MOSCOW — Pro-western hipsters flocked to Ukraine's Maidan Square two years ago to cheer the popular uprising that ousted Russian ally Viktor Yanukovych.
This week's killing of investigative journalist Pavel Sheremet, who was blown up in a car half-a-mile from the famous protest site, is a reminder how much of that optimism has been lost.
Instead of becoming a market-driven democracy with respect for the rule of law, Ukraine is feared by many to have descended instead into corruption, violence and political chaos.
The rumbling conflict with Russian-backed separatists in the country's east, and the annexation of Crimea, only heighten the sense that Ukraine has lost its way.
"What's happening in the country is a catastrophe,” ran a typical comment on social media after Wednesday;s explosion. "There are enough reasons for a third Maidan [revolution].”
The economy is in a downward spiral, leadership is constantly changing and hit jobs are back in the news — such as in April, when pro-Russian journalist Oles Busina was shot dead in Kiev. President Petro Poroshenko's approval rating stood at 17 percent in April, according to Rating Group pollster.
However, experts approached by NBC News said that Wednesday's car explosion was alarming but not yet an indication that Ukraine’s experiment with democracy is a failure.
“Reforms are proceeding, if slowly,” said Andreas Umland, a German research fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kiev.
“The expectations in 2014 were much higher. Now it is clear that these things would take longer than people hoped,” he said.
The State Department said the FBI will be aiding the investigation into Sheremet's murder.
Police said they were pursuing several lines of investigation, including a personal conflict or even a Russian attempt at destabilizing Ukraine.
However, analysts unanimously said the 44-year-old's work as an investigative journalist was the most likely reason behind the killing.
He may not even have been the intended target - the car he was driving belonged to Olena Pritula, his civil partner and the owner of Ukrainskaya Pravda, a respected publication with a flair for corruption exposés.
Sheremet was an expert on corruption, though he avoided direct clashes with political figures according to Vladimir Fesenko, head of the non-profit, Kiev-based think-tank, Penta.
Over the course of his career, he managed to antagonize no fewer than three post-Soviet Ukrainian autocrats. His journalism forced him to leave his native Belarus for Russia, where he worked until 2008 before moving to Ukraine.
“He was a born journalist...and grew to be a true patriot of Ukraine,” said Fesenko, who knew Sheremet.
Revolutions are no cakewalks
Sheremet had been inspired by Ukraine, which staged two revolutions since 2004, both times denying power to Yanukovych who had become detested for cronyism, alleged corruption and a pro-Russian position.
The Maidan revolutions brought hope that Ukraine would do away with the culture of graft and the dominance of wealthy oligarchs.
But what Ukraine got instead was war. Within one month of Yanukovych's ouster, Russia annexed Crimea peninsula then endorsed, and allegedly supported. a pro-Moscow uprising in Ukraine's east — though the Kremlin staunchly denies involvement.
The war has crippled the economy. Ukraine's per capita gross domestic income fell from $3,700 in 2013 to $2,600 last year, according to the World Bank.
Much-awaited democratic reforms plod at a slow pace, mired in the chaotic squabbles of Ukrainian politics. The country has changed four prosecutors general in two years, and some of the reformers in the government have quit, complaining of obstruction by behind-the-scenes power groups.
Crime is also on the rise, fueled by both purges at the police and the return of war veterans, some of whom failed to adjust back to civilian life.
Slow Wheels of Reform
And yet commentators say it is too early to discount Ukraine's efforts to set on the path to its golden dream of qualification for EU membership.
The creation of anti-graft institutions took longer than it could have, but they have finally become active this year, experts say.
The National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine began operations last January. Now it is making arrests on an almost daily basis, including among people with reported ties to powerful groups, such as the administration of the Odessa Port Plant, detained earlier this month.
Poroshenko's government has also finally implemented reforms to curb political influence of the oligarchs, said Umland of the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation.
“The reforms are being made...but have not yet impacted the daily lives,” Umland said. “But I think they will; these are not trivial things, these are deep reforms, and they take time.”
Ukraine's main problem is in fact the abundance of crime, not lack of democracy, said independent political expert Maxim Vikhrov, who is based in Kiev.
Part of the blame lies with the war, which has flooded the country – where 100,000 have served on the frontlines — with firearms and lowered the bar on violence, experts said.
Vikhrov pointed out that high-profile murders and gunfights over business disputes take place on a monthly basis. He said the Sheremet's murder appeared to fall in the same category.
“And yet when all is said and done, Kiev is still safer than, say, Moscow,” said Fenenko.