-Story & Photographs by Skip Kaltenheuser
Courtesy of Natural Traveler
A couple 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.
“When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.” — Sinclair Lewis