KIEV, Ukraine -- Natalie Novikova sipped her coffee, a rare break for the struggling child psychologist who has taken a second job as a kindergarten teacher to support her family. “The money I make is enough to survive, but nothing more,” the 38-year-old single mother said while sitting at a cafe. “It’s really hard to devote some time to my children.”
Her story is emblematic of the state of Ukraine exactly one year after the revolution that toppled pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych began here. Beset by economic crisis and corruption while embroiled in a civil war, Ukraine may have changed governments but it’s still one of the poorest nations in Europe. Its gross domestic product per capita has actually fallen during the past year. Now it’s just $2,500 -- less than one-tenth of the European Union that sits next door, and less than one-third of Russia, according to data reported by the International Monetary Fund.
The Ukrainian hryvnia has lost 40 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar this year, dropped to a record low Wednesday, when defeated soldiers withdrew from the strategically important town of Debaltseve and the Ukrainian army’s fortunes in the east took a turn for the worse.
“People prefer to buy foreign currency at any price, because they do not believe that the authorities are able to stabilize the situation in the country,” a bank trader told Reuters Thursday.
Demonstrations, beginning in November 2013 and later blowing up into the revolution known as Euromaidan, were sparked by Yanukovych’s rejection of a trade deal with the European Union in favor of closer ties to Russia. The protests evolved to include demands to reform the country’s corrupt political system and economy.
The memorials at Independence Square in downtown Kiev, where more than 100 demonstrators were killed before Yanukovych fled, are some of the only signs remaining of the uprising. Many activists have moved on to parliament, where the fight against corruption is being waged -- unsuccessfully, for now.
“The corruption that we’ve been fighting is still in the air,” Novikova said. “It’s already been one year -- they are all asking, ‘What for [have] all those people died in February?’” The same system as before is still in place at many levels of society, she said.
One example: When children start kindergarten, parents either have to pay bribes or have personal connections, she said. Otherwise, they face lengthy waiting periods for their children to be accepted into schools.
Vladimir Karmaliyk, 60, also has first-hand experience with Ukraine’s corrupt system. A construction-industry entrepreneur, he said he has recently launched a company building apartments specially designed for refugees fleeing the war zones in the country’s eastern reaches.
Corruption has decreased since the revolution, he said, but added that in his industry one still has to pay a bribe at every step to get a permit. He blamed the country’s wealthy businessmen and their influence in parliament.
“The bills that are being [created] now, they are not that ... good because they are established for the needs of some oligarchs,” he said.
Meanwhile, corruption prospers in Ukraine’s bureaucracy. It is not limited to business practices, but seeps into daily routines.
Information-technology business owner Dima, who did not want his last name published, said it will take decades for the system to truly reform. Since the revolution, he said, only the image of the government has changed, but the corrupt civil servants who deal directly with citizens have kept their jobs. It’s something he sees when he has to get a passport, which requires a semiofficial company that charges more money than the law specifies. It’s also something he sees when he has to pay his taxes: The process can require more bribes when a business owner is asked to pay an obviously unaffordable amount, but is allowed to make the problem go away by paying off the right official.
“You are [a] criminal just the moment you start [a] business ... our laws are made for people in government to make money,” he said.
Natalie Jaresko, Ukraine’s U.S.-born finance minister, told International Business Times that a number of changes have been made, such as the creation of an anti-corruption bureau, while other reforms are under way. She would not estimate how long it would take for Ukraine to rid itself of such a high level of corruption. “My hope is that it moves as quickly as is humanly possible,” she said.
Parliament is currently considering judicial reform, and debating whether to make judges more transparent in their work and to restrict their immunity, as well as that of other officials.
“There is progress, but it’s not enough. Lots more has to be done to get rid of this post-Soviet, very corrupt system,” said Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of Ukraine’s Anticorruption Action Center.
A few high-profile activists during the revolutionary days won seats in parliament in the October parliamentary elections, but, according to Kaleniuk, most members of parliament elected last year are still part of the old system.
“You have to stop oligarchs and businessmen [from] investing into political projects,” she said. “Still, in the parliament, the majority ... is backed up by dirty money.”
Builder Karmaliyk agreed that many Ukrainian politicians are motivated by wealth. But he said he doesn’t think this will be tolerated for long if people do not see real change. “If there will be some massive cases of corruption, there will be [another] Euromaidan,” he said.
Meanwhile, the war in eastern Ukraine is making life worse for Ukrainians as it hits the economy, which is now smaller than it was in 2008.
Viktor Ostapenko, 43, a truck driver who transported products for a metal supplier and whose biggest clients were in Russia, lost his job because of the conflict with the Russian-backed separatists. Once the war began, the company lost its clients and shut down.
Now, he has barely enough food for himself and his three children. Even people with jobs suffer, he said, because prices have increased but salaries have not.
Ostapenko had hoped that the Euromaidan revolution would improve things. Now, he says another uprising could happen and that the conflict could spread further, deepening Ukraine’s crisis. “We are just looking for any way out,” he said. “It’s really hard.”