Home > World Events > Guest post from Tom Oates

Guest post from Tom Oates

November 16th, 2004

Expat Aussie physicist has sent me this personal view of the Ukrainian Presidential election. Well worth reading

‘I’m back in the USSR,
You don’t know how lucky you are boy…’

What exactly did Paul McCartney mean by that second line? The question ran through my head with a mixture of excitement and awe as I located Mykola’s wave and smile amongst the rainbow of babushka scarves on the platform at Kyiv Vokzal. A multitude of peaked caps were balanced precariously on the blond crew-cuts of rosy-cheeked teenage soldiers greeting girlfriends and mothers in the dim autumn evening. It was a relief to see Mykola’s familiar face after 24 hours on the Berlin-Kiev ‘express’. Through the train window the rural scenery presented the country as incredibly poor. Groups of farm workers digging potatoes by hand and antiquated soviet machinery were sparsely scattered between vast forests and the odd pollution belching industrial centre. A rude 2am awakening by a self important Ukrainian border guard, and subsequent mild interrogation, was smoothed over by my well ordered paperwork and an official letter of invitation from Mykola’s Professor at the Taras Shevchenko University to attend a physics conference.

As was all too obvious from the space and nuclear arms races, the former soviet block countries have a strong tradition in the physical sciences. Mykola is a world class physicist. As a part time colleague of mine in Germany he invited me to attend a conference at his home university, Taras Shevchenko, widely regarded as the finest in the country. It was clear from my visit that the scientists and students there have all the talent and passion of my colleagues in the West. In fact given the scarcity of the resources and the meagre salaries (yes, even worse than in Australia) you have to have a special passion to be a scientist in the Ukraine. To support his wife and family Mykola, a senior lecturer, receives a monthly wage equivalent of A$250. Whilst it is true that living expenses in the Ukraine are notably lower (a ‘snack’ of coffee and caviar covered bread costs A$1.50) any thoughts of a holiday in the West or of purchasing a new laptop computer are restricted to the realm of fantasy.

In contrast to the rural scenes, Kyiv is a bustling metropolis of Ukrainians, Russians and Tatars, blending a unique mix of East and West, modern and traditional. Mobile phones with digital cameras are essential fashion accessories for the mini skirt clad (at +5°), stiletto boot sporting Olgas and Dashas (‘Well the Ukraine girls really knock me out…’). Begging babushkas line the entrance to the 60 metre deep subway stations, built at the height of the cold war to double as nuclear bunkers. Mykola expertly picked our way past flower sellers and stocking vendors whilst explaining that the presidential elections would be held the following Sunday. The Moscow-leaning Yanukovych, twice imprisoned for violent offences, and would-be successor to the outgoing incumbent Leonid Kuchma, has the financial backing of Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, not your average businessman. Akhmetov is one of the so called ‘super-rich’ from the former soviet states.

Despite the stark rural poverty, Ukraine is a rich country, with oil, mining and agricultural products being the main exports. In fact, Ukraine’s soil is considered so fertile that the occupying Nazi’s trucked it back to Germany by the trainload during the Second World War. The problem, as with many countries, is the distribution of wealth. In the Ukraine, however, the problem appears more pronounced. In the wake of the communist monopolies, politicians signed huge state owned companies and mines into their own names. Mafia style gangsters use stand over tactics to intimidate factory workers into staying away from work, running the company into the ground. They can then be mercifully ‘bailed out’ by the mafia bosses at a bargain price. The legal and political systems, infiltrated with corruption, are constantly moving the posts for struggling small businesses. For the majority of Ukrainians the situation is reaching a crisis point.

The westward looking opposition leader, Yushchenko, standing on a platform of reform and political transparency, is leading the fight. As with the world changing events in Kyiv in 1991, which led to the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union, support appears to be reaching critical mass. Fears of a sweeping victory for the opposition have seen the power-greedy resorting to drastic measures. Yushchenko was recently admitted to hospital in Vienna with a reported virus. His condition quickly deteriorated to critical and, with little information about the cause of illness, theories of conspiracy soon swept the country. Some went so far as suggesting that he was a victim of a biological weapons attack by former KGB agents. After all, many in Vladomir Putin’s country would not want to see Russia’s little brother aligned with Europe. Whatever the cause of the illness, upon emerging a few weeks later, the severity of Yushchenko’s condition was apparent from his drastically diminished strength and vigour, and obvious signs of stress on his face.

When compared with neighbouring Poland, where relative government stability and recent EU membership have nurtured a minor boom in foreign investment and a hope for economic prosperity akin to that in the West, the optimism in Ukraine is lamentably absent. The almost desperate hope of many is that the election of a Westward looking President will bring some political and legal stability, combat corruption and promote foreign investment and collaboration, including scientific. Whatever concomitant problems such an alignment would bring is not of great concern to most Ukrainians whose only view of the West is via MTV.

I was forced to leave the Ukraine on the evening of the elections due to a restrictive visa. Mykola could not see me off at the station. The voter registration office had thrice made subtle ‘errors’ in the spelling of his name and finally he was forced to vote at a polling station outside the capital, in a location removed from that of his wife. The streets were eerily peaceful and my hopes of a snapshot of revolutionary demonstrations were not realised. Somewhat dejected, I spent my last hours before departure at a bar I had enjoyed a few nights previously. Young students danced before a live band (yes, many Beatles covers) with an apparently youthful hope for the future, although perhaps it was sublime indifference, or on a darker note, possibly apathetic resignation. Either way, against the background of their ostensible carefree ebullience, sat a 40-something married businessman groping a scantily clad teenage girl. His bodyguard, ear mounted communications system in place, proving most adept at keeping the revellers a safe distance from his employer. Somehow after a week in the Ukraine the juxtaposing images did not seem out of place.

The results of the election reached me as the train crossed the border. Yushchenko had emerged with a narrow lead. However failure to secure a 50% primary vote requires that a second round of elections be held on the 21st November. With comparatively transparent recent wins for the conservative incumbents in Australia and the United States, unfortunately for many in Ukraine, I personally do not hold out much hope for a changing of the guard. For those of us in the west however, the implications of the election outcomes are not quite so consequential. Mykola had informed me that should Yanukovych be elected he feared he would be subtly forced from his position at the university within a year or two. ‘You don’t know how lucky you are boy…’

Categories: World Events Tags:
  1. November 17th, 2004 at 07:44 | #1

    Thanks so much Tom for this, and thanks John for posting it. I lived in Russia for a couple of years, although couldn’t claim to be anything like an expert, I do get quite depressed about the situation in the former USSR. While things are obviously better than under the SU, moves to more a robust democracy and civil society are constantly frustrated. I think the comparison with other eastern European countries is an apt one, there is no reason why the “bread basket of Europe” shouldn’t at least be at that level. Ukraine is better than Belarus, is about the best you can say.

  2. James Farrell
    November 17th, 2004 at 09:42 | #2

    The Ukrainian economic collapse was spectacular not only by the standard of Earstern Europe, but even by the standard of the former soviet republics. To the extent that official statistics make sense, Ukraine managed to reduce its GDP by about 70% between 1990 and 2000, compared to about 40% in Russia and 20% in Belarus. Current GDP per capita is estimated at US$5,300, compared to $8,900 in Russia. This is lower than Colombia and only a little higher than China. I don’t know of any country that has experienced a more severe deterioration in peacetime.

    Thanks for the fine pen portrait, Tom. I too arrived by train when I visted Ukraine, but it was to Lviv rather than Kiev, across the Carpathians. Incredibly beautiful.

  3. Geoff Robinson
    November 17th, 2004 at 10:12 | #3

    Wasn’t the Ukraine a major image source for the recently busted child pornography network? This is a cost rarely mentioned in accounts of the transition from real socialism to the most developed forms of capitalist globalisation, of which child pornography is an example.

  4. November 18th, 2004 at 10:35 | #4

    stilleto boots and mini skirts…i have to visit ukraine…i’m sure they were gorgeous as well…

    nice post…has a real feel and interesting information on ukraine’s economic and political climate…

Comments are closed.