Summer in Lviv
Monday, 30 July 2012 16:21

SUMMER is in full swing in Lviv, a city that is a faded gem in western Ukraine. Some locals have retreated from the city to their dachas. Old men play chess on the shaded promenade while couples stroll along. The Mitteleuropa coffeehouses overflow with tourists. (One café is inspired by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who hails from Habsburg Lviv). Just two hours’ drive from the Polish border, the city is far from the politics of Kyiv. It is the self-proclaimed cultural capital of Ukraine.

Lviv is still coming to terms with life after Euro 2012, the football championship co-hosted by Ukraine and Poland in June. The new airport terminal is spookily empty. Polish tourists have long come to Lviv in search of prewar Lwów (on Polish territory) and a night at the magnificent opera house. Now new budget flights might make Lviv another Kraków or Riga, beloved by Brits on stag nights.

For Lviv’s citizens, a cost-benefit analysis of the championship their country hosted is not enough. For some it was a colossal expense, for others a wasted opportunity. Yet in spite of all the practical setbacks and negative publicity its smooth running has boosted Ukraine’s confidence, most visibly in Lviv. The ruling Party of Regions hopes to use it to score goals in the October parliamentary elections.

Ukraine’s language law, which was rushed through parliament earlier this month was not popular in this “most Ukrainian city”. The bill would make Russian an official regional language in predominantly Russian-speaking areas in the industrialised east and southern regions such as Crimea where Russia's Black Sea fleet is based. In Lviv Russian would not qualify for the status of official regional language (it needs to be spoken by 10% of the local population) but Lviv’s citizens opposed it anyway. In the city centre, the mouths of six statues of famous Ukrainians were taped over in symbolic protest. Yaroslav Hrytsak, a well-known historian from Lviv, says the law encourages Yugoslavia-style confrontation. Politicians' manipulation of regional differences has brought Ukraine to the “brink of civil war”.

Under the statue of Taras Shevchenko, a national poet, a “Fanzone of the Ukrainian Language” straggles on, serving as a base for the united opposition. A young activist urges our correspondent to sign a “Ukraine against Yanukovych” petition, which has collected over eighty thousand signatures.

On July 30th, the election campaign kicks off. In recent years, Western commentators have raised their eyebrows at the emergence of an extreme-right, nationalist party called Svoboda (Freedom), which has its stronghold in western Ukraine. It has held a majority in Lviv city council since 2010. Yet it is unlikely to cross the 5% parliamentary threshold, and may indeed be part of the ruling party’s “divide and rule” tactics. The big question is whether the October elections will be democratic. But whatever the outcome, Lvivians will continue to play chess outside, serve black coffee, and speak Ukrainian anyway. 

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