KIEV — A pile of car tires is a strong symbol in post-revolutionary Ukraine. It is associated with unrest, crowds on the streets, clashes between riot police and protesters and eventually lots of black smoke. This week, piles of tires appeared in front of the Prosecutor’s Office in Odessa and outside the Presidential Administration building in Kiev. On Friday, at about 1 p.m., groups of protesters organized by Automaidan, a civic movement, set the car tires on fire in the center of Kiev.
When the pile burnt down, activists brought new tires. Surrounded by police, protesters, some covered with white powder of a fire extinguisher, demanded that President Petro Poroshenko come out to explain why in spite of all the promises to reform political institutions, the country’s leading positions were still occupied by corrupt bureaucrats. The activists also called for the president to fire a host of unpopular officials. These include Vitaliy Malikov, head of anti-terrorist center at the SBU (Ukraine’s security service), National Guards commanders in Chernivtsy and Vinnitsa regions, as well as all “men of old system,” prosecutors in Odessa, Kharkiv, Zhitomir, Khmelnitskiy, Zaporozhye, and the Nikolayev regions of Ukraine. The president did not show up. Instead, two rows of policemen in shiny black helmets lined up to push the protesters with their burning tires away from the administration building.
There were plenty of reasons for Ukrainians to run out of patience. President Poroshenko’s pre-election promise “to wipe the country clean” of corruption now looked like a sad joke. While the majority of the population lives on less than $500 a month, Poroshenko grew richer by $100 million in the last couple years and is now worth about $858 million, according to Forbes. People believe that during the months when Ukrainian soldiers were dying on the Donbas front lines, the president was more concerned about his own welfare.
The Panama Papers investigation drew a lot of public attention on Poroshenko’s personal income. He not only owned shipping and automobile-building companies, a candy production empire (which he promised to sell before elections but did not), radio and television stations—it turned out that Poroshenko had also set up an offshore holding company in the British Virgin Islands to save millions of dollars on tax payments in Ukraine, a country badly suffering from economic crises and the war.
It’s also painful for Ukrainians to see the results of a Dutch referendum this week: around 61 percent voted against the EU’s association agreement with Ukraine. Even Poroshenko’s closest allies, former Euromaidan revolution leaders, were now criticizing the president, whose approval rating had dropped down to 17 percent since May, 2014, when the 48-year-old “chocolate king” won about 55 percent of the vote at the presidential elections.
The Dutch referendum result was “President Petro Poroshenko’s personal verdict,” parliamentary deputy Mustafa Nayem, once the president’s closest ally, wrote on Facebook this week. “For the president of this country, who, having all the authority, gave preference to the ‘elite’ and oligarchs and not the civil society, the new generation,” Nayem, who was the inspiration of the Euromaidan revolution, said in his post.
In Kiev and other Ukrainian cities protesters are determined to stay on the streets until they see real changes. In Odessa activists spent days by the pile of tires, ready to make a big fire, if Kiev did not dismiss the regional prosecutor Nikolai Stoyanov. More seriously, activists installed a gallows and hanged a big doll of the president in effigy in front of the newly appointed prosecutor’s office. “President Poroshenko’s reputation is spoilt, he allowed mafia, officials with both Ukrainian and Russian passports to run this place, so people lose their patience, their hope that he would ever manage to fight corruption,” Odessa city hall official Sasha Borovik told The Daily Beast on Monday. “The previous prosecutor, David Sarvarelidze, was pushing for wiping this place, he had everything ready to investigate one of the main corrupt figures in town, Sergei Kivalov, but the city’s corrupt lobby won and fired Sakvarelidze,” Borovik explained.
Protesters also gathered in the center of Kharkiv to call for the resignation of the regional prosecutor. In Zaporozhye, demonstrators tore Poroshenko’s portrait into pieces. Clashes between activists and police continued on Friday. The gallows installed by the protesters in front of the presidential administration collapsed and injured a photographer from Reuters. On the video published by Ukrainian Independent Information agency a woman protester can be heard screaming at the top of her lungs: “Betrayers! Betrayers!”
On Thursday night, somebody threw Molotov cocktails and burnt Judge Nikolai Didyk’s office. Dadyk was the judge on the case of captured Russian officers accused of fighting in the separatist war. At the recent hearing, Didyk’s court decided to invite five rebels from the Donbas region to testify in defense of the accused Russian servicemen, Alexander Alexadrov and Yevgeniy Yerofeyev. The court also expected to hear testimonies by two officers from the center controlling the ceasefire in Donbas.
The thought of rebel officers visiting Kiev is too much for radical activists. But a fair and transparent court hearing is especially important for the Ukrainian legal community now, after the violent murder of the Russian servicemen’s defense attorney.
Justice is in high demand in Ukraine. It’s time for Poroshenko to make popular decisions.