Viktor Yanukovych, We Hardly Knew Ye!
But We Knew Enough, Good Riddance
Story & Photographs by Skip Kaltenheuser
(Courtesy of Natural
years ago I was on an assignment that had me a couple weeks in Kyiv
to explore Ukraine's economic potentials, for reports of possible interest
to investors. We hear "economic basket case" from pundits
ten times a day now, but that's a reflection of the kleptocracy that
ran the country. It's not indicative of the people who were stuck beneath
the kleptocratic thumb. The country actually has a great deal going
for it, from some of the richest and deepest topsoil on earth
even after the Third Reich and the Soviets plundered it trainload after
trainload to a well-educated, highly cultured and talented young
labor force, missing only jobs. The disciplined restraint shown by the
opposition once it had the upper hand wasn't a shock, the younger crowd
is an impressive bunch.
One day I might write more extensively about the experience,
which was fascinating but also had ample elements of farce, primarily
when crossing government intersections. But the main lesson learned
was that what has happened these past few months was always a coming
attraction. Just a matter of when, if frustration could be suppressed
until the election. And fear went somewhere into the equation. The more
I encountered young people, the sadder it was to hear their growing
despair. Their excellent education system was falling apart as was everything
touched by the kleptocracy. There were no prospects for them, because
everywhere the fix was in. Younger people were eager to align more with
the EU, on the chance it might bring more opportunities and perhaps
a reordering of their society.
How bad is it? Here's one instance. A German bank was
fleeced by a local outfit. When the Germans sued, the locals paid the
bureaucracy to change the name of street where the local company's office
was, allowing a judge on the take to throw out the case for improper
service, etc... Getting nowhere, the Germans hired some local Russians.
At a restaurant where the officials of the local company often lunched,
a small explosion was arranged under the dinner table. Not powerful
enough to kill or permanently maim, just big enough to deliver a potent
message. The Germans got their money back, but what a hassle of a way
to conduct business.
People are guarded when asked about problems dealing
with the government, they worry about where their replies might end
up going. But if people trust your motives and discretion, frustrations
pour out. Small business folk can't get things off the ground because
if an enterprise looks promising, government fees/bribes start increasing.
If one defies the odds and gets something rolling, some official's cousin
comes along to offer his skills as a partner. Running a pub or restaurant?
Be prepared for government inspectors to take an active interest in
your success, and to come with their buddies to drink up your profits
while discovering all manner of license fees. Complaints to government,
as if government would snap to action, are frowned on. Frowns can have
rough consequences. Sometimes even foreign companies and their lawyers
will level about their frustrations, trying to get large projects underway
while dodging local moguls who want in on everything.
So local would-be entrepreneurs without political connections
or the means for bribes just stay home. For many young folk, their main
strategy has become an exit strategy, to go elsewhere. Long shots at
beauty contests, and rock bands. Very skilled computer hackers. Cruise
ship crews, anywhere. That's where the economic basket case comes from.
The young see no future in a kleptocracy.
In Kyiv there's a small but elegant department store
that caters to oligarchs. I wandered around under the watchful eye of
security, having the place mostly to myself. Just a couple of oligarchs
shopping, while their girlfriends relaxed at a very expensive restaurant
on top, next to a a fancy art gallery. I wouldn't have been shocked
to find a plastic surgeon on call. The small parking lot outside was
occupied by private security types, with their own pricey cars, though
not as pricey as their bosses' rides. It's a source of local amusement
during rush hour, spotting oligarchs and/or high government officials
and their bodyguards, their fleets of luxury cars jamming things up
at intersections. After seeing what neckties were selling for in the
store, I was tempted to run to my hotel and return with my own ties,
a few of which could've been contenders, to see if I might start up
a quick discount business selling my favorites to the bored bodyguards
in the parking lot.
The whole scene is in high contrast to the reality behind
many of the attractive women dressed to the nines one sees walking down
the street. Their clothing ensembles are often put together by a half
dozen or so girlfriends pooling parts of their limited wardrobes so
a chum with a special date or an interview can look her best.
I could digress into tales of communists turned oligarchs.
A few are now billionaires, some are on the lam after their and Vladimir
Putin's pet president fled the country. The point is that a handful
of characters have held most of the country's cookies. With few exceptions,
they bottleneck the gates of opportunity for anyone not playing ball
by their rules. But I'm going to digress instead to something I recently
came across, a professor trying to make the case that too many people
in the West are reflexively critical of Russia's Vladimir Putin and
his motivations. We need to stand in Putin's shoes to see where he's
coming from. Really. I can't recall exactly when I got the notion that
Putin might be a poisoner, with radiation, of dissidents, or an assassin
of journalists. The whole thing is probably just a misunderstanding
of an unfortunate series of coincidences involving people with a different
world view than Putin's. But I will be watching with interest to see
if any of the Ukrainian government's records dumped in the drink or
elsewhere, when Yanukovych and his minions beat their hasty retreat,
reveal money trails to Putin's gang. Or if evidence surfaces that encouragement
for using snipers against Kyiv protesters came out of Russia. In any
case, Putin's ringing endorsement of Yanukovych will continue to leave
a ringing in many Ukrainian ears.
Moscow & St, Petersburg; Yaroslavl,
Russia: Now One Thousand Years Old; Exploring
the Baltic Sea Nations; Polish
Salt Mine; Europe's