“I want Ukraine to be independent,” Mykola Mykytenko wrote on Instagram, hours before setting herself on fire in central Maidan square in Kiev.
The 49-year-old died on October 14, three days after his extreme protest in the heart of the nation’s capital, where months of massive anti-government protests took place in late 2013 and early 2014.
His daughter Yulia told reporters at a memorial event shortly after his death that he was demonstrating against Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
Mykytenko, a veteran of the military conflict against Russian-backed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, which has claimed more than 13,000 lives since it began almost six years ago, was frustrated with his leader’s policies towards Moscow, she said.
“He did this at night because he didn’t want other people to be hurt,” she said. “Plus, he didn’t want anyone to stop him.
Running on an anti-corruption ticket and promising to curb the power of the oligarchs, Zelenskiy, a political novice who played a president in a television series, has vowed to end the conflict in the East with Russia and improve the relations with Moscow before defeating the outgoing president. Petro Poroshenko in April 2019.
But the former comedian’s popularity has waned since taking charge of the country, which stands at the forefront of the West’s stalemate with Russia as he struggled to manage the coronavirus pandemic and revive its struggling economy.
His approval rating was 46% in a national poll conducted by the well-respected think tank Rating Group earlier this month, while 51% said they didn’t trust him. However, it was higher than that of many of its rivals.
Opponents in the country of 42 million people, in which a significant minority of the population uses Russian as their first language especially in cities and the industrialized east of the east, accused it of leaning too close to the West.
Others accused Zelenskiy, hospitalized for Covid-19 earlier this month, of favoring Moscow.
“Winners always lose electoral support during the first year in power in Ukraine,” said Volodymyr Paniotto, director general of the Kyiv International Sociological Institute. He added that people had returned to traditional parties, which had mobilized their resources against Zelenskiy.
This was demonstrated when the pro-Kremlin opposition party for life – co-chaired by Viktor Medvedchuk, a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin – made a strong demonstration in local elections last month.
“They sense his inexperience and use it against him,” said Oleksandr Danylyuk, former head of Ukraine’s national security.
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Outrage over an October 28 ruling by Ukraine’s Constitutional Court also dented Zelenskiy’s popularity both at home and abroad.
Eleven of 15 judges have struck down a mandatory property register for civil servants and removed some of the most essential powers of the Key National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption, or NAZK, which has lost the right to verify the accuracy of information in the statements of officials, as well as to carry out inspections in state agencies. Free public access to statements by officials has also been made illegal.
The ruling also said it was illegal to hold officials criminally responsible for false information in their asset declarations.
Activists claimed the decision was part of a systematic attempt by the court to dismantle anti-corruption institutions and pointed to the fact that the lawsuit was brought by 47 pro-Russian lawmakers, including Medvedchuk.
Questioning the decision a day after the decision, Zelenskiy said Ukraine would lose World Bank support, leaving “a big hole in the budget.”
On the same day, the European Union echoed his request. In a statement, he said the court ruling called into question “a number of international commitments Ukraine has made to its international partners, including the EU”
Zelenskiy responded by introducing a bill overturning the decision, sacking Constitutional Court judges and appointing new ones. But this was rejected by his fellow lawmakers, including several members of his ruling People’s Servant party. Some accused him of a takeover.
Instead, another bill that would restore the rules overturned by the court was submitted. It remains to be debated.
Zelenskiy has also been criticized for his lack of progress with Russia, although he was able to strike a deal for troops to withdraw from key frontline areas in eastern Ukraine in October 2019 and that he obtained prisoner exchanges in September and December 2019.
Hailing it as a success, he told NBC News last month that some of his rivals had claimed the withdrawal would encourage attacks by Russian-backed forces. “Instead, there is a ceasefire going on,” he said.
However, sporadic exchanges of fire continue along the 250-mile front line and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe reports that there have been nearly 14,000 ceasefire violations between July and September 2020. Three civilians were killed, according to the statement.
For some like Dmytro Filimonenko, 25, an IT specialist from Kiev, Zelenskiy is making progress, albeit slowly.
“I voted for Zelenskiy because I expected rapid changes,” he said. “He wants to do this. However, in a year, I understand that one person cannot change everything. “
But for the veterans, some of whom attempted to physically prevent Ukrainian troops from leaving the front line, the withdrawal was seen as an act of surrender.
Mykytenko gave up his life because of this issue.
“He wanted to be heard,” his daughter Yuliya said.