KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — The last time the Poklonovs visited Kiev, it was the capital of a drastically different country: Ukrainians summered on the lush Black Sea Crimean Peninsula, now annexed by Russia; Ukrainian flags, not Russian ones, fluttered from government buildings occupied today by pro-Kremlin insurgents in the east; the economy was vulnerable but not on the verge of collapse.
But as the 35-year-old IT specialists from southern Ukraine strolled through downtown Kiev, they had high hopes for their country's future, saying that integration with the West will speed up because of the February ouster of a pro-Russian government.
"We want to believe that Ukraine will become a European country," said Yevhenia Poklonova, holding her 8-year-old daughter Sofia by the hand.
Despite the threat of war with Russia, fears about losing more territory and grim economic times ahead, Ukraine appears resolved and hopeful for the future. Since President Viktor Yanukovych was toppled after three months of protests on Kiev's Independence square, known as the Maidan, the number of Ukrainians who feel their country is moving in the right direction rose from 18 to 34 percent, while the number of those who are pessimistic about the country's course fell from 64 to 48 percent, according to an April poll conducted by the International Republican Institute and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Ukraine's voters had been closely divided in previous polls on whether they would rather join the European Union or the Moscow-led Customs Union, an economic alliance. The new poll found a strong shift toward the EU, with 53 percent now saying they prefer the EU and just 24 percent choosing the Customs Union. Support for the Cabinet of Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the Maidan leader-turned-prime minister, rose from 46 to 52 percent, while disapproval fell from 44 to 40 percent. The nationwide poll had 1,200 respondents and a margin of error of 2.8 percentage points.
Andriy Poklonov, the IT specialist touring Kiev with his family, believes Russian President Vladimir Putin gave Ukrainians a new sense of purpose.
"The enemy has done a better job uniting us than all the language issues," said Poklonov, referring to historical divisions in Ukraine between Ukrainian and Russian speakers. "Our idea is Ukraine. We stand for freedom, for liberty, for unity."
After Yanukovych fled to Russia following the killing of more than 100 activists in clashes with police, the Kremlin swallowed up Crimea and placed tens of thousands of troops near the Ukrainian border — while pro-Russian insurgents seized more than a dozen government buildings in the east in a push to seek greater autonomy from Kiev or outright annexation by Russia.
Ukraine's new government has been less forceful. It has launched some essential economic and anti-corruption reforms, but has struggled to find an adequate response to Russia's incursion and the unrest in the east. It put up little resistance in Crimea, issued conflicting statements and carried out indecisive, often botched security operations.
But Yatsenyuk and his government still enjoy a high level of support.
"I don't envy them because what they are doing is crisis management that you cannot even imagine," said writer Larysa Denysenko.
Denysenko likened the crisis to painful, but necessary medical treatment that will leave Ukraine stronger in the end: "We are like a cancer patient who has agreed to surgery and must now undergo chemotherapy," she said.
Some Ukrainians believe they are fighting a delayed struggle for their country's independence. After centuries of dominance by Russia, Ukraine became an independent nation with relative ease in 1991, as the Soviet Union was crumbling and Russia itself was too weak to object. Twenty-three years later, a stronger Kremlin is now fighting to maintain dominance over its smaller neighbor.
"Freedom must be earned with blood," said Viktor, a 70-year-old dermatologist, who refused to give his last name, fearing reprisals at his job. "In order to become a free person, you must earn this freedom. Nobody will serve it to you on a silver platter. You must fight for it."
Still, some disillusionment is emerging among Maidan supporters.
Distrusting the new leadership, hundreds of activists continue to occupy the Maidan tent camp and some nearby buildings in the center of Kiev, saying the government has yet to deliver on promises of reform, such as a pledge to prevent corrupt officials from holding office and to punish those guilty of killing protesters.
"People have died, but in reality nothing has been done about it," said Oleh, a member of the radical group the Right Sector, who occupies Kiev's central postal office near the Maidan camp with about two dozen fellow activists. "Nobody has been punished, nothing has been done." He declined to give his last name for fear of reprisals.
Opponents of Maidan are also expressing discontent. Ksenia Zubakova, 34, who teaches museum management in Kiev, says she didn't support the movement, objecting to the violence against police and nationalist rhetoric of some protesters.
Now she says that, without Maidan, Crimea would still be part of Ukraine and the east would not have revolted.
"I was born in a country where Crimea was ours, I've been going there since I was 5. For me it's insane that Crimea is Russia," Zubakova said. "The loss of human life and of territory is the worst that can happen to a country."
Volodymyr Paniotto, head of the Kiev International Sociology Institute, said that such views represent a minority in central and western regions, where residents have historically tilted more toward Europe and support for the protests was strong: "My feeling is that most still trust the government and are ready to give it time," said Paniotto.
And hope remains strong among Maidan's true believers.
Several months ago, Natalia Snihur and her husband Yegor Kornev, both 35, were contemplating emigrating from Ukraine to secure a better life for their three children. After taking an active part in the Maidan protests, they are now planning their future here.
Recently, they attached the Ukrainian yellow-and-blue flag to their one-story house.
"Ukraine is being born, it is in labor now," said Snihur. "It is giving birth to a nation that will have a conscious national identity."