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Ukraine’s protest generation moves from barricades to parliament

October 24, 2014

When reporter Mustafa Nayem called a protest in Kiev against then-president Viktor Yanukovych’s rejection of a deal with Europe, he sparked a movement that would oust a government and plunge Ukraine into historic change.

A year, a revolution, foreign intervention, and an insurgency later, the former opposition journalist has gone from outsider to running on the ticket of Ukraine’s new pro-Western leadership in Sunday’s parliamentary polls.

Nayem, 33, is not the only one to have trod the path from protest to ballot box, and said he made up his mind after American bestselling author Francis Fukyuama told him an activist must be ready to “get his hands dirty” in order to achieve change.

Some 50 young activists, who once helped organise the rallies on Ukraine’s iconic Independence Square that toppled Yanukovych in February, now look likely to become elected lawmakers.

Also running for Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko’s party is Nayem’s colleague at the influential online publication Ukrainska Pravda, Sergiy Leshchenko, whose exposes on the corrupt excesses of Yanukovych fuelled the revolt against the former elite.

Now the ex-journalists want to join the political establishment to try to change it from the inside.

“I don’t know if we will be successful or not. But we have to try in order not to regret missing this chance,” the towering 34-year-old Leshchenko said. “There is an opportunity to change the system from the inside.”

Sunday’s snap election in Ukraine is seen as a key step in completing the historical rupture with the past that started with the barricades and bloodshed of Kiev’s protests.

Polls show that pro-Western and nationalist candidates look set to win big as the ex-Soviet state cements its shift towards Europe and away from Russia, blamed for fuelling a bloody separatist uprising in the industrial east.

“There is a strong demand by society for renewing the political elites and lawmakers,” a club dominated by business clans, political analyst Taras Berezovets told AFP.

– ‘Breath of fresh air’ –

For the activists and ex-journalists, the decision to enter into the minefield of Ukrainian politics — long tainted by a reputation for rampant graft and self-enrichment — was not an easy one.

Nayem, Leshchenko and their running mate Svitlana Zalishchuk, 32, a prominent activist and Leshchenko’s partner, said they spoke to several parties, but finally chose the president’s.

The official announcement was made at a Poroshenko Bloc conference in mid-September where they showed up in T-shirts emblazoned with “Fuck corruption” slogans.

Even then the decision sparked an avalanche of criticism that they had sold out to those who had come to power.

The trio counters that they opted for one of the mainstream parties because the warp speed of recent events in Ukraine left them scrambling to catch up.

“Ideally we should have founded a political party,” said Zalishchuk. “But we didn’t have time.”

In addition, building a campaign from scratch would cost at least $10 million, a prohibitive sum for any activist, she said.

Having dealt with the hurdles of Ukrainian politics, they say their key priorities in parliament would be to make it more accessible: lowering the current five percent barrier for party representation, banning expensive political ads on television, and throwing parliament’s doors open to the public.

“This new group of politicians will be very useful for the renewal of the legislature,” said Kiev-based political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko.

“They are going there with specific initiatives and will bring a breath of fresh air to parliament, especially concerning transparency.”

But seeing some of the fiercest government critics attempt to join the establishment has left others worried about where scrutiny will come from in future.

With the ranks of her best journalists depleted by the political campaign, Ukrainska Pravda’s editor-in-chief announced Thursday that she was passing on her post.

“I am sorry that they chose politics,” wrote outgoing Olena Pritula.

“I hope it is not in vain, that instead of talented journalists the country will have lawmakers that are no less sharp.”

She promised though that seeing former allies enter politics would not stifle criticism from Ukraine’s one-time activists.

“No regime can put us in its pocket, we promise,” she wrote.

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.