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Ukraine's long, cold winter: Rising prices, escalating violence and Putin

By Oleksandr Gavrylyuk
1/15
Ukrainian singer Karina Plai, right, with her mother, Liudmyla 
 Smotrytska, 73. Plai has returned to Lviv to care for her sick mother, a mission complicated by rising costs for transportation and medicine, as well as increasing violence. Photo courtesy Karina Plai
Ukrainian singer Karina Plai, right, with her mother, Liudmyla Smotrytska, 73. Plai has returned to Lviv to care for her sick mother, a mission complicated by rising costs for transportation and medicine, as well as increasing violence. Photo courtesy Karina Plai

KIEV, Ukraine, Jan. 23 (UPI) -- For the outside world looking in, the conflict in Ukraine is about big picture issues: energy markets, the economy and fear of aggression from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But for the 46 million residents of the nation sandwiched between Russia and the European Union, increasing violence punctuates daily hardship.

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Rolling blackouts, limited heat and hot water in winter's coldest months, increasing fares for public transportation and rising medical costs add to the struggles of average Ukrainians. Retail prices are up, with wages stagnant and jobs harder to come by.

Ukraine's recent troubles, sparked in March 2014 by Russia's annexation of Crimea, ended 20 years of post-Cold War peace.

"In 2014, we have, for the first time in many years, recalled our parents' toasting their post- Second World War peaceful life as the human being's consummate happiness," says Liudmyla Smotrytska, 73.

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Born in Russia, Smotrytska has been living in Lviv, the largest city of western Ukraine, since the end of World War II.

Depicted by the Russian TV propaganda as the center of the "Ukrainian neo-Nazism," Lviv has given refuge to many Crimean Tatars, who fled after Russia moved in.

Later, as fighting in Ukraine's eastern regions has intensified, more Russian-speaking Ukrainians, whom Moscow was intending to protect, have fled their destroyed homes to seek shelter in safer places, such as the Ukrainian-speaking Lviv.

"Many people scared by the escalating violence in the eastern regions have been seeing Lviv as a serene harbor, but the situation seems to be deteriorating even here, in Ukraine's west," Smotrytska said.

The home of Lviv's mayor, Andriy Sadovyi, has been attacked twice. No one was injured.

On Thursday, Ukrainian troops withdrew from Donetsk airport's main terminal after fighting killed six soldiers and injured 16.

Earlier in the week, Donetsk hospital was struck. At least nine civilians died when artillery shells struck a bus.

Ukraine claims 9,000 regulars of the Russian army are involved in the fight against the Ukrainian army, which Russia denies.

Occupation by Russian troops was a top concern in the southeast regions, according to a December survey by the Kiev-based International Institute of Sociology. As many as 76.9 percent of respondents in the Kherson region, which borders Crimea, and 41.3 percent in the Zaporizhzhya region next to Donetsk, named that as their biggest worry.

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The economic consequences of the conflict bring concern too, especially the surge in retail prices, with 64.8 percent of those surveyed citing it as their top concern, and 39.1 percent citing higher utility bills.

Since its independence in 1991, the economic situation in Ukraine has been far from rosy. The economic structure based on the steel, chemicals and grain exports (up to 70 percent of the GDP) was good enough to fill the pockets of the ruling class of old Soviet bureaucrats and the nouveau riches for a time.

However, the wear of capital assets increased from around 44 percent in 2000 to over 77 percent in 2013, according to official statistics.

In 2014, with the Russian annexation of Crimea and its intrusion into Donbas, Ukraine found itself in dire straits. According to the country's energy ministry, it lost a quarter of its anthracite reserves critically necessarily for the smooth operation of seven out of the country's 14 large heat power plants. As a result, rolling blackouts have become a common practice.

Heavily dependent on the natural gas imports from Russia, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said officials are considering raising household gas prices dramatically this year.

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Vitali Klitcshko, the former boxing heavyweight world champion who is now mayor of Kiev, increased utility rates and cut off the hot water supply for several weeks after assuming office in 2014. The heating season started with a two-week delay.

This year, his administration plans to double the subway fare, as well as significantly increase other public transportation costs.

"Last night, I went for medicines for my mom and was shocked by new prices for both the drugs and gasoline," says Smotrytska's daughter, Karina Plai, the Ukrainian singer and songwriter, who has come back from Kiev to care for her sick mother and found herself wrapped up in the problems of an average Ukrainian.

Plai's 22-year-old son, Artem Burkatsky, whose fellow students took active part in the protests that brought down the government of Viktor Yanukovych, said his generation is anxious for change.

"Ukraine's entire Soviet-style, declaratively free social security system has long become outdated and needs to be dramatically reformed," he said.

Klitschko, one of the dominant figures of the protests, acknowledged the slow pace of reform in a recent TV interview.

"We were much braver on the Maidan than are now in carrying out the declared reforms. The society's expectations are much higher than the [authorities'] actions," he said.

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Students like Burkatsky are having a hard time finding work – as are highly skilled and experienced professionals. Many college graduates are working as bartenders and shop assistants.

"Many employers prefer just to close their businesses and wait for better times," Burkatsky said.

But some aren't waiting around to see how the Russian aggression plays out against Ukraine's independence.

"It is frightful, when people lose hope; they just have got nothing to live for and leave the country," Plai says. "Since the Russian aggression, a good half of my friends have left Ukraine."

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