Kiev — (JTA) — Even in normal times, Kiev can feel like a city perpetually under construction. Potholes are “fixed” with flimsy coverings, ramshackle scaffolding clings precariously to the sides of buildings, and tangles of electric wires seem ever ready to combust.
But since the outbreak of anti-government protests in November, the sense of flux in the Ukrainian capital has been greater than ever. Two kinds of tents now dot the city center: Hundreds of khaki-colored bivouacs housing the revolutionaries whose protest movement led to the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych in February, and more recently erected campaign booths making bold promises of a brighter future ahead of Sunday’s presidential elections.
Politicians describe the vote, the first since a wave of civil unrest broke out in the capital in November, as the most crucial since Ukraine emerged as an independent country in 1991 following the breakup of the Soviet Union. But many disillusioned voters here seem to place more faith in the tired men and women inside the khaki tents — and their pledge to speak truth to power — than in any of the candidates featured in the election posters.
Marina Lysak, a Jewish activist who participated in the protest movement known as Maidan, after the central Kiev square where they took place, told JTA that the tent people are there to send a message to whomever prevails in the election.
“The statement is: ‘We are watching you. If you betray us again, we will not remain silent,’ ” Lysak said. Whoever wins on Sunday faces a herculean set of challenges. The first order of business will be dealing with pro-Russian separatist militias that now hold several cities in eastern Ukraine, where Russian speakers constitute a majority.
The new president also must address a looming economic crisis. Since November, the Ukrainian currency, the hryvna, has plummeted, losing 35 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar. Some analysts worry that the heavily indebted nation will soon default.
And then there’s the sensitive question of clearing encampments from the scorched earth of Maidan, where most tents are pitched on asphalt laid bare by demonstrators who pried the cobblestones loose to hurl them at government forces.
The leading candidate for these tasks is Petro Poroshenko, 48, an oligarch from Odessa and the head of a confectionary empire. Polls predict Poroshenko will take 30 percent of the vote in the first round of balloting.