By Natalia Zinets
LVIV, Ukraine (Reuters) – At a cemetery in western Ukraine, a tall, gray-haired man lights candles and kisses the gravestone of his 35-year-old brother Taras, whose death, he said, changed his mind about who should win this month’s presidential election.
Taras, a medical volunteer, was killed in 2015 rescuing wounded soldiers near Debaltseve during the government’s five-year-old conflict in eastern Ukraine against Kremlin-backed rebels, his brother Ihor Konchevych said.
He died for a free and independent Ukraine, something their grandfathers could only dream of in the Soviet era, he said, and President Petro Poroshenko is the best candidate to keep it on that path, even though he has not ended the war as he promised.
“In 2014, I did not vote for him,” said Ihor, a dermatologist whose teenage nephew and niece are now fatherless. “Now (I will) for one reason: he is pro-Ukraine, Russia does not support him.”
Such support could help Poroshenko, who has consistently trailed in opinion polls, scrape into the second round and potentially win a second term.
It suggests that at least in western Ukraine, where Poroshenko’s polling remains relatively robust, his opposition to Russia and championing of the army, the church and closer ties with Europe and the United States is getting through.
It also suggests some people are willing to swallow whatever disappointment they might feel about his failure to end the war, lift living standards or thoroughly tackle corruption, because they see him as better than the alternatives.
At stake in the election is the leadership of a country on the front line of the West’s confrontation with Russia, five years after the Maidan street protests ousted Poroshenko’s Russia-friendly predecessor Viktor Yanukovich and the Russian annexation of Crimea.
It is a country still fighting a conflict in the eastern Donbass region that has killed 13,000 people despite a notional ceasefire, a shrunken state propped up by Western aid and sanctions against Moscow.
The election has boiled down to a three-horse race between the confectionary magnate Poroshenko, comic actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, with Poroshenko second and Zelenskiy extending his lead thanks to his fresh face and strong anti-corruption message.
HEARTLAND OF MAIDAN
It is perhaps not surprising that Poroshenko’s pro-Western messages resonate in Lviv, a picturesque city of cobblestone streets and central European charm that was under the Austrian empire until the First World War and is geographically closer to European Union countries than to Kiev.
The region was a driving force behind successive revolutions, including the 2014 protests in Maidan: according to Reuters’ calculations, around 50 of the more than 100 protesters killed during the Maidan protests were from the west, 19 of them from the Lviv region alone.
The city is heavily Ukrainian-speaking compared to the Russian-speaking eastern regions. A survey by pollster SOCIS suggests voters in the west care more about the war and less about, for example, rising utility tariffs than the average Ukrainian.
The brother of Lesya Senyk, a 51-year-old kindergarten director, was one of those killed on Maidan, a protest sparked by Yanukovich’s decision to renege on signing a political and trade agreement with the EU after pressure from Moscow.
Her brother’s sacrifice, she said, means Ukraine has become a proper state with a stronger army and aspirations to join the European Union.
Senyk did not vote for Poroshenko in 2014 but she will now. “I do not know who else could have saved the state in those difficult times, after the Maidan and during the war,” she said. “Maybe he’s not perfect. But we are not saints.”
NO COUNTRY FOR CLOWNS
Poroshenko won an emphatic victory in the 2014 election but his popularity has fallen sharply.
He can boast success: he secured visa-free travel for Ukrainians to the EU. There have been reforms and the government has stayed in an International Monetary Fund bailout program: a reassurance to investors.
Poroshenko successfully lobbied for Ukraine to establish a national Orthodox church, independent from Russia. While he did not win the war, he did not lose it, and ramped up defense spending to 5 percent of gross domestic product from 3 percent under Yanukovich. A Poroshenko win is the worst-case scenario for Russia, which is a plus in some voters’ eyes.
But he has been forced to apologize for his pledge to win the war within weeks, and that is not enough for some.
The parents of 22-year-old Yuriy Holub, who was killed in eastern Ukraine in 2014, will not vote for him.
“He promised, promised,” said Holub’s father Hryhoriy, who is blind. “Why did you promise if you were not confident that you can fulfill your promise? If he were an honest man he would quit of his own accord.”
His wife Hanna, who holds pictures of her son close to her face due to her own failing sight, also said Poroshenko had let them down. “First he said everything would be over in two weeks … But such heavy shelling happened and our child was killed,” she said in a trembling voice. “There is no trust now.”
Their son is buried in Lviv’s 18th century Lychakiv cemetery, along with about 70 others killed in the east.
Nazar Paselsky lies buried in a grave near Holub. Paselsky was killed by shelling, aged 21, in the Luhansk region in August 2014. His mother Hanna and father Mykola adopted a boy after Nazar’s death. Photos of Nazar, his diploma and his bravery award are on display on top of their cabinet.
Hanna voted for Poroshenko last time “because he promised that everything will be over in three days. I wanted my child to come back home alive.” Now she does not trust any candidate to guarantee a future for her adopted one-year-old, but thinks she might end up voting for Poroshenko in the second round.
Twelve years younger than Poroshenko, Zelenskiy has tapped into disillusionment about Ukraine’s progress since Maidan and the desire for new faces in politics.
But some people, like Hryhoriy Zhalovaga, whose son Anatoliy died on Maidan, said a strong army was what was needed, not an entertainer with no political experience. Quoting another student during a commemoration ceremony for Maidan victims at the school his son attended, he said: “Those who will vote for Zelenskiy, what do they want, a country of clowns?”
Lviv-based analyst Oleg Gryniv said such views mean Poroshenko will probably carry a majority in the western areas like Galicia, which contains Lviv, citing the example of Ukraine’s first post-Soviet President Leonid Kravchuk.
“When he traveled through the eastern regions, they asked him about the price of socks, whether gas prices would be lowered,” he said. “And when he arrived in Galicia, there was only one question – whether the state would be kept intact.”
(Additional reporting Sergiy Karazy; writing by Matthias Williams; editing by Philippa Fletcher)