27 March 2011

Customer Service

Note to self. When in Ukraine, speaking with my managers, stop using USA as an example of great customer service. In my recent experience it hasn't been so good actually.

17 June 2010

No Irish Beer at O'Brien's Irish Pub? Really Yanukovych?

Last night at O'Brien's we came face to face with the new shenanigans taking place at Ukrainian Customs. The waitress informed us that there was no Irish beer available. I read the list on the menu aloud and at each stop the waitress simply said no. Kilkenny? No. Murphy's? No. Guinness? No. Harp? No.  What gives?
According to the waitress all Irish beer is imported to Ukraine by a single importer and said importer is having issues with Ukrainian customs.  This is clearly a Yanukovych regime minus. Under the Yushchenko and Kuchma regimes the Guinness flowed freely.  Alas.

23 May 2010

A Whole Different Ballgame in Ukraine

Intimidating business people is one thing. But trying to silence students? A whole different ballgame.  See Fr. Borys Gudziak's well-written memo:

Memorandum Regarding the
Visit to UCU of a representative of the
Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) (former KGB)
(responsible for contacts with Churches)
18 May 2009 [note should be 2010] , office of the rector, 9:50-10:34 
At 9:27 in the morning Fr. Borys Gudziak received a call on his private mobile phone from a representative of the Security Service of Ukraine requesting a meeting. The meeting was scheduled for 20 minutes later at the rectorate of UCU. This official had had contacts with the UCU rectorate a year ago at the time of the visit to the university of the then President of Ukraine Viktor Yushchenko. He had made a visit to the rectorate in the late afternoon on May 11 with regard to a request of the Ecumenical and Church History Institutes to sign an agreement to use the SBU archives. At that time members of the rectorate were away from the office. He had, what Dr. Antoine Arjakovsky, director of the Institute of Ecumenical Studies, called a “very good meeting.” 
Upon arrival on May 18 in a polite manner the agent related that certain political parties are planning protests and demonstrations regarding the controversial (and in some cases inflammatory) policies of the new Ukrainian authorities. Students are to be engaged in these protests. There is a danger that some of these manifestations may be marred by provocations. He stated that, of course, students are allowed to protest but that they should be warned by the university administration that those involved in any illegal activities will be prosecuted. Illegal activities include not only violent acts but also, for example, pickets blocking access to the work place of government officials (or any protests that are not sanctioned by authorities). 
After his oral presentation the agent put on the table between us an unfolded one-page letter that was addressed to me. He asked me to read the letter and then acknowledge with a signature my familiarity with its contents. He stated that after I had read and signed the letter it would be necessary for him to take the letter back. Since I could see that the document was properly addressed to me as rector (I also noticed that it had two signatures giving it a particularly official character) I replied calmly that any letter addressed to me becomes my property and should stay with me -- at least in copy form. Only under these conditions could I agree to even read the letter (much less sign).  
The agent was evidently taken back by my response. It seemed that the situation for him was without precedent because in my presence using his mobile phone he called his (local) superiors to ask for instructions on how to proceed. The superior refused permission to leave me either the original letter or a copy, saying that the SBU fears I “might publish it in the internet.” I questioned this entire procedure and the need for secrecy and refused to look at the letter and read its contents. The young official was disappointed and somewhat confused but did not exert additional pressure and did not dispute my argumentation.
Our conversation also had a pastoral moment. I cautioned the agent of the fact that the SBU as the former KGB, with many employees remaining from the Soviet times, has a heavy legacy of breaking and crippling people physically and morally and that he as a young married person should be careful not to fall into any actions that would cause lasting damage to his own identity and shame his children and grandchildren. I sought to express this pastorally as a priest. To his credit he both acknowledged the past and declared his desire to serve the needs of Ukrainian citizens. He also asked that I indicate to him if I feel that he is exercising improper pressure.  
Finally, I expressed my and the general population’s profound disappointment that the work of the SBU is so uneven, that security and police officers live lavishly on low salaries because they are involved in corrupt activities, and that the legal rights of citizens and equal application of the law are severely neglected. I gave the recent example of my cousin, Teodor Gudziak mayor of Vynnyky, who in February 2010 (three days after the election of the new president) was arrested in a fabricated case of bribery that was set up by a notoriously corrupt political rival and former policemen through the regional and city police. Despite the fact that two weeks before the fabricated affair the mayor, based on a vote of the town council, had given the SBU a video of plainclothes policemen breaking into his office and safe in city hall in the middle of the night and using town seals on various documents the SBU took no action. (The leadership of the Church, specifically Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, fears that by manipulated association this case may be used as a devise to compromise the rector of UCU and the whole institution which has a unique reputation of being free from corruption.) I also related that I had reliable testimony and audible evidence that my phone is tapped and has been for many months. 
The population of Ukraine continues to fear and distrust both state security and police personnel because of the woeful track record of law enforcement and because of the diffuse practice of police intimidation of honest politicians, journalist, common citizens and the wonton extortion practiced by security institutions and police with respect to middle and small business. I asked the young agent to convey these concerns to his superiors. I had the impression that personally he is open to moral argument but that he also was simply doing his job. It was clear to me that he was dutifully “following orders.”  
During our conversation the agent asked me about the imminent (May 20-22) General Assembly of the Federation of European Catholic Universities (FUCE) that will be hosted by UCU in Lviv. He characterized it as an important event (it has received considerable publicity) and asked about the program and whether it is open to the public. It was clear that he would have been interested in participating in the proceedings. I said that the main theme, “Humanization of society through the work of Catholic universities,” was announced in a press release as will be the outcome of the deliberations. The working sessions of the university rectors, however, are not open to the public. I explained that the 211 members of the International Federation of Catholic Universities (IFCU) and the 45 members of FUCE follow closely the development of the only Catholic university in the former Soviet Union. They will be monitoring the welfare of UCU, especially since in Japan in March at the annual meeting of the Board of Consultors of IFCU I had the opportunity to describe some of our socio-political concerns and the threats to the freedom of intellectual discourse (imposition of Soviet historical views, rehabilitation of Stalin and Stalinism, to whom a new monument was unveiled in Zaporizhzhia 5 May 2010) and new censorship of the press and television that are incompatible with normal university life. 
Subsequently, as had been arranged at the beginning of the meeting, I called in the UCU Senior Vice Rector Dr. Taras Dobko to whom the official repeated the SBU’s concerns. 
Besides noting the SBU’s solicitude for stability in Ukrainian society there are a few conclusions to be drawn from the encounter and the proposals that were expressed: 
  1. Signing a document such as the letter that was presented for signature to me is tantamount to agreeing to cooperate (collaborate) with the SBU. The person signing in effect agrees with the contents of the letter and their implication. In KGB practice getting a signature on a document that was drafted and kept by the KGB was a primary method of recruiting secret collaborators.
  2. Such methods have no known (to me) precedent in independent Ukraine in the experience of UCU and of the Lviv National University whose longtime rector (and former Minister of Education, 2008–10) Ivan Vakarchuk I consulted immediately after the meeting. These methods were well known in the Soviet times.
  3. The confiscation of the letter after signature makes the letter and signature instruments to be used at the complete discretion of the SBU
  4. The possible scenarios for the exploitation of such a document include the following:
    a.) In case of the arrest of a student the SBU could confront the rectorate and charge that the university was informed of the danger to students and did not take necessary measures to protect them from violence or legal harm. In this case the university administration could be charged with both moral and legal responsibility. A charge with legal ramifications could become an instrument to try to force the university to compromise on some important principle (freedom of expression, forms of social engagement and critique, even religious practice, all of which have precedent in recent history). Furthermore, the authorities could use such a pretext to exert a high degree of pressure on the university to curb any and all protest by students.
    b.) After a hypothetical arrest of a student or students the students and their parents as well as other members of the university community could be shown the document with which the administration was warned and counseled to curb student activities. Since the administration did not stop the students from the activities that became the pretext for the arrest, parents or others could draw the conclusion that the university does not have adequate concern for the welfare of its students. This would be a most effective way of dividing the university community and undermining the university’s reputation among its most important constituents–students.
  1. The apparent genuine surprise of the agent at my refusal to do as requested could mean that he is not used to such a reaction. He had explained to me that he works with clergy on a regular basis. It could be assumed that other clergy (who work with youth, students, etc.) have been approached and that they have not refused to sign such documents.
  2. Measures of this nature create apprehension and unease. They are meant to intimidate university administrations and students. They are part of a whole pattern of practice that is well known to the Ukrainian population. The revival of such practices is a conscious attempt to revive the methods of the Soviet totalitarian past and to re-instill fear in a society that was only beginning to feel its freedom.
  3. Since only two of the approximately 170 universities of Ukraine have been voicing there protest regarding recent political and educational developments and many rectors have been marshaled/pressured to express their support regarding the turn of events, it is clear that in recent months fear and accommodation are returning to higher education at a rapid pace. It can be expected that UCU will be subject to particular attention and possible pressure in the coming months.The solidarity of the international community, especially the academic world, will be important in helping UCU maintain a position of principle regarding intellectual and social freedom.
  4. Speaking and writing openly about these issues is the most peaceful and effective manner of counteracting efforts to secretly control and intimidate students and citizens. As was apparent during this incident, state authorities are particularly sensitive about publicity regarding their activity. Information can have a preemptory, corrective and curing role when it comes to planned actions to circumscribe civic freedom, democracy, and the basic dignity of human beings.

It should be noted that on 11 May 2010, when Ukrainian students were organizing protest activity in Lviv as well as Kyiv, a representative of the office of Ihor Derzhko, the Deputy Head of the Lviv Regional Administration responsible for humanitarian affairs called the rectorate and asked for statistics on the number of students participating in the demonstrations. UCU's response was that the uniersity does not know how to count in that way. 
Please keep UCU and all the students and citizens of Ukraine in your thoughts and prayers.
Fr. Borys Gudziak
Rector, Ukrainian Catholic University
19 May 2010

15 January 2010

Another Day in the Kyiv Metro System

The Lenin relief sculpture at the Theater subway stop (Teatralna) received a pentagram engraving on it's forehead courtesy of Ukrainian nationalists purportedly acting on the Presidential order that all symbology of the era of occupation be removed from Ukraine. Pictures and Ukrainian language article here.

11 January 2010

Ola Interviewed on One World One Art Site

Ola has been interviewed on the "One World One Art" website as part of their monthly "Meet the Artist" feature. One World One Art's slogan is "inspire creativity. celebrate diversity. empower artists. give back."
Read more here: http://www.oneworldoneart.com/

Ola has also submitted an entry for the international good will tour "Strokes of Hope" which will be a travelling exhibition that will make stops in cities around the world. To have a look at Ola's entry or learn more about "Strokes of Hope" check out: http://www.owoatour.info/

09 January 2010

An Oleh Skrypka VV Christmas in Kyiv

Entering Kyiv's Palats Sportu at about 8pm yesterday, Ukrainian Christmas day, it seemed that Oleh Skrypka and VV  (Vopli Vidopliassova) had just taken the stage. I guess I missed the other two acts on the bill "Choboty z Byhaya" and "Konsonans Retro". 

It had been a fairly easy entry process. No lines at the imposing police cordon where well-fed men wearing camouflage fatigues, berets, and body armor made sure all the guests left their nottles of beer, juice, and vodka in large piles on the ice covered asphalt. 

At the door and inside were loads of regular Ukrainian police. No tickets were checked. The posters around town announced: "Free admission if wearing national clothing". Apparently it was free admission for all, but I still wore my Vyshyvanka with pride as did the majority of the attendees. To the right, in the largely empty foyer, two vendors sold Ukrainian CD's, books, vyshyvanky, and Pysanky. 

The coat check was in full swing as the rowdy, young rockers paused in their revelry to politely hand their coats over the barrier. Elderly ladies thickly layered with sweaters and scarves returned numbered tokens with accompanying scowls as if they were being imposed upon.

Regardless of my ever advancing age, I still love the feeling of entering an arena at a rock show, even if I had to stare down two cops (not knowing exactly why) to get through the stairwell door. The arena was only about a third full. It looked like a poorly attended gig at a colleg student union. I immediately felt like a chaperone.

Oleh Skrypka took the stage and began his energetic show. I was pleasantly surprised to see him playing his accordion followed by his guitar. I expected him to be behind a mixing board since the advertisements dubbed the event "Ethno-Disco" with a picture of him behind a mixing board.

The stage setup was great. Typical for Ukrainian concerts now. The showmanship piece has been mastered. Two diamond vision screens hung from the ceiling at each side of the stage with another massive one behind the stage. When he launched into the twangy, cowboy style intro to his rock version of "Rozprahayty Khloptsi Koni" the crowd, mostly congregated immediately in front of the stage, screamed in delight as Kozaky on horses dashed across the steppe in a well worn film clip that was projected on the diamond vision. Was it the old Taras Bulba flick?

There were at least two distinct dancing styles in the house. The first was rooted in traditional Ukie moves, accentuated with some exaggerated jumping and arm waving.  The second style,  at the edges of the crowd involved tilting ones head back, closing ones eyes, outstretching ones arms and rotating ones hands in broad circling motions as if being carried away by the moment. Think Easter at Shevchenskyj Hai in Lviv or any given Grateful Dead Concert. Again I felt like a chaperone.

I looked for evidence of BYuT in the arena given it was a Timo "Mystetska Aktsia" Sponsored event "With Ukraine in Our Hearts". The arena was dark and smokey, from the dried ice, to facilitate the elaborate albeit ill-fitting laser show that was taking place throughout, so it was difficult to see anything other than the stage. There were two pairs of flag wavers, the flag on the fishing pole routine, symmetrically positioned at the rear of the crowd. Two Ukrainian flags, and two Timo flags waved continuously. In the past few months many Ukrainian musicians, one by one, have outwardly proclaimed their support for Timo on specially designed billboards, dressed in white. As an outsider with my own opinions about Timo, I was surprised when such pro-Ukrainian acts like Mad Heads, Druha Rika, and TNMK jumped on the Timo band wagon. Oleh Skrypka and VV have not appeared on such billboards, but the adverts for this event were graphically designed to convey the same image as the other endorsement boards.

On stage, Skrypka invited three backup singers decked out in traditional clothing to help him with his amplified version of "Shchedryk" which pulled not only at this chaperone's heart strings but those of the audience in general.

I exited the arena into the wide hallway that circles the venue. At almost every arena entrance teenagers were trying to convince guards who themselves looked like teenagers to allow them to bring in their oversize cans of Chernihivske White Beer (I was going to write "Bile" instead of "White" but it's too good a beer for such a dark allusion). Some appeared to be succeeding. Others queued for the rest room or ate Pringles and drank beer along the edges. I didn't see any BYuT booths or posters or any other presence.

On the Metro ride home I ruminated about the work Skrypka is doing and what a huge undertaking it is. A city of millions turned out only a couple thousand kids for this healthy dose of Ukrainian culture. Did the Timo affiliation reduce his attendance? At any rate, Oleh Skrypka, in my opinion is one of those few in Ukraine that are doing the work of putting the "Ukrainian" back into being Ukrainian. Heavy-lifting.

For those interested, the Kyiv Post has announced that on January 19th, at 19:00, on the grounds of St. Sophia Cathedral there will be the final concert of Oleh Skrypka's "Krayina Mriy: Kolyada" project  where he will be performing with two of my other heroes of contemporary Ukrainian music: Taras Chubay (son of an influential Lviv underground poet in the 1970's who passed away under shady circumstances) and Maria Burmaka.  See you there!

07 December 2009

Kabul Did It, Why Can't Kyiv?

Hat's off to Kabulians (Kabulites?), who not only charged the Mayor for corruption, but terminated his job and sentenced him to four years in prison. He also has to give back the USD 16,000 he misappropriated.
More here: Afghanistan court sentences Kabul mayor for corruption (BBC). There's an arrest warrant out, and he's on the "lam". Imagine how full the Kyiv jails would be if the corruption bar was dropped to a paltry USD 16,000 -- wouldn't even cover ONE of the Oligarch's watches.

04 December 2009

Human Being Art Installation

On the  way home today I passed the Pinchuk Art Center. There was a line at the door of the Art Center and an interesting installation of mask and booty wearing folks clearly protected from H1N1.  On the tape the text reads "The Tell Tale Heart".  Are they all trying to listen? Listen for the heart still beating under the paving stone? 

18 November 2009

Ukraine Defeated by Greece 1-0, No World Cup

More like Ukraine defeated itself.  The Ukrainian national team will not be travelling to South Africa for the World Cup. Donbass Arena was 60% full. President Yushchenko in attendance. A match plagued by so many mistakes it was impossible to keep track. So many missed opportunities.  The commentator on 1st Nationalny: "...nu prosto rozbyvayut nashi sertsya...".  Got that right.

Thanks to infighting between two oligarchs, see article (thanks m.r.), the minimum Donbas Arena ticket price was USD 25.  Akhmetov wanted cheaper prices to fill the stadium, Surkis (Ukrainian Football Federation) denied his request....result 40% of the seats empty.  Typical modern Ukraina.

26 October 2009

Marketing Campaign Ripoff from Tymoshenko Presidential Campaign

Is it really a good business decision to take the Yulia Tymoshenko campaign that has been plastered all over town, that we are consequently all sick of and copy the creative design for our business? Really?

NEST Real Estate Company Advertisement

BYuT Campaign Advertisement
Photo: http://vysotska.blogspot.com/2009/09/time-management-highweighters-of.html

23 August 2009

"Bezslavni Vyrodky" (Inglourious Basterds) Opens in Kyiv

Watching the new Quentin Tarantino film with Ukrainian dubbing added a whole new level of humor to the film. The dubbing job was highly professional...the word choices were, um, educational.  The Ukrainians in the packed theater thoroughly enjoyed the film.  The audience actually applauded loudly when the movie ended. Another first for me.

Kyiv Speaker's Corner

Kyiv's version of London's speaker's corner was buzzing with energy yesterday. I wasn't really able to follow the debate unfortunately. Too many "speakers" yelling at each other simultaneously, without much concern as to who is listening, if anyone.

Rock Versions of Old Ukrainian Folk Songs: UkrainSka

I unexpectedly ran across an amazing rock act at Dockers ABC last Friday where the guys from the Mad Heads performed as their new "UkrainSka" project. Many songs were familiar "Plast Vatra" songs re-created in punk/rock arrangements and delivered with the zany intensity we expect from the Mad Heads. I unreservedly recommend you catch this new project. In their own words:
UkrainSKA are the folk songs in MAD HEADS XL style, the sound based on modern ska punk with no definite limitations. The band is long known for it’s versions of such songs as “Smereka”, “Dva dubky”, “Oi na gori cygany stoyaly” and that is basically the mood of the new project. More generally, it is folk songs in the form of modern rock music. The second task for the project is to make rock music more popular in Ukraine. The third one is to help the Ukrainian melody getting into the world culture, where it should occupy the decent place it truly deserves. (read more)

20 August 2009

What's Happening on Independence Day Weekend in Kyiv

Finally some information about this weekend's events in today's "Hazeta Po Kyivsky" in and article entitled "Kak Hulyat Budem". Here are some highlights (in translation):
  • Wakeboarding Tournament, Park Druzhby Narodu, 21-23.Aug, 10am
  • Flower Show, Pechersk Landscape Park, 22.Aug-1.Sep
  • Blacksmith Day, Pyrohova Museum of Architecture (with demonstrations and visitors can use the black smithing tools), 22-23.Aug
  • National Flag Raising Ceremony, Maidan, 23.Aug (No time given?)
  • Prayer for Ukraine and Ukrainians, St. Sophia, 24.Aug (also no time designated)
  • Military Parade, Khreschatyk, 24.Aug, 10am
  • Varenyky Speed Eating contest, Maidan, 16:00, 24.Aug (win a vacation for 2 to Egypt)
  • Art Exhibition, Andryvsky Uzviz, 24.Aug
  • Concert, Maidan, 19:00
  • Fireworks "Salut", Maidan 22:00

05 May 2009


I love that I don't feel grey and overcast today. I love this crazy city. I love Ivan the bookseller on Maidan. Ivan who spent 20 years in the Gulag in Siberia. Saved only by his will to live fueled by a pocket sized Symonenko that he somehow managed to hold onto all those years. I buy my first Symonenko from him. I love that. I love the two repair workers fixing huge marble tiles, on one of those barriers on Maidan, armed with a screwdriver, a bucket and a look of utter confusion. I love their worn orange vests and the fact that they are working on a Sunday. I love the abundance of purple in the Spring Kyivan female wardrobe. I don't exactly know why but I love that Star Trek is premiering in Kyiv at the same time as the world wide premiere. I love that the Sun is out. I love that the Zirtec is suppressing my allergies. I love that the Sun on my face is so intense that a tiny thought of sunscreen skirts past my consciousness. I love that the to go coffee from McDonald's is hot and tastes good. I love standing in the shade at the entrance to the Main Post Office with the smattering of others that are waiting for someone. I love pretending that I too am waiting for someone. I love taking another sip of my coffee as if I had all the time in the Universe. I love overhearing the belligerent arguments of the amateur political pundits that gather near the Metro entrance. I move closer to overhear them better. I love their passion for their point of views. I love the little plastic animals that bounce around Khreschatyk hoping to be bought by some happy child. I love seeing a baby and thinking of newborn baby Iggy in Philly. I love that Khreschatyk is shutdown on Sunday. I love standing on the double white lines and closing my eyes. I love dodging the moped driver that thinks the road is not shut down for him. I love walking from Lenin to Hrushevsky. I love that I have 43 more seconds to cross the street. I love the giant plastic wedding bands on the stretch Hummer parked in front of the Opera. I love the bride and groom having their picture taken by the statue of Lysenko. I love helping the Brits with the map find their way. I love helping the Russian couple find a Ukrainian dictionary. I love that tourists here. I love Mykhailivsky Cathedral, and Sophia too. I love the children screaming on the maidanchyk. I love the adults laughing, drinking beer and prying open Pistachio nuts. I love today.

26 April 2009

Electric Dream - Docker's ABC

Kyiv's bar live music scene has really advanced in the last few years. Tonight, a Sunday no less, a hardworking, talented band from Dnipropetrovsk brought the house down at Dockers ABC on Passage. I had one of those rare feelings where I understood that this trio is far to powerful to be performing in a bar. Their all original material was a hard-edged blues infused rock. Technically tight yet very emotional, including tremendous vocals from the bass player, Electric Dream delivered an incredible set. I expect to see them on a stage somewhere soon.

20 April 2009

Ukrainian Barney?

Ukrainian Barney is a small teddy bear that is apparently endorsing a preservative free chocolate bar. Much better than the American, huge, purple, androgynous Barney monster that still haunts me from my kids early years.

19 April 2009

Twitter Savvy Ukrainian Politicians: Continued

Thanks to some incredibly prompt comments from readers Marina and Roxolanus I have now found the correct Twitter pages for President Yushchenko:

and Arseniy Yatsenyuk:

Mr. Yatsenyuk has over a thousand followers and does link to his informative "Front of Change (Zmin)" website. He is also following over a thousand twitters.

How Twitter Savvy are Ukraine's Politicians?

Twitter is now, by some estimates, the second most used "social networking" service, after Facebook. If you are not familiar with Twitter you may be interested in reading about what micro-blogging is on the Wikipedia page here. Essentially, since all "tweets" (140 character posts) are openly searchable by the entire Twitter population (as opposed to only your friends like on FB), it somehow becomes this engaging view on what the a dozen million people have on their minds. Twitter has definitely gained in popularity in Ukraine and could perhaps provide a few good data nuggets for a Twitter savvy politician. In fact, in the recent turmoil in Moldova and Tbilisi, Twitter was a better source of breaking information than any mainstream media as protesting students alternated between throwing rocks and posting tweets on their mobile phones. So how Twitter savvy are our Ukrainian politicians?

Arseniy Yatseniuk
Guessing that the iPhone toting Arseniy Yatseniuk would be the leader in the tech-savvy category I searched for him using "Find People" on Twitter. Sure enough his page came up. He has 5 followers, and is following 3. Of the three he is following, two are CCN Headlines, and the World Economic Forum in Davos. The third is an Olenka2009. There are no updates. There is no link to a personal website which makes me question the authenticity off this page. I tried from the other direction by searching for website first in hopes of seeing a Twitter reference. I couldn't even find a personal website. Where is Mr. Yatseniuk's internet team?

President Yushchenko
Found his Twitter page where he shows 40 followers, following 0, and 1 update. Yawn.

Viktor Yanukovych
With very low expectations I searched and found Mr. Yanukovych's Twitter page. I was mildly surprised to see some work had been done on his profile. There is a link to his English language website, The Leader's Diary - V.Yanukovych's Personal Information Server. The Twitter page is adorned with the Party of Regions logo, as tiled wallpaper. Looks like Mr. Yanukovych is ready to go, but so far 7 followers, following 0, and 0 updates.

Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko
The PM comes away with the most developed Twitter presence of the bunch. Following 146 and being followed by 67. 99 updates. The "tinyurl" links go to her website. Quite the wallpaper. What's with the roses? Regardless of my personal political opinions of our PM, kudos to her new media team. As a sidenote I noticed that she is the only politician following the new Ukrainian political networking site Politiko.

For purposes of comparison glance at Obama's Twitter site. He is being followed by 883,390, and is following 752,928. There is a link to his website and he has updated 265 times. In fact, a few days after clicking "Follow" (and thus becoming...gasp...so to speak... "an Obama Follower") I received an email: "Barack Obama is now following you on Twitter". Obama, via his minions, was kind of enough to reciprocate. Hopefully our Ukrainian politicians will start following some of the opinions of their constituencies. Opinions issued 140 characters at a time.

Strange Vietnam Convergence

I am sitting here in Kyiv where Gogol 200th birthday celebrations are underway. My parents are touring Vietnam where apparently Gogol celebrations are underway as well (article here). My father's first visit to Vietnam since he left in 1969. Wonder if they saw a Vietnamese production of Taras Bulba?

07 March 2009

Touring Ukraine's Economy - Day 4 Odesa

08:00 Breakfast with Ilich at the Grand Hotel Ukraine, Dnipropetrovsk.

09:30 Exiting Dnipropetrovsk. The navigation, now my companion, is silent. Fog and white frost covered steppes on the road to Kryvij Rih. -4 DegC.

11:10 The sign reads welcome to Sofiivka. I’m willing to put money on a bet that Sofiivka is the most popular village name in Ukraine. I feel like I’ve gone through a dozen of them.

12:00 My first time in Kryvih Rih. The city immediately strikes me as neat and well kept. From the roads to the apartment buildings to the orderly landscaping by individual cottages. A mayor who cares perhaps?

The "Anti-crisis Staff of the Party of Regions" has a billboard campaign throughout the city. If I understand correctly the board reads: "In place of unreliability - trust(or confidence?)"

12:10 Kryvih Rih economic indicators. Not one but two McDonald’s with full parking lots. Good coffee "to go". Many small shopping malls, also full parking lots. A shiny new Renault dealership

12:20 Leaving Kryvih Rih I am looking for the road to Mykolaiv. The navigation system is as uncertain as I am, staying silent and then announcing, with an almost discernable sigh: “re-calculating”. I end up on a huge cloverleaf intersection which looks relatively recently built. Unfortunately there is not a single sign before any of the ramps indicating where the road may lead. The navigation seems unfamiliar with the new intersection and is staying quiet. I take the first ramp and wonder how it’s possible to spend millions of dollars on building this interchange and then not have the money to throw up a few signs?

13:42 The road from Kryvih Rih to Mykolaiv is ridiculously bad. The worst yet. Huge potholes all over the road and large missing swaths of road on the sides, the ancient fields well on their way to reclaiming the road. There does appear to be some concern for the cleanliness of the shoulder of the road, a sign reads "Thank you for the clean shoulders":

13:55 Novyj Buh. A village with a sign at the entrance that reads “Caution Intense Movement of Pedestrians”. There is no way to drive quickly even if I wanted to with all the massive potholes and undulations in the road. As I bounce through the center of town I see a large WWII hero statue and a little further down a silvery metallic statue of Taras Shevchenko.

14:00 I’m “jonesing” for a large Americano coffee from a McD’s. Using my phone I find one in Mykolaiv. I try to put it into the navigation but apparently it does not have a detailed map of Mykolaiv. There is a cool statue by the McD's in Mykolaiv. In memory of ship builders, sailors, navigators, and all those involved things nautical.

14:15 A green old truck with some kind of missile launching apparatus appears out of the fog. The plaque says it was used in the war in 1944.

Odesa. Our dealer in Odesa and his wife invite me to dinner along with another couple. They are warm and friendly “Odesyty”. The conversation begins as a spirited sharing of funny travel experiences. They are extremely well traveled.

The crisis is touched upon as a topic of conversation and a brief debate as to whether Ukraine will default or not ensues. One of the men, a clothing, watch, and shoe importer says sales are 20% off prior year. He did not seem too concerned with the downturn in the short term. The general theme of the conversation about the economy was a feeling of frustration that the leadership of the country was so incompetent. They raise the rhetorical question: why do we have to be such a chaotic country where there is absolutely no order, no rule of law, no stability?

Another couple joins the group and suddenly two of the men are discussing western Ukraine and their travel experiences there, almost as if it was a different country. They recount acts of great hospitality and friendliness. Then the conversation takes a political turn and the two begin debating the history of western Ukraine. One from the side of Soviet taught history, and the other from the western taught history (the way I learned it). By this time we have moved one floor down into a “whisky club” and were sampling whiskies. They are amazed that an American can speak Ukrainian but not Russian. One of the men starts proudly speaking broken Ukrainian much to the teasing banter of the rest of the group. I sit mostly quiet while the debate about the history of Halichyna and western Ukraine continues and try to grasp the point of view of Soviet history out of curiousity. When directly asked, I recount the history the way I learned it from my parents and from the Subtelny book.

Then back to the humorous travel stories such as this one: somewhere while driving on historic route 66 one of the Odesa couples had stumbled across a space museum. In the museum was an exhibit about Soyuz-Apollo mission (known as Apollo-Soyuz to us). In the exhibit were two bottles of alcohol. Apparently when the two ships docked in orbit, the Soviet Cosmonauts gave the Americans a bottle of Vodka, and the Americans gave the Cosmonauts a bottle of whisky. Today, in the exhibit the Vodka bottle is full, and the whisky bottle is almost completely empty. Signed by all the Cosmonauts, but empty.

09:30 Sunday. A brilliant sun is out in the Odesa morning. We walk by the beach in the Arkadia part of town. Then we stroll past all the colorful, thematic bars now closed and boarded up for the winter. The Black Sea glistens in the sun. Sea gulls fly in groups around the pier. A line of cargo ships queues on the horizon.

The road to Kyiv is one of the best roads in Ukraine. The ride is smooth and peaceful. The Ukrainian steppe sprawling on either side of the road covered in snow. The sun pokes through the clouds but only in swathes, like huge floodlights from the heavens illuminating parts of fields, groves of birch trees, and rows of little cottages organized along meandering creeks, clinging to the gentle undulations of the black earth.

Despite the inept politicians, lack of leadership, and rampant corruption, I remain in awe of this country and its people.

Touring Ukraine's Economy - Day 3 Dnipropetrovsk

07:20 Hotel Victoria, Donetsk. I open the curtains. Everything I see is a shade of gray. I turn on the T.V. and flip through the channel line-up twice. There appears to be no Channel 5 (Piatyj Kanal). Maybe it's not broadcast in Donetsk. I do find a talk show that happens to have Ilya (Chychkan) and Masha on it.

08:50 Road to Dnipropetrovsk. This will be the shortest leg of my trip. The roads are in decent shape. Several road crews repair the many post-winter pot holes. Does it make sense to fill potholes in sub-zero temperatures?

In Dnipropetrovsk the Party of Regions has a solution to the economic crisis. If you get laid off sue your employer. Oleh Zareva's Center for Social Programs will help you to "Defend Your Right to Work!" reads the billboard.

Vladimir Ilich Lenin, circled by the capitalist advertising of UkrSibBank, NOKIA, and others looks over a makeshift parking lot in the center of Dnipropetrovsk. I keep my eyes open for social unrest and don't see any, at least not today. Today shoppers are still parking in front of Lenin and scrambling into the TSUM (Tsentralnyj Univermah) Department Store.

Beyond Lenin's parking lot is a shopping mall under construction. Crews were working and the cranes were moving.

There are a few "For Rent" signs on recently closed retail businesses on Dnipro's main street. The retailers that are still open have plastered their windows with large sale and discount signs. A sign of the times: "Final Sale"

16:30 Meeting with our Dnipropetrovsk Dealer. The conversation revolves around the lack of credit availability at banks and how it's stifling his business and those of his friends. Demand for luxury products has evaporated he says. He is heavily invested in luxury vehicle brands and owns multiple dealerships. Fortunately, those facilities were not built with borrowed funds, nor were they leveraged for other investments. This supports the going theory that Ukraine has not had a chance to fully develop into a highly leveraged society, as opposed to other Eastern European nations like Poland, Bulgaria, and Hungary. Our meeting ends punctually. He is a big Deep Purple fan and Ritchie Blackmore's band "Rainbow" are performing tonight. A sold out show in Dnipropetrovsk at UAH 400 per ticket.

18:50 On the way back to the hotel, I stop for a look around his latest dealership built for a luxury Japanese make. The service manager gives me a detailed tour of the workshop and is very kind to answer all my questions. I am most intrigued by the Japanese 5S Methodology poster on the wall. The text is in Ukrainian short of the five Japanese words.
"It's part of our Kaizen" explains Vadym handing me a book about Kaizen in Russian translation. "It's truly a great thing. We work on it together".

The cleaning lady, rests on her mop, and having overhead our conversation asks if I'm from Western Ukraine. She herself is originally from Rivne. Has she felt the impact of the financial crisis? So far so good she says. She is still employed and so are her loved ones.

I make my way back to the hotel pondering the fact that I apparently know one of the world's few, or possibly only, non-leveraged car dealer. Kaizen.

04 March 2009

Touring Ukraine’s Economy – Day 2 Donetsk

08:00 Kharkiv. The buffet breakfast in the basement of “Art Hotel Cosmopolit” is packed with Germans. They are talking business from what I can gather.

09:00 I take photos of our dealer’s construction site. Another silent half-completed structure except for a few workers welding something probably for my benefit.

09:42 DAI. I am quasi-lost seeking the exit from Kharkiv in the direction of Donetsk. The navigation keeps saying “Re-calculating, Re-calculating”, looked left, nothing, made a right, notice the red light after making the turn…only to find myself at one of those little two story DAI posts with a smiling DAI guy waving his stick at me. I play the foreigner card and he, remarkably, lets me off with a warning.

10:30 Pass the huge Philip Morris Factory. Middle of nowhere. Try to take a picture of it, but it’s really flat and long. Needs a different kind of camera.

11:11 DAI pulls me over. Second time. A road block type situation in which they are pulling over all cars that have out of town plates. He explains that there was a crime involving guns and asked if there are guns in the car. No. Ok. Company car? Yes. You have all the docs. Yes I do. Ok have a safe trip. Ok thank you.

12:20 Donetsk Oblast, AVIAS gas station.
After using the clean bathroom, I ask Sasha the pump attendant:
“Have you felt the impact of the global economic crisis?”
“What do you mean?”
“Have you seen a drop in cars and trucks traveling on this highway?”
“No, not really,” Sasha smiles and then becomes serious, “people are who own cars aren’t going to stop using them are they? Just let their cars sit there?”
Clean bathroom:

13:00 Snow covered fields. The sun makes an appearance. Long orderly rows of Topoli (English name?) line the road. I am struck, yet again, by the natural beauty of Ukraine and a recurring urge to don a pair of cross-country skis and go in a straight line for miles.

13:30 Driving through Kramatorsk, Donetsk Oblast, population I’m guessing around 200k, I’m fascinated by the massive, sprawling New-Kramatorsk Machine building Plant (Novo Kramatorskiy Mashynobydivelniy Zavod - NKMZ). After passing dozens of rotting, defunct Soviet era plants it’s great to see one that is still operational. The plant stretches for miles. Smoke coming out of various chimneys indicating life. The administrative building has been revamped with new windows and, in an apparent attempt at branding, there is are many new “NKMZ” signs consisting of huge navy-blue bloc letters.

13:35 At the edge of Kramatorsk, I stop at the “Art Nirvana Café” for a cup of coffee. It’s an empty, formal restaurant with table cloths and all manner of fancy napkin folding in the glasses on the tables. Intimidated by the pristine table tops I sit on one of four bars stools by the small bar in the back. Anton appears happy to have a task to do as the Saeco coffee maker loudly grinds the exact portion of coffee beans required.
“Have you felt the impact of the global economic crisis?” I ask.
“Not really, business at the restaurant is the same,” replies Anton.
“What about the plant? How many people work there anyway?”
“About 45,000. I haven’t heard of any layoffs. There are several other plants in Kramatorsk as well.”
I sip the 14 Hryvnia coffee and ponder its value. Last August $2.80, last month $2.00, and now judging from the rates I saw at an Obmin leaving Kharkiv, less than than $1.40.
“So I imagine you are a Yanukovych, Party of Regions fan?” I ask. The word I use for fan is “bolivalnyk” stolen from soccer terminology, a hopeful linguistic stretch.
“Sure am. Kramatorsk voted 99% for Yanukovych,” says Anton proudly.
I recall the allegations during the O.R. that factory workers were instructed to vote a certain way – or the factory may shut down.
“Who knows, maybe he’ll become president while Yushchenko and Timoshenko fight each other,” I speculate.
“That would be great.”

15:10 Donetsk. Dima (not his real name) our dealer in Donetsk is a smart, young guy. Bright and talkative. His father, a coal-miner (Shakhtar) died of a heart attack leaving Dima to provide for his mother and his little brother. He’s a new breed of Ukrainian businessman of the non-smoking, non-drinking variety:
“How could I drink when my father died of a heart attack and I had a nine year old brother and mother to look out for? Between work, night school, and sports I had no time to drink. Now that I have a little time for social life, it’s like I don’t have the skills to ‘party’ or drink with my friends. The whole thing seems odd to me. Like people willingly letting go of their minds.”
Dima rambles about “the customer experience”, about how he trains his team to work on first impressions, to be helpful and courteous to customers, to listen to their needs, and so on. I've lived in Ukraine too long to automatically get enthused by his words. Is he rattling off what he thinks I want to hear, or is he genuinely a standout?

“Watch this” he says as he maneuvers into the right lane and veers off in front of a decrepit Soviet era building with a huge Mercedes-Benz sign on it. Above the sign, the pukey yellow bricks are crumbling, in front of the “dealership” are five new Mercedes covered in two day old snow. We exit the car and walk to the door of the showroom.
“This is the official Mercedes dealer in Donetsk” he says.
A sign hangs on the inside of the glass door: closed (zachyneno). I look at my watch. 6:03 PM. A sticker on the door reads 9-6. Dima tries the door since there are still sales people inside and the lights are on. It opens and we walk in.
“We’re closed!” yells a sour faced sales consultant rising from behind his computer.
“I have a budget for new car and I was thinking…” I say.
“We’re closed!” he cuts me off, “come back when we’re open!”
“Can I leave you my contact information? Do you have a card?” I add.
“Just come back when we’re open.”
Back in the car Dima starts fumes about the encounter.
“You see how primitive it still is here? God forbid if that should happen at any of my dealerships. I’ve fired people for not answering the phone by the third ring,” he reflects for a minute while nonchalantly swerving around a big blue Kamaz, “I just don’t get why people don’t see that the answer is simply to work hard. The guy doesn’t want to work, but he’ll be the first one protesting on Lenin Square saying wages are not fair.”

Not a protestor to be seen on snowy Lenin Square, Donetsk:

Mario restaurant sits on top of the latest office tower built by Rinat Akhmentov, local billionaire. The restaurant is not empty. At one table four grim, grumbling, overweight men sporting Yanukovych haircuts huddle around a clear glass decanter of vodka and tall glasses of tomato juice. At another, a well-dressed family sits politely, with an air of formality, often taking turns standing and making a toast no doubt acknowledging some date or achievement. Nearest to us is a grey haired American man in jeans and a sweatshirt sitting with a primped young lady in heels and an evening gown and another young lady translating. In all, there is way too much cologne and perfume in use for the size of the room.

Dima orders and a salad, veal medallions, and a “fresh”. When the waiter turns to me, Dima chuckles to himself.
“You didn’t ask me what kind of fresh!” Dima says to the waiter.
The waiter looks puzzled at first and then begins a long rationalization. Dima looks at me while the waiter is spinning the situation, and then back at the waiter.
“It’s not complicated, I ordered fresh it would be logical to ask what kind. That’s all,” he says calmly.

I ask about the mines Dima’s father worked in before his heart attack. There were days, explained Dima, that his father would spend his entire shift on his knees struggling with the hydraulic jackhammer because the tunnel was only 1.5 meters high. If not on his knees, it was common to be standing knee deep in water for the whole shift. Rats were like best friends. Why would someone become a coal miner? Because they are proud of the mining tradition and enticed by early retirement after 20 years service.

I bring up politics and Dima doesn’t really want to go there. He says he’s interested in it but there is no one who has an idea for Ukraine that he can get behind. He is clearly impressed with Rinat Akhmetov and frequently references Akhmetov’s contributions to Donetsk. He is proud that Donetsk will soon open the best stadium in Ukraine, the best airport, etc. Driving me around Rinat’s compound, earlier, Dima explained, with great detail, the construction of the five meter walls encircling the estate. Thickness, steel reinforcement, and so on. Half his compound is protected state natural park (zapovidnyk) he says, but no one can touch Rinat.

Mr. Akhmetov's stadium project:

I leave Donetsk with many questions unanswered. The son of a coal-miner, born and raised in Donetsk understands what it means to be “customer focused” better than most Americans and Europeans I know. How is that? And what’s with the city itself? Is it a real, vibrant and energetic economy at work or a Rinat Akhmetov theme park? A pet project of popping up shopping malls, hotels, a stadium, airport etc…Is it a model of how Ukraine can be built or the path to a grumbling dictatorship in a cloud of cologne?

02 March 2009

Touring Ukraine’s Economy – Day 1 Kharkiv

In Kyiv it’s obvious the global economic and financial crisis has hit Ukraine. But what’s happening out there in other Ukrainian cities? It’s been six months since my last business trips to our regional dealers, and even those were short, flight in the morning, meeting, flight back in the evening type trips. This time I travel by car starting with Kharkiv, then Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, and Odesa staying one night in each city. I estimate 2000 km in total. My goal is to get a top-level, quick feel for how these Oblast centers are faring.

My borrowed navigation system (thanks ROK), insists on calling Kharkiv Charcow. The female voice calmly instructs me: “Continue straight 466 km and turn right, in Char Cow”.

There are noticeably less trucks on the road than I remember from prior road trips. Less consumption, less manufacturing, less shipping, less cargo on the roads of Ukraine. Exiting the city of Borispil, I find myself surrounded by empty billboards on both sides of the road. This goes on for a couple of kilometers. Sporadically, amid the looming grey boards are new Party of Regions billboards: “Enough noise (halas?)…let’s get to work” and other such doosies along with one aged independence day greeting from President Yushchenko, the kind with his signature scrawled across it.

Dozens of small towns (selos) appear and disappear. Yellow gas lines thread their way across the otherwise picturesque snow covered cottages. A bundled up babushka sits on a stool by the side of the road in front of a bucket of potatoes and bucket of carrots. Same as during boom times. These villages have many problems, sub-prime loans are not among them.

Poltava. I become melancholy on the approach to Poltava. I wonder what it was like in these fields in the Summer of 1709. The masses of Swedish and Russian infantry, cavalry, and artillery advancing in long lines to gruesome deaths. Nine thousand soldiers lost their lives in these fields now traversed by the Kyiv-Kharkiv road. The Swedish dead were buried where they fell, the Russians buried their dead in a mohyla – which, oddly, today bears the name “Swedish Mohyla”. I imagine the Zaporizhian Cossack contingent joining ranks with the Swedes with the dream of ridding their land of the Russian yoke only to find themselves up against Cossacks of other orders fighting for the other side. I contemplate this as I walk into Poltava McDonald’s for a coffee. 300 years of progress and we’ve made it from muskets to McNuggets.

Scenes from Poltava McDonald's:

The recently built McDonald’s was done in that new McD’s style like the one I saw in Berlin. Poltava has the coolest McDonald’s I’ve ever seen. Try it. Regarding the economy? The parking lot was full and there were lines at the cash register.

In Kharkiv there is no construction work being done on any of the construction sites I pass. Cranes and back hoes are motionless. Car dealerships are open, but visitor parking lots are empty and there are no people in the showrooms. Shopping mall lots are full.

I meet our dealer and embark on an eight hour marathon of second-hand smoke inhalation and increasingly belligerent Russian language and spirited laughter. The restaurant is empty except for us. I witness him work his two phones continuously, at times simultaneously, with one on each ear, cigarette dangling from his mouth working deals, negotiating.
“Are you nuts? For that kind of money I can buy half of Kharkiv right now. Call me when you are ready to talk.”
Laughter. The general topic of conversation is how everyone has stopped spending money and is waiting for something to change. There is no credit money. Banks are failing. Then on to a conversation about the Tax inspectors, corrupt local politicians and so on. I felt like I had traveled back in time to 1995 Ukraine.

The night ends outside the hotel. He leaps out of the car to say goodnight, lights another Marlboro. I look up and see a clear, star filled winter sky. I am happy to be breathing fresh air. After a pause, he becomes melancholy and issues a final lament about the Hryvnia:
“If only they devalued it once. Let it devalue as much as it has to, but do it once. Then at least we can start from there. These sporadic devaluations keep us in a continuous feeling of anarchy. What will we do Petro? What will we do?”
Then he erupts into laughter, hugs me violently, and zooms off into the distance in his 140k EUR imported car.

22 February 2009

The Bizarre Appearance of the Sun in Kyiv

Even though it was 25 degF, "the Sun" was actually out today. I bumped into a colleague. "This is great!" he says "I remember two weeks ago as well, it was a Friday morning, the Sun came out for a couple of hours."

09 February 2009

Released Sailors Asked by Company to Pay for Phone Calls?

According to this story, the sailors released from the Ukrainian owned vessel "Faina", that was captured by Somali pirates last September, have been charged 200 USD for phonecalls made while in captivity. I suppose it will help offset the 3.2M USD ransom. Новини України proUA.com - Судновласник Фаїни вимагає від моряків сплатити телефонні розмови із полону

07 February 2009

Laughter at Customs

Heard a new one today when making inquiries about grey market premium car importers and how their businesses are doing. Gentleman from Donetsk:
The customs guys in Odesa are laughing. They were paid handsomely for looking the other way during the importing of these cars, Mercedes, Porsches, etc...and now they are getting paid again for the export of the same cars as grey dealers are shipping out their overstock.

19 January 2009

Windows Virus Coded in Ukraine?

A Finnish researcher has reported that a computer virus that has rapidly infected 8 million PC's may be of Ukrainian origin:

Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer at anti-virus firm F-Secure, says while the purpose of the worm is unclear, its unique "phone home" design, linking back to its point of origin, means it can receive further orders to wreak havoc.
He said his company had reverse-engineered its program, which they suspected of originating in Ukraine, and is using the call-back mechanism to monitor an exponential infection rate, despite Microsoft's issuing of a patch to fix the bug.

30 October 2008

"Buy a Driver's License"

Received in my e-mail today.

8 9О6 794 nn nn, 8 9O6 794 nn nn Владимир

And DAI wonders why there are so many accidents on the road.

27 October 2008

Pawn to King 4: The Prosecutor’s Opening

From the tone of the official letters that I received demanding my presence, one would think I was meeting the top Prosecutor in the country. As it happens, it is one of the Prosecutor’s assistants that will take my deposition. He opens the door to the small office he shares with another assistant and invites my lawyer and me to sit down opposite him at his small desk. It strikes me that this office is impressively equipped relative to the other government offices I’ve been in. A personal computer sits on each desk; an air-conditioning unit hangs above a large window.

He is young, though well schooled in the bureaucratic manner of the old pros twice, or even three times his age. The opening is standard. It involves setting up the immensity of the crude, blatant, and negligent violation that Ministry X’s diligent Inspectorate has documented in their official “Protocols of Inspection”.

“Are you familiar with the contents of Article 63 of the Constitution of Ukraine?” he asks.

“Yes” I reply. I was briefed earlier.

“And do you consciously waive those rights? If so, sign here.”

Ok, even though I am fully aware that I am playing my role in a corruption dance there is still a little room in my psyche for fear to creep in. After all, he does have the power to incarcerate me on whatever charges he wishes to trump up. Seeing the inside of a Ukrainian prison, even for an hour, is not on my “to do before I die” list. I sign the document.

“Well,” he starts, “as a foreigner our laws may seem a little primitive to you. I fully agree. In fact it pains me that the legislation is so confusing with so many contradictory instructions and clarifications. I really feel for people like you who run businesses but there is little I can do. I have to play by the rules right? I have to enforce the law as it is.”

“Of course,” I reply, “the laws are there to protect Ukraine and its citizens. We, at the company bend over backwards to comply with every regulation no matter how arcane and seemingly illogical. We learned early on that to do otherwise would simply open us up to a continuous revolving door of inspectors and fines.” then dropping the volume of my voice I add “official and otherwise”.

“I’m glad you agree”, he nods ignoring the last phrase, “sometimes I get the impression that you Americans do things in Ukraine they would never think of doing in America for fear of the strict fines there.” He muses for moment. “I was in Chicago once you know.”

“Nice city.” My mind conjures images of Ministry X bureaucrats and their counterparts from other countries at a lakeside convention hall checking out each other’s new Armani suits. This is going well I think to myself naively. Maybe it was ok to say no to paying that bribe last week?

“Now about the facts of the matter at hand. Our Inspectorate has pictures of your violation. If you add up the damages, it’s over twenty thousand Hryvnia. That means, that we are not discussing the simple matter of an administrative fine. No indeed, you as General Director of the company, are criminally liable. Are you aware of this?” he asks arching his eyebrows and looking over the top of his glasses.

“Are you opening a criminal case against my client?” pipes up my lawyer, suddenly awake and alert.

When speaking with a Ukrainian government official I’d rather not even be part of a conversation with word “criminal” in it.

“Well, not at this point. I need to ask some questions.” answers the Prosecutor.

I can sense the smugness in his demeanor. He is satisfied with the way the opening is playing out. From the numerous piles of legal paperwork he picks up one in particular and starts flipping through the pages.

“It’s a shame,” sighs the Prosecutor “now that the Protocols of Inspection have been filed with my office I have to investigate”. The implication being that I had my chance to make a deal at the Inspectorate level at a reasonable rate, and that now it’s going to cost me.

“Now. Let’s get started. Passport please.”

Finding the Prosecutor's Office

I am searching for the address of the specialized prosecutor from a ministry that I’ll refer to as “Ministry X” for the purposes of this entry. The location is not obvious from the street so the lawyer and I enter the most logical choice of archways into a courtyard to continue our search. My planned supply of searching time is eroding and I am in danger of being late. They love it when you are late because it gives them license to make you wait for a hugely disproportionate amount of time. They relish this part of the corruption dance.

Finally, among a collection of weather-beaten, plastic signs next to a non-descript door we find a small “Office of the Prosecutor of Ministry X” sign. With a minute to go we enter the jumble of half-renovated office space and begin the game of trying to find the office we need. We approach a secretary with our plight and after the requisite “you are nobody to me” delay she finally turns away from the television to look at us. Her demeanor can only be described as the personification of the phrase “You’ve obviously mistaken me for someone that gives a crap”. With a scowl she motions toward a hallway that we quickly shuffle down while reading the signs on the doors. Deputy This and Deputy That all the way down the hall. The last door has the last name we are looking for on it. I am about to knock on the door when the lawyer stops me.

“Remember, the prosecutor has the right to ask for your attorney not to be present. In that case you should refuse to answer on the grounds that you might incriminate yourself. Say something about being a foreigner and not fully understanding the language. Then mention Article 63 of the constitution.”

“Article 63? Ok.”

19 October 2008

Kyiv and Prague

Visiting Prague from Kyiv I naturally begin to compare the two. Some might argue that comparing the second most popular tourist destination city in Europe (Paris being the first) to Kyiv is silly at best, the comparison nonetheless enters my thoughts.

Traffic Under Control
With no apparent large roadways, somehow the traffic, at least in the center of Prague where we stayed, is managed and under control. A matter of organizing flow, parking, and law enforcement I am guessing. The tour guide, during the boat trip, told us that up to the 18th century there was only one bridge across the Vltava river (the famous Charles bridge). Now the river is crossed by 17 bridges.

Monuments to Victims of Communist Oppression
Czech people commemorate those that were killed (among them students) opposing the communist occupation. In Ukraine, it seems that history is more of a debate subject than something that is part of the country's identity.

The streets are filled with tourists, even in these cool fall days. I can't imagine Prague in the summer when the tourism most likely detracts from what the city has to offer. Kyiv has so much to offer and so little real tourist infrastructure. The impact of a healthy tourist industry, and all the required services, would be huge in Kyiv.

14 October 2008

High-times at the Security Council

On Ukrainian television yesterday I came across a clip of President Yushchenko conducting a National Security Council meeting and then I heard him say something about laying in a field of Marijuana. Blogger Abdymok captured the intriguing line of reasoning: read it here.

13 October 2008

The Champ is Back! Klitschko vs. Peter, Berlin 11.10.2008

Vitaliy Klitschko, after a four-year hiatus, entered the ring last Saturday night to face Samuel "the Nigerian Nightmare" Peter in the WBC Heavyweight Championship of the world. He was extremely well received in the O2 World Arena by both the Germans, who consider the long-time Hamburg resident one of their own, and of course by the Ukrainians from Germany, other EU countries, the USA, and from Ukraine. The Ukrainian flags numbered in the hundreds and were being waved throughout the brand new arena, only opened a few weeks earlier.

The national anthems of both countries (Ukraine and Nigeria) where played with flags displayed in the ring.

Entering the ring to the tune of AC/DC's "Hell's Bells", complete with huge bell suspended from the arena ceiling and ringing eerily, Vitaliy looked in shape and focused. Vladimir his brother, entered the ring with this training team and helped in the corner. Himself a current heavyweight champion, Vladimir was the only boxer to beat Samuel Peter in the Nigerian's long string of title bout victories.

Many Vitaliy fans were nervous. Can a fighter really come back after four years out of the ring? A video on the diamond vision was played right before the fight with best wishes said personally to Vitaliy. George Foreman, Lennox Lewis, and others (including even Mike Tyson) have Vitaliy their encouraging words.

The fight itself consisted basically of eight rounds of Vitaliy pounding on the "Nigerian Nightmare". At first I was expecting Peter to surprise us with a punch to Vitaliy's head, but he was unable to get in. Peter's small stature was no match for Vitaliy's long arms. The match ended by Peter resigning while in the corner after the eighth round. Victory Vitaliy.

We lingered after the fight and watched as Vitaliy (and Vladimir) and Vitaliy's wife all gave interviews for the media. Someone on Vitaliy's team stretched out a Ukrainian Flag behind Vitaliy as a backdrop. One of the interviews was for the audience and was broadcast in the Arena. From what I could gather, it was in German, the interviewer asked if Vitaliy was going to go back into politics. The question actually caught him off guard and he stuttered and struggled to come up with a non-commital reply while grinning widely.

Go Vitaliy!

10 October 2008

Swan Song for the Orange Revolution

A swan song is being sung in Ukraine for the Orange Revolution. Of the team that once stood together on the stage on Maidan Nezalezhnosti even Yuriy Lutsenko is now breaking from supporting President Yushchenko. The OR has received a great deal of retrospective heat since those cold days on Maidan in 2004. It seems the predominate opinion is that the political capital established by President Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko has been recklessly squandered replaced instead by in-fighting and indecisiveness. The teenager on T.V. yesterday asks: "When are politicians going to stop worrying so much about politics and start worrying about Ukraine and its economy?"

As much as I too would have loved to see the days on Maidan followed up with mass indictments of corrupt government bureaucrats, the OR will always hold a special place in my heart due to the simple fact that Ukrainians rose up together, stood their ground , and demanded their voice be heard. It was an incredible, festive, peaceful time of working together as a people.

Nowhere have I seen this captured better on film than in the "Orange Chronicles" by Damyan Kolodiy. (cf. Orange Chronicles Website)

Damyan has been faithfully conducting viewings and participating in film festivals with his documentary. Most recently he has shown his film in London, and at the EU in Brussels. See his interview with BBC here: BBC Interview

08 October 2008

Ukrainian Hospitality

The King and Queen of Sweden spent three days in Ukraine last week. On their itinerary was a visit to a "Swedish" settlement in the Kherson Oblast. The citizens where thrilled with the visit. In a television interview, a woman said "I was thinking that they would stay for a few days at least. They only visited for one day. They should stay longer. 'Malo' she said."

24 August 2008

Ukraine's 17th Anniversary of Independence

Even though I am in Lviv, the first time for independence day, I found myself watching the live coverage of the Independence Day parade in Kyiv on T.V. on this news channel called "24". This year, after a seven year hiatus, Ukraine brought back the military parade down Khreschatyk. Yuriy Yekhanurov, Minister of Defense, standing in the back seat of his Zil convertible addressed each of the military units assembled in parade dress stretching from maidan to TSUM. He then returned to Maidan, dismounted the Zil and walked down a red carpet to the podium where President Yushchenko. They exchanged some unamplified words, presumably a quick report about the state of the military from the Minister of Defense to the President, followed by a hand shake. He then took a place next to the President and the parade started. Each branch marched by to the music of the military orchestra. The orchestra was playing a marching medley which oddly included the phantom of the opera theme. Tanks and other mechanized units followed the marching troops. After the armored vehicles helicopters, then jets, and finally an escorted bomber flew overhead to the cheers of the crowd. In his speech Yushchenko mentioned that Ukraine is on the path to "Euro-atlantic" integration, carefully avoiding the term "North-atlantic". Yulia was not shown in any of the coverage. I wonder where she is celebrating?

21 April 2008

Villa Gross

Villa Gross, another luxury goods store opened in Kyiv the other day. We are living in times that are forgiving of weak translations .

29 September 2007

"Dolls" Exhibit Opens!

Ola's new art exhibit opened successfully last Thursday, 27.09.07, at Suzirya on Jaroslavyj Val 14. The exhibit will remain at Suzirya until October 14th and is open for viewing throughout the day, including weekends. More details here.

Ola's description of the exhibit:
"Dolls, more specifically Ukrainian dolls, are not just representations of human beings but symbolic in various ways. For some, nostalgia for childhood and for others simply toys. They can be cute, awkward, still or alive, but never perfect just like us. Most amazingly they say so much with silence and their simplicity."

Ukraine Advances No. 7 Car Market in Europe

Ukraine continues to climb the charts in terms of automotive markets in Europe. Good for business. Bad for traffic. In August alone over 51,000 new vehicles were registered in Ukraine. (Data Courtesy of Auto-Consulting)

26 September 2007

Stagebuilders on Speed

If anyone, other than billboard owners, is making any money on these elections it's the stage builders of this town. Massive stages complete with walls and ceilings are erected for a day of political propaganda and then hastily disassembled. Up and down they go. All over the city. Here is PoR's, on Maidan - almost as big as Elton John's.

25 September 2007

Putin's Dacha Neighborly Relations

Similar to my oligarch neighbor, it appears Putin's causing waves in his dacha neighborhood too. interactive map from WSJ

20 September 2007

Morning Commute

On Tuesday half my management team was two hours late due to yet anothergrizzly accident on Moscow Bridge. Two dead.

Kyiv Post just published an relevant article: Surge in roadway accidents detected.
...fatalities grew by 22.9 percent from 4,425 deaths in 2006 to 5,596 in 2007 DAI head Alexei Kalinskiy said that accidents are up by 34.8 percent during the first eight months of this year to more than 163,000 compared to 120,000 recorded during the same period in 2006.

Tips for surviving your commute based on my observations: drive a big car with air bags, stay out of the left lane when there is an opposing traffic lane and no guard rail, and don't drive fast.