By Lili Bayer
I arrived in Kiev on a Sunday afternoon, six months after my previous visit. I was last in Kiev days before the signing of the Sept. 5 Minsk agreement, at a time when the mood in the city was tense but when everyday life, with some exceptions, went on as usual. This time, however, I began seeing signs of the conflict in the east less than an hour after landing. I walked to one of the bank branches in the airport — a Sberbank branch — only to be told that they had no local currency. I was assured that this was merely a temporary problem, but as I headed into the city center by taxi, moving quickly through the largely empty streets, conversation with the driver turned to the currency crisis. The previous week, Ukraine’s currency, the hryvnia, had fallen to record lows. The driver, a middle-aged man — who like everyone else I would meet in the city, was completely willing to speak in Russian — described a dramatic rise in prices, even for basic goods like bread and milk.
Still mulling the taxi driver's concerns, I arrived at Maidan Square and started walking up the steep hill on Institutska Street, passing flower-filled memorials to the victims of the Maidan protests and of the conflict in the east. A small picture of Boris Nemtsov, the Russian opposition leader shot in Moscow a few days earlier, was placed on top of one particularly large stack of flowers.
I hurried onward and arrived at Institutska Street number nine, the headquarters of the National Bank of Ukraine. In front of the early 20th century building that was originally built by Russian imperial officials, I entered a small protest camp. A few dozen people, mostly seniors, huddled near a small fire and around a table loaded with food. A few days earlier, the police had tried to disperse the protesters, though the Interior Ministry later apologized for the incident and fired a local police chief in response. Now, the policemen standing near the protest camp seemed to be on relatively friendly terms with the protesters — one even helped himself to a warm drink from the protesters' table.
The activists called themselves the "Financial Maidan" and demanded, among other things, the resignation of the head of the national bank, Valeria Gontareva. Their main concern was the government's perceived inability to ensure the stability of the country's currency. But when I brought up the group in later conversations with locals, some said that they could be paid protesters, funded by political factions opposed to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Gontareva, his appointee. However, with the currency weakening for the past year and falling in value dramatically over the past weeks, it wasn't inconceivable that a significant number of the activists at the national bank were there because of genuine concern. In fact, those I met appeared to be pensioners, who were seeing the real value of their already small retirement funds decreasing.
Soldiers and Volunteers
Meanwhile, in Maidan Square and along the fashionable Khreshchatyk Street, everywhere I turned I could spot soldiers in full uniform. This was in stark contrast to my previous visit, when soldiers were a rare sight in central Kiev. New rounds of mobilization, however, have made the war in the east more visible in the streets of Kiev. In Maidan Square and in underground metro passages, soldiers carrying collection boxes were asking passersby for donations for the war effort. The crowds, however, mostly ignored them.
But Ukrainian soldiers were not the only ones in camouflage collecting funds in central Kiev. I regularly saw volunteer Donbas Battalion members in Maidan Square. One afternoon, representatives from the Right Sector group — one of them wearing a balaclava to conceal his identity — set up a table in the square. Next to them, members of the controversial Aidar volunteer battalion were collecting money for their group. Notably, a day after Ukraine's government declared that it had dissolved Aidar and was integrating the battalion into the regular army structure, there was still a collection box for Aidar in Maidan, highlighting the government's inability to assert full control over the volunteer battalions' activities — even in Kiev. This inability is reflected in the fears of locals as well as passing observers in Kiev who worry that volunteer battalions engaged in fighting alongside the military in the east are accumulating weapons that they will not easily give up in the future. In fact, the government's March 2 decision to disband the Aidar battalion came after several former Aidar members were arrested for allegedly planning to bring weapons to the capital.
The Kremlin wants to weaken the government in Kiev and the Ukrainian state as a whole because a weak and divided Ukraine is less likely to successfully integrate with Western political and defense blocs. A weak Ukrainian government would also give the Kremlin an opportunity to regain some influence over decision-making in Kiev, though Ukrainian society, even in eastern Ukraine and in cities such as in Odessa, has become much less receptive to pro-Russian groups recently. In Kiev, the currency crisis is of great concern to residents, and the war in the east has become a visible part of everyday life in the capital. Far-right parties were not successful in the past elections, but the government's efforts to integrate far-right volunteer battalions into the military command chain will be a key test of the Kiev government's strength. While everyday life goes on in Kiev, the country's multiple crises are becoming harder to ignore in the capital.