Ukraine, it’s a big challenge. Because too many years we’ve spent in this process of transformation. And I still believe the work is not finished.

Mustafa Nayyem: This is a very hostile environment. When you feel that the corruption and the old style politicians and the old style of making policy, is very close to you. This is big compromises for us. It was very easy to be heroes on the Maidan and it is much more difficult to be heroes here in the Parliament.

Kira Kay: Nayyem sparked the Euro-Maidan protests in November 2013 with a Facebook post, asking people to come out against then-president Viktor Yanukovych.

Yanukovych had just scuttled a free trade and cooperation agreement with the European Union under pressure from his ally, Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Protesters also demanded an end to the country’s endemic corruption. They occupied the Maidan for three months. Police beat protesters on the streets and fired into the crowds.

More than 100 people died, but the demonstrators forced president Yanukovych into exile in Russia. Three months later, Ukraine elected a new president, Petro Poroshenko. He was regarded as an oligarch but ran as a reformer. In the parliamentary elections that followed, the Euro-Optimists came into office.

Svitlana Zalishchuk: It was about the identity — identity of what country you would like to build for the next generation. And we decided that we want a democratic country. To have justice in the court, to have to have police, not as a repressive machine but rather as an institution who protects your rights and freedoms.”

Kira Kay: But even before the new Ukrainian government took office, Russia, angered by the ouster of the pro-Russian president, sent troops into Ukraine’s southern province of Crimea and annexed it.

The arrival of Russian troops emboldened pro-Russia separatists in the east of the country, who wanted to secede from Ukraine. More than 9,000 people have died and fighting continues to flare, despite a ceasefire.

Thousands of Ukrainian Citizens volunteered to fight the separatists in the east. Now Ukraine grapples with re-integrating those veterans, many bearing the scars and wounds of war, into daily life in the midst of a depressed economy where jobs are tight.

But the biggest strain on society are the almost two million people who have been driven out of occupied Crimea and the Eastern war zone.

In a Soviet-era dormitory that once housed transit workers outside Kiev, people like Lyudmila Pishtoy live in tiny quarters.

Lyudmila Pishtoy: Here’s our kitchen and our bedroom. This is how we live. We are thankful for this, of course. We want to go home, but the roads are closed to us.

Kira Kay: Oksana Budnik fled Crimea with her husband and two children. A floris back home, she hasn’t been allowed to transfer funds from her old bank account.

Oksana Budnik: They said I could re-register my business here, but to do so I need access to my money. So neither my husband nor I can officially work.

Kira Kay: The residents say their 35-dollar-a-month government stipend doesn’t cover even their rent, so they get by with the help of a Canadian air group.

18-year-old Aaron Rokrobskiy says pro-Russian separatists detained him, but he escaped and fled with his father. His mother refused to leave.

Aaron Rokrobskiy: She called us, in tears and screaming. Our house was bombed – all the windows and doors were blown out. The next day I went back to get her out of there.

Kira Kay: Geoffrey Pyatt is the United States Ambassador to Ukraine.

Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt: Even today there are Russian troops on the ground leading separatist forces that are doing everything they can to defeat the new Ukraine.

Kira Kay: Pyatt has led the American support effort here, which includes training Ukrainian soldiers and helping reform long-corrupt institutions.

Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt: The way Ukraine defeats Vladimir Putin is by building a modern democratic European state. The more Ukraine consolidates reform, the more Ukraine demonstrates that it’s not going to be dissuaded from its European choice, and the standards and values and institutions that come with that, the harder it is for the Kremlin to try to defeat that militarily.

Kira Kay: Pyatt points to fledgling economic reforms, such as the closures of insolvent banks and the ending of long time energy price cuts that weakened the state budget. By increasing energy supplies from Europe, Ukraine has dramatically reduced its dependence on Russian natural gas.

Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt: This is not a poor country this a country with an enormous endowment of natural resources, the best agricultural land in the world, tremendous human resources. What it has always suffered from is just atrocious governance.

Kira Kay: The new parliament has passed laws to enable institutional reforms to begin. A showpiece is the rebuilding of the country’s police force, once a tool of state repression and violence. Ten thousand recruits have been trained in cities all over Ukraine. They come from all walks of life.

For eight weeks, the recruiters drill on the shooting range, learn how to make arrests and study criminology. While critics charge the police upper ranks contain holdovers from the old regime, there is a true sense of “starting over” among this corps.

Oksana Pilipchuk: We have a situation Ukraine, where more people began to think that they’d rather leave than try to fix the problems here. And I don’t want to leave my country.

Kira Kay: There’s also a new national anti-corruption bureau to investigate government officials, judges and the country’s mega-rich oligarchs. It’s being trained by the FBI in data collection. The anti-corruption bureau’s special forces unit is vital, says director Artem Sytnyk.

Artem Sytnyk: The resistance of the old corrupt system is so great that sometimes we have to use force. Even during a simple investigation, searches, arrests, our detectives are confronted with armed resistance, with dozens of bodyguards that protect high-ranking officials.

Kira Kay: Sytnyk says fighting corruption is as important as the war in the East, but entrenched interests don’t want him to succeed.

Artem Sytnyk: Corruption is actually a lifestyle for many officials and citizens in Ukraine. We are only at the beginning of this struggle. We have no fair and independent courts, the basis of democracy. We have huge corruption risks in our economy, which prevents development of the market economy, of fair competition.

Kira Kay: Former president Yanukovych and his cronies are widely believed to have looted tens of billions of dollars from the state treasury, but Ukrainian prosecutors have not filed criminal charges. The new government has also failed to hold anyone accountable for the deaths in the Euro-Maidan protests.

Inna Plekhanova’s son, Sasha, a 22-year-old budding architect, was killed in a standoff between protesters and police.

Inna Plekhanova: It was a gunshot wound to the head. It was meant to be deadly. They were shooting to kill.

Kira Kay: Plekhanova has been waiting more than two years for justice.

Inna Plekhanova: I thought it would be possible to at least determine the suspects after two years. It’s one thing if they can’t be found, as many fled to Russia. But to determine who the actors were is possible, as it was all filmed on camera.

Kira Kay: Plekhanova’s lawyer, Pavlo Dykan, says a new prosecution unit has been created to investigate protest deaths but faces obstruction from above.

Pavlo Dykan: Unfortunately, this case is a vivid illustration of the fact that reform hasn’t happened. We still see all the same people who were “on the dark side” during the Maidan – those in charge of illegal detentions and information gathering on activists. And of course it is foolish to expect that these people will testify or help investigate their own crimes.

Kira Kay: Svitlana Zalishchuk and her Euro-Optimist colleagues in Ukraine’s parliament know that making lasting change won’t be easy.

Svitlana Zalishchuk: There is big struggle. There is big fight between the old and the new system, old and new approaches.

Kira Kay: The recently leaked “Panama Papers” revealed that President Poroshenko seems to have hidden assets in offshore bank accounts, undermining his image as a reformer. And the prime minister just resigned, amid news that he’s under investigation for allegedly accepting a 3 million dollar bribe. The patience of the United States and the European Union, which have contributed billions in aid, is wearing thin.

Ambassador Pyatt: The support that Ukraine has enjoyed has been unprecedented. They need to capitalize on this opportunity. The consequences of failure are important because of how the international community would react but much more importantly how Ukrainians themselves react.

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