Ukraine: Europe, I Lviv You

Article published on Sept. 29, 2014
Article published on Sept. 29, 2014

Eastern Ukraine has been shaken by an escalation in violence outside the European Union’s control. Hoping to reinforce local authority while preventing a national split, officials in Kiev are discussing the country’s decentralisation. Within this context, a city continues to sustain the spirit of change. A report. 

Located 1,800 kilometres from Paris, Lviv has become a symbol of the dissent movement Euromaidan and Ukrainian aspirations to turn the page on oligarchy and corruption. As evidenced by the city’s architecture, Polish and Austro-Hungarian influences allow inhabitants to identify with central European history and culture. Inhabitants and their locally-elected officials are turning this avant-garde city, above all, into a European Ukraine. 

In November 2013, the Euromaidan movement began after Ukrainian authorities then in power refused to sign a partnership agreement with the European Union. After months of violent clashes, the fall of President Yanukovich and anticipated presidential elections, Ukraine finally signed the agreement, and sacrificed its territorial integrity in the process. 

For love of the starry flag

Lviv has, in effect, played a major role within the Euromaidan movement thanks notably to its mayor, Andriy Sadovyi. Since the conflict’s beginning, he has maintained that force should not be used against protesters. As a result, inhabitants have been able to travel to Kiev to topple the regime. Photos of those who didn’t return alive are being exhibited in the city and their tombs are the cemetery’s most decorated. The mayor engages soldiers’ families by speaking to the government about their children’s return; certain individuals haven’t left the front since March. 

Andriy Sadovyi and his administration don’t hide their beliefs: European flags are everywhere in the city - in front of official buildings, balconies and shops, all the way to car windows and buses. They remind passerby that Ukrainians have fought and continue to fight for European values. The flags are a strong symbol reminiscent of the time when, in France, FN villages draped European flags on their town halls’ pediments. 

Terraces and tango dancers 

When the summer weather is pleasant, inhabitants of Lviv take advantage, congregating on terraces to watch tango dancers. Tourists arrive from Poland, Germany and even South Korea, and are greeted warmly by the city’s central European atmosphere. Numerous television screens, though, quickly remind these same tourists that the country is at war. Only a Ukrainian flag, a label of authenticity, distinguishes Russian channels such as Rossiya at RT, equally broadcast in Ukraine. All year, images of soldiers wearing yellow and blue armbands and shooting on separatist barrages stand in contrast to those in which Ukrainian soldiers are disarmed by pro-Russian civilians. Public service announcements from the Ministry of Defense call citizens to action.

In Lviv, many volunteers are joining battalions at the front. They are young, badly equipped and barely trained. At the call of “Everyone left!,” about half of the battalion turns. Playing with his own grenade out of boredom, a young soldier almost detonated himself, according to Michal Kacewicz, a Polish journalist. But they are motivated, and certain ones are only waiting for the Eastern separatists’ surrender in order to race toward Crimea.

“First we will liberate the east, and after that we’ll see” 

At a city square, members of the Varta1 Association are collecting funds to support troops stationed in the East. One activist, sitting in front of a military tent that serves as the association’s repository, explains that volunteers needs food and water. When asked if Crimean liberation is foreseeable, he responds: “Everything in its time; first, we liberate the East, and then we will see.” His voice betrays his pessimism.

To protest Russian intervention in the country’s east, two large Ukrainian flags have been hung on the Russian Federation’s consulate gates. An image of diplomatic relations between Russia and the European Union, the consulate seems deserted, except for two custodians in shorts talking to the policeman on duty. 

The European Union isn’t paying 

Lviv is paying a large price for its infatuation with the European Union. Despite its distance from the front, the mayor’s house was recently targeted by an anti-tank rocket. Luckily, the area suffered only material damage. False bomb alerts are regularly launched (41 since January), mobilising police forces and paralysing the threatened zones, most often the railroad station. Calls for alerts come from the country’s East. Finally, the arrival of numerous refugees from insurgent zones makes authorities fear infiltration of saboteurs who aim to destabilise regions not yet visited by violence.

Like other Ukrainian cities and regions, Lviv chose to pursue European Unionisation and its corresponding demands. Pro-Russian separatists obtained Russia’s support to engage in conflict against the Ukrainian government; this is why pro-European cities and regions hoping to develop democratically and economically must employ a maximum of European integration mechanisms to do so. Constructive responses to arms shipments from Russia include decentralized cooperation, a decrease in border commodity taxes and access of civil society and local authorities to European programmes. In order to respond to Ukrainians’ want for change, the European Union must sustain Ukraine in its reconstruction and reform phases. The city of Lviv seems like the perfect platform for European integration in the country.

By Olivier Baumard and Charles Gomi, in Lviv.