LVIV, Ukraine (Reuters) – In a cemetery in western Ukraine, a tall, gray-haired man lights candles and kisses the tombstone of 35-year-old brother Taras, whose death he said has changed his mind about who he should win this month's presidential election.
The graves of members of the Ukrainian army Yuriy Holub, 22, (L) and Nazar Paselsky, 21, killed in the east, are seen in an 18th century Lychakiv cemetery in Lviv, Ukraine, on the 13th. March 2019. REUTERS / Gleb Garanich
Taras, a medical volunteer, was killed in 2015 saving wounded soldiers near Debaltseve during the five-year government conflict in eastern Ukraine against the Kremlin-backed rebels, his brother Ihor Konchevych said.
He died of a free and independent Ukraine, something their grandparents could only dream of in Soviet times, he said, and President Petro Poroshenko is the best candidate to keep him on that road, even if he didn't end the war as he had promised.
"In 2014, I didn't vote for him," said Ihor, a dermatologist whose nephew and teenage niece is now without a father. "Now (I will) for a reason: it is pro-Ukraine, Russia does not support it".
Such support could help Poroshenko, who has consistently followed opinion polls, to round up the second round and potentially win a second term.
He suggests that at least in western Ukraine, where the Poroshenko polls remain relatively robust, his opposition to Russia and the defense of the army, the church and closer ties with Europe and the United States are crossing.
It also suggests that some people are willing to swallow whatever disappointment they may feel for their inability to end the war, raise living standards or tackle corruption in depth, because they see it as better than alternatives.
The stakes in the elections are the leadership of a country at the forefront of Western confrontation with Russia, five years after Maidan's street protests overthrew Poroshenko's predecessor, Russia-friendly Viktor Yanukovich and the annexation Russian Republic of Crimea.
It is a country that still fights a conflict in the eastern Donbass region that killed 13,000 people despite a fictitious ceasefire, a shrunken state backed by Western aid and sanctions against Moscow.
The elections were reduced to a three-horse race between pastry magnate Poroshenko, comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, with Poroshenko second and Zelenskiy who extended his lead thanks to his fresh face and strong anti-corruption message.
HEART OF MAIDAN
It is perhaps not surprising that Poroshenko's pro-Western messages resonate with Lviv, a picturesque city of cobbled streets and the charm of Central Europe that was under the Austrian empire until the First World War and is geographically closer to the countries of the European Union than to Kiev.
The region was a driving force for subsequent revolutions, including the 2014 Maidan protests: according to Reuters calculations, about 50 of the more than 100 protesters killed during the Maidan protests were Westerners, 19 of whom came from the Lviv region alone .
The city is heavily Ukrainian speaking compared to the eastern Russian-speaking regions. A poll by the SOCIS pollster suggests that Western voters are more concerned with the war and less with, for example, the increase in public service tariffs than the Ukrainian average.
The brother of Lesya Senyk, a 51-year-old director of a kindergarten, was one of those killed on Maidan, a protest sparked by Yanukovich's decision to deny the signing of a political and commercial agreement with the EU after pressure from Moscow.
The sacrifice of his brother, he said, means that the Ukraine has become an adequate state with a stronger army and aspirations to join the European Union.
Senyk did not vote for Poroshenko in 2014, but he will do so now. "I don't know who else could have saved the state in those difficult times, after the Maidan and during the war," he said. "Maybe it's not perfect. But we're not saints."
NO COUNTRY FOR CLOWN
Poroshenko won an emphatic victory in the 2014 elections, but his popularity has dropped dramatically.
It can boast successes: it has secured visa-free trips for Ukrainians in the EU. There have been reforms and the government has remained in a rescue program of the International Monetary Fund: an assurance to investors.
Poroshenko successfully pushed for Ukraine to establish a national Orthodox church, independent of Russia. Even if he did not win the war, he did not lose it and increased defense costs up to 5% of the gross domestic product from 3% under Yanukovych. A Poroshenko victory is the worst case scenario for Russia, which is an advantage in the eyes of some voters.
But he was forced to apologize for his commitment to win the war in a few weeks, and that's not enough for some.
The parents of 22-year-old Yuriy Holub, killed in eastern Ukraine in 2014, will not vote for him.
"He promised, promised," said Holub Hryhoriy's father, who is blind. "Why did you promise me if you weren't sure you could keep your promise? If he were an honest man, he would go of his own accord."
His wife Hanna, who keeps photos of his son near his face due to his failed sight, also said that Poroshenko has disappointed. "First he said it would all be over in two weeks … But such a heavy bombing happened and our baby was killed," he said in a trembling voice. "There is no trust now."
Their son is buried in the 18th century Lychakiv cemetery in Lviv, along with about 70 others killed in the east.
Nazar Paselsky lies buried in a tomb near Holub. Paselsky was killed by bombing, aged 21, in the Luhansk region in August 2014. His mother Hanna and father Mykola adopted a boy after Nazar's death. The photos of Nazar, his diploma and his courageous award are displayed at the top of their toilet.
Hanna voted for Poroshenko last time "because he promised that everything will be finished in three days. I wanted my son to come home alive." Now he does not trust any candidate to guarantee a future for his adopted child of a year, but thinks he could end up voting for Poroshenko in the second round.
Twelve years younger than Poroshenko, Zelenskiy took advantage of the disillusionment with the progress of Ukraine by Maidan and the desire for new faces in politics.
But some people, like Hryhoriy Zhalovaga, whose son Anatoliy died in Maidan, said that a strong army was needed, not an entertainer without political experience. Quoting another student during a commemoration ceremony for Maidan victims in the school in which his son attended, he said: "Those who will vote for Zelenskiy, what do they want, a country of clowns?"
The Lviv analyst, Oleg Gryniv, said that such views mean that Poroshenko will probably have a majority in western areas like Galicia, which contains Lviv, citing the example of the first post-Soviet Ukrainian president Leonid Kravchuk.
"When he traveled through the eastern regions, they asked him about the price of stockings, if gas prices would be lowered," he said. "And when he arrived in Galicia, there was only one question: if the state would have been kept intact".
Additional notification Sergiy Karazy; written by Matthias Williams; editing by Philippa Fletcher