Travel

I’ve travelled to the following countries for CBC news coverage:

*Zimbabwe
*Ethiopia
*Greece
*Germany
*France
*Belgium
*Hungary
*Spain

In addition, I travelled independently to Kyiv, Ukraine for the country’s first presidential election following the 2014 revolution and wrote the following:

My first sight of Maidan came very soon after I arrived in Kyiv. I was riding in a taxi to my hotel when the driver turned a corner and we were stopped by an older man in fatigues, standing guard next to a barricade of battered sandbags and stacked tires.

My driver explained, presumably, that he was dropping me off at my hotel and we were allowed to pass.

A lone man in fatigues stands guard at the main entrance to Independence Square.

A lone man in fatigues stands guard at the main entrance to Independence Square.

The hotel I chose to stay at in Kyiv-Hotel Ukraine-is located right on the edge of Independence Square, the cradle of Ukraine’s winter uprising. During those dark days in February when dozens of protesters were killed, some by the fire of government snipers, the hotel was used as a morgue and makeshift hospital for the wounded.

Even though months have passed since the protests, the hotel’s ties to the revolutionaries are evident. As I walked in,  several men in camouflage sat napping in the lobby. Others milled around the journalists and cameramen also assembled there-the weird mix of players and spectators I imagine you would see on the front lines of most major stories.

After getting settled, I made the short walk to the square. The first thing I saw was a large memorial to the dozens of protesters who were killed doing battle with government forces. Colourful, glass candle holders and makeshift crosses stood vigil in front of the portraits of the fallen. Similar memorials are dotted throughout the square.

One of the many memorials to the protesters killed in clashes with police.

One of the many memorials to the protesters killed in clashes with police.

This place isn’t just just one of remembrance though; it is very much an active camp, inhabited by dozens of men, and some women, still living in canvas tents behind the barricades.

Some of them sit outside their temporary homes, possibly feeling more permanent by now, talking to one another over hot drinks as the day begins. Two women chop onions and boil vegetables in a steaming cauldron. Now that the situation in Kyiv, at least, has calmed, it’s hard to imagine how their days don’t turn to boredom here in their tent city.

But amid these diehards who have, so far, refused to leave Maidan, are new fixtures that you can’t help but feel trivialise, at least in my mind, what happened here.

Chief among these is a group of young 20-somethings who trot along Maidan’s main street dressed up as cartoon characters. There’s a Minnie and Mickey Mouse, a Goofy, even a Bugs Bunny, among a few random bears and zebras. They pursue anyone with a camera, trying to take pictures with them. If you oblige, they slap you with a 300 hyrvina charge, the equivalent of 15 pounds.

Many of the protesters have been camped out in Maidan for months and have had to improvise ways to make life work.

Many of the protesters have been camped out in Maidan for months and have had to improvise ways to make life work.

I ask Bugs, a very nice girl with the best English I encountered while in Ukraine, why they do it. She tells me her country is sad and she wants to do something to make people happy. The zebra tells me it’s just a good way of making money.

There are also countless souvenir stands surrounding the outskirts of the square. Their offerings-ranging from anti-Putin trinkets to traditional Ukrainian flower headdresses-are the same. Along with Bugs and her friends, they’re the final ingredient to the trifecta of what Maidan has now become: part shrine, part protest camp, part tourist attraction.

But what will become of it now?

In many ways, the movement was a success, albeit a bloody one. The protesters toppled their corrupt government, triggering Sunday’s elections for a new one. They have  made clear their desire for Ukraine to turn west towards Europe and, in their view, a better future.

The remaining protesters proudly display their tools of revolution.

The remaining protesters proudly display their tools of revolution.

But is it enough? Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, is a billionaire businessman and, having once held senior government positions under the last two presidents, including ousted Viktor Yanukovych, is no stranger to the country’s political scene, the very thing against which the Maidaners revolted.

He was dismissed from the government of Yanukovychh’s predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko, in a corruption scandal that also embroiled his presidential opponent, the once-formidable Yulia Tymoshenko.

He also owns one of Ukraine’s most influential television stations, Channel 5. He’s vowed to sell his other lucrative ventures, such as his Roshen candy company which has earned him the nickname “Chocolate King,” but has said he will hang onto his TV channel.

I was at Maidan as the election results rolled in on screens set up in the square for the occasion. The crowd gathered to watch was meagre, maybe a few dozen people perched on makeshift benches, slats of wood propped up by tires.

Voters look anxious as they wait for the results of the presidential vote.

Voters look anxious as they wait for the results of the presidential vote.

There was very little reaction from the crowd as Poroshenko’s victory was declared, certainly no cheers or sense of excitement. The only claps, and very few of them at that, came when Tymoshenko’s dismal results were displayed.

That reaction played into the narrative of the day: many voters, tired of the months of turmoil, eager for the volatility in Ukraine’s east to be quelled, wanted to avoid the prospect of a run-off and therefore supported the candidate with the best shot. Some told journalists that it amounted to casting a ballot for “the lesser evil.”

It’s kind of sad to think that after everything–the months of bitter protest through Ukraine’s harsh winter, the deaths of so many of its young people eager for a freer future, along with several police officers, and the de facto war now happening across large swathes of its peripheral East–this landmark election came down to picking the less bad of two not great options.

Still, it’s unrealistic to think that sweeping change can happen overnight and perhaps a small step in the right direction was the best anyone should have ever expected.

There are reminders of the violence throughout the square, such as this charred street sign.

There are reminders of the violence throughout the square, such as this charred street sign.

After all, Poroshenko is not Yanukovych. A champion of European integration, he was one of the first prominent supporters of the Maidan movement, making frequent appearances on the square and buying food and other supplies for the demonstrators.

His efforts to support the protests earned him the backing of one of the movement’s most well-known leaders, Vitali Klitschko, who dropped his own presidential bid earlier this year, pledging his allegiance to Poroshenko and urging his backers to do the same.

Poroshenko’s fortune largely comes from his own hard work and not as a result of connections to the corrupt world of oil and gas.  And while solidifying his status as an antithesis to a fresh face on Ukraine’s political landscape, his past experience of serving as both foreign minister and minister of economic development might actually work to the country’s advantage.

Graffiti in Kyiv capturing the protesters' desire to look ahead to a growing relationship with Europe.

Graffiti in Kyiv capturing the protesters’ desire to look ahead to a growing relationship with Europe.

It’s also hard to imagine him pandering to Russia at the disadvantage of his own citizens like previous Ukrainian leaders. Last summer, even before the crisis in Ukraine erupted, Moscow banned chocolates from one of Poroshenko’s factories, allegedly on health grounds.

In March, riot police shut down one of his plants in Russia, also seizing one of his warehouses. He also lost his shipyard in Crimea’s Sevastopol after Russia’s annexation of the territory.

But despite the personal grievances, normalising relations with Russia must be one of Poroshenko’s top priorities, if only just to help end the deadly violence in Donetsk, Sloviansk and Luhansk.

It's doubtful the barricades will be taken down anytime soon.

It’s doubtful the barricades will be taken down anytime soon.

The protesters still living on Maidan say that until the situation in the East is settled, the new government won’t be able to focus on enacting the democratic reforms they crave.

They say that until they see that change, they plan on staying camped out in their canvas tents, a reminder of what has been and what could come again if Ukraine stays mired in its old ways.

Otherwise, they say, it would all have been in vain.

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