28 December 2005

Would you choose "YAK" for the name of a jet?

I’m flying to Donetsk for the day and wondering if Ukraine and Russia will go to war over gas. Yekhanurov actually said that Ukraine can just siphon off the amount it needs from the pipe that runs through Ukraine and transports 80% of GazProm’s gas. He claims it’s perfectly legal. I spread out in the back rows of the 120 seater Yakovlev Yak-42. The seats are old and small but all is well since I have a row of three to myself. As an added bonus the seats on these Yaks fold fully flat, so I’m able to push the seat in front of me completely out of my way, giving me additional space. It’s really casual flying in Ukraine. I get to go to Donetsk and back in the same day (sames applies for Dnipropetrovsk, Odesa, and other cities). There are no lines, no safety instructions, no need to put my tray table in the upright position, no need to store my bag under the seat in front of me. In fact, no one cares if you wear the seat belt or not. People actually smirk when they see me buckle mine. In a way I can see why. The belt presumably isn’t going to do much good when this jet loses its engines and nosedives in the steppe. Cell phones and electronic devices? No worries, you might have spotty network coverage, but use 'em if you got 'em. The Russian language newspaper that's provided, a Donetsk publication (it is DonBassAero after all), has a photo of Yushchenko in military fatigues during his Iraq visit. Also there is an article about how the Artemivsky champagne factory is terminating the brand "Sovietske Shampanske". No more of the green bottles with the simple black label. End of an era. Of course none of it matters if Ukraine goes to war with Russia over gas.

22 December 2005

Milinkevich Update

Belarus dictator Lukashenko has now moved up the Belarus' election from July to March 19th. Milinkevich claims that Lukashenko is scared of the opposition's rising popularity. Details here.

O Khto Khto Poroshenka Lubyt?

In this land of contrasts, after leaving the Pora-Reforms and Order convention, modestly held in the space of one movie theater, I bump into at least six orange Nasha Ukraina tents on Maidan handing out Poroshenko's "Roshen" chocolates to children in honor of Sviatoho Mykolaya. In the Pora meeting Kaskiv mentioned the fact that the media is starting to refer to Pora-Reforms and Order as the "Third Orange Block". Kaskiv said "Make no mistake about it. We are not orange. We are zoloti." Applause filled the room.

21 December 2005

"PORA-Reforms and Order" National Convention

On Sviatoho Mykolaya, December 19th, the political block "PORA-Reforms and Order" had a convention at the Ukraina Cinema on Horodetskoho St. The block consists of PORA (Kaskiv), the Reforms and Order Party (Pynzenyk), and front man, heavy-weight champion of the world: Vitaly Klitschko. I visited the convention for a couple hours as a guest. The speeches were based on the simple premise that the revolution on the stage on maidan, and the revolution among the people standing on maidan were two different revolutions. PORA-RandO are positioning themselves as the harbinger of the ideals of maidan and the only pro-democratic, oligarch clean, party in the parliamentary campaign. Klitschko delivered a measured but inspirational speech about how he chose to align himself with the party because it is the only party free of connections to business and free of oligarchs. In other speeches specific examples of corruption in the Kyiv City Administration were given and it was announced that PORA activists putting up politically charged stickers were detained by police. The stickers have the faces of Kuchma, Yanukovych, and Kivalov with the caption "PORA Spytaty - Chomu vony ne sydiat" (meaning why are they not "sitting" in jail). A guest speaker, the opposition leader from Azerbaijan spoke of the movement of democracy in the post-Soviet space. See my photos from inside the convention. Also the party list has been published here. PORA-Reforms and Order information can be found here.

16 December 2005

We are the Champions

It's December 9th, a Saturday night, and I’m taking Maya and Kalyna to Victor Petrenko’s “We are the Champions” figure skating show. They actually stay awake through three hours of skating. I also stay awake. The loud music helps. If there is one thing Ukrainian promoters have down pat it’s audio systems at events. Judging from the info on the ticket I am expecting a lame “has been” show. There is a tendency for over the hill artists to perform in Kyiv. The Scorpions and Joe Cocker visit annually and just last month Judas Priest and Nazareth made an appearance. So here we are at Palace of Sports and the night ends up being full of surprises. Surprise 1: Korona chocolates is sponsoring the event and has placed a chocolate bar and brochure on every seat in the house (not surprising). The surprise is that when we finally navigate to our seats, only seconds before the start of the event (of course), only our seats are empty, in a sea of people, and there in each seat is the chocolate and brochure. No one had swiped them. When I explain this to people at work they say, well zvychayno if you are taking about an event that cost was 96 hryvnia ($19.20) for each seat this is not your average person. This is a person with osvita and kultura. Surprise 2: The place is 90% full even at these prices. Surprise 3: the skating is excellent. Take my opinion with a grain of salt since it is my first time watching figure skating live, but I am impressed and happy that I’m spending money on this and not on that lame Poplavsky concert. You GO, you former world and European champions. I don’t recognize their names when they are announced, although the crowd certainly does. Surprise 4: This is the first Palace of Sports event that has a Ukrainian feel to it since one of the two MC’s speaks only Ukrainian, while the other one speaks Russian. Pliushchenko, the skater from St. Petersburg and an Olympic medal hopeful, came out with a big orange flag. The crowd cheered. He then proceeds to strip down to his sparkling gold Speedo underwear to the tune of “Sex Bomb”. When the show is over I ask Maya and Kalyna who their favorite skater is. Was it Petrenko and the intricate number he skated with his little daughter? Was it the graceful former world champion Yevgenia Hordieva? Nope. The girls are in agreement that it’s definitely the guy in the gold gatsi. For two days after the event it’s all about the crazy gatsi guy.

The amount of police inside was above average. I’ve lived here long enough to not even notice how weird it is that real police are in the arena instead of the rent a cops I am used to at American sporting events. When I hear them announce that Kateryna Yushchenko is in the audience (“let’s hear it for Pani President” they said) with her daughters it’s clear why the extra security is there. Although I’m not sure I’d rely on these crack cops one of which is standing directly in front of us. He looks 18 and has his hand buried in a bag of sunflower seeds tossing them in his mouth and spitting the shells on the ground. Not exactly scanning the rafters for a shooter.

So the girls are leaning forward in their seats and enjoying the skating and the lights which paint snow flakes and other geometric designs on the ice. They are also enjoying their Pringles, popcorn, water (with and without gas) and of course the free Korona chocolates. You think someone tainted them? Let me taste them first. Tato work. As I look at the figure skaters I can’t help but wonder if it would be more entertaining if they had hockey sticks in their hands and launched a slap shot or two once in a while. There could be a mandatory double-axel, a solchow and a slap shot. Nice.
After the show, at Maya’s request we embark on a futile quest to find her friends that are purportedly somewhere in the stands. We find nobody, but somehow we end up on the actual ice rink. It appears the rink is open to all to walk and slide around. The girls tried to keep up with the snowflake light patterns moving across the ice. Five pictures here.

13 December 2005

Security risk in posting Milinkevich Interview?

I received an email from a close family member who was very concerned (an understatement) about my posting the Milinkevich interview on my blog. I respect this person’s opinion so I thought about the e-mail a great deal. I agree that security is an issue not to be taken lightly, especially for an American living outside of the Bush USA. In fact, now that things are so screwed up, security is an issue even living in the USA. Not sure if I would feel that my family is very secure getting on that plane in Miami with a Federal Air Marshal’s .357 SIG P266 blazing away. Yes, the Marshal was decisive, made a tough call, and validated the training dollars spent on him, but the fact remains: metal bullets were airborne.

The author of the email recommended that I keep my political views to myself.
I try not to have many political views. The media/political spin placed on any set of facts creates such a foggy situation that when conversations go there my brain glazes over and starts thinking about when my driver’s license expires or who won the game last night. To me the Belarus issue is not political it’s a more fundamental human rights issue. Milinkevich confirmed this in our conversation. People are being robbed of their freedom and dignity. When considering security risks related to the posting of the interview on my blog, I think back to why I invested valuable time doing the interview in the first place. It comes down to the way I was raised. Like it or not when someone takes basic freedoms away from others for personal gain it really gets me going. Why? Maybe it started with the fact that my father fought in Vietnam. I was aware of this. He came home in one piece. He also managed to bring war stuff back, some of which he shared with us. Among them were unit colors (flag), a Vietnamese bamboo fishing trap, even the punji stake that went in one side of his calf and out the other. To this day, when I visit him, I pause in his basement for a look at the things from war. In Ukie School and Plast I dreamed of liberating Ukraine, literally with my toy guns and NFL sleeping bag. My American friends had G.I. Joe action figures that were US Army or Marines. My G.I. Joe was a Ukrainian Partisan, with kung-fu grip, singing “Oy Vydno Selo”. When I think back I recall being part of family visits to friends houses on Sundays. The Tatos were yelling at the Redskins on the football field, the Mamas were talking in the kitchen, and my pre-pubescent friends and I were upstairs, with maps, pencils, and model tanks, planning the invasion to liberate Ukraine. As far as the adults were concerned, this was not abnormal. “Very nice dear, would you like a cookie and some milk?”
Somehow we found out, at school maybe, that the American Government didn’t operate quite that way. At least not when Billy Kilmer was quarterback.
When the possibility of meeting Milinkevich came up I jumped on it. I'm making it a mission to be open to unusual opportunities (part of my ongoing mid-life crisis). How can I turn my back on the chance to do my tiny bit, like meeting the guy and getting the word out to my stunning blog traffic of 1.5 readers per day? Not exactly a blip on a radar screen, but something nonetheless.

Do I care about the safety and security of my family?
Of course I do. I also care about the values my children grow up with. It may sound cheesy, but I want them to understand that not all people have the human freedoms that they enjoy. I want them concerned when someone’s freedom of expression or choice is being stepped on. I’m not talking about making them little Jarheads or raising armies to invade countries, I’m talking about peaceful, intelligent awareness and support in their own spheres of influence. Also, let’s be real about the risks here. I live in Ukraine not Belarus. The Ukies have enough problems of their own to notice what Petro's writing about the Belarus regime. The chain of events would have to be pretty complex: someone in the Belarusian Government Regime, who happens to understand English, miraculously comes across my Blog (which even Google can’t find to save it’s life) and appeals to the Ukrainian Government for the removal of Petro via some trumped up violation of the Ukrainian Criminal Code (assuming everyone decides to make Petro the priority for the day). So we pack up and leave while explaining to the kids why we are leaving. These events they will remember. I then take advantage of the current affairs appeal of the story (i.e. Belarus Elections, a Modern Day Dictator, and the Security Implications of Blogging) and market it to a major New York book publisher, cashing royalty checks at Fiji Savings Bank on the beach for the rest of my days.

Am I taking any measures to reduce risk?
1. I’ve changed the email address on the blog to an anonymous Gmail account and removed any appearance of my last name from the whole blog.
2. I’ve started to second guess my desire to go to Minsk to be an official observer of the 2006 Belarus Presidential Election in July.
I do appreciate the concern and wonder if anyone else out there would care to comment? Finally, I’ll rehash an Edmund Burke quote that was tossed about during the Orange Revolution. "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing".

08 December 2005

Rice and Rukavychka

Yesterday, Condoleeza Rice was in Kyiv meeting with Yushchenko while my daughter Maya was a mole in the 5 year-olds’ production of Rukavychka. Maya had her lines well memorized and delivered them with a big smile: “I’m freezing…I need someplace to get warm...”. I have it all on video. So do ten other parents. Rice had her lines well memorized too: “you guys are doing ok but you need to work a little harder on making good on the promises of the Orange Revolution”. I don't think those were her exact words. After the play, Maya’s class sang a few christmas songs. After meeting Yushchenko, Rice met with Timoshenko on the way to the airport. America departed. In the multi-purpose room it was the mouse, not the bear, that exploded the Rukavychka in the end.

07 December 2005

Interview with Belarus Opposition Leader Alexander Milinkevich

Last week, I had the unusual opportunity (thanks to Damyan) to meet with and interview Alexander Milinkevich who, in a recent congress of opposition parties, was elected to lead the unified opposition against President Lukashenko in the 2006 Belarus Presidential Election. Belarus, dubbed by Condoleeza Rice as “the last dictatorship in Europe” is suffering from a total human freedom clampdown by reigning dictator Lukashenko. With total control of all government institutions, including the Central Election Commission, the legislature, the judiciary and mass media, Lukashenko is attempting to prevent an “Orange Revolution” in Belarus. Recently, the Belarus Verkhovna Rada passed changes in legislation, ordered by Lukashenko, in order to further take away liberties from the citizens of Belarus with the goal of complicating matters for the opposition. These modifications bump many current misdemeanors to felony offense level. For example, public gatherings not authorized by the government will get you 3-5 years in prison. Definition of a public gathering? Five or more people. Distributing brochures and leaflets not sanctioned by the government? 3-5 years in prison. Not to mention the constant threat of losing one’s job or place at a University if one is suspected of being involved with the opposition. The “Orange Revolution” however, has given the Belarus people hope that change is possible. Low-key Milinkevich might just be the candidate that is capable of bringing together disparate opposition parties into a unified front. He and his team have placed their lives on the line in pursuit of freedom. Will enough people hit the streets in protest? This and other questions were part of our conversation:

P: In your estimation is it fair to say that Alexander Milinkevich 2006 is Victor Yushchenko 2004?
AM: When we achieve victory then the comparison is absolutely fair. You have to understand I am only a “candidate of candidates” in a congress of democratic forces I was selected to represent the unified opposition. In the sense that I represent a broad civil and political coalition, perhaps I am close to being a Yushchenko.

P: Were all opposition forces represented at this congress, all democratic forces?
AM: Practically all, there were 10 political parties, only the Social Democrats did not attend, and approximately 200 civic organizations were represented. This was a large gathering in which all regions of Belarus were represented.

P: Are the Social Democrats the party of Professor Kazulin?
AM: Yes Professor Kazulin who believes that we should approach like this [gestures with his hand, palm down fingers spread indicating a multiple pronged approach]. We believe the opposite. There are so many small forces that have their own ideas that we must unite since we are not participating in fair elections here, we are fighting a dictatorship.

P: I am interested in understanding what your goal is. What have you established as a target for your movement? Lukashenko himself will decide what the election results will be…
AM: Yes he’ll write in for himself 75%

P: So is your goal an immediate regime change? Or is there a more long-term goal here?
AM: Our goal is to live in a different Belarus. Our goal is not to change Lukashenko for another president. That’s just a step in the process. We do not want to live in the kind of Belarus that he built. He built Belarus by brute force, he built Belarus on fear. We do not want to live in this type of Belarus, nor do the majority of our people. Therefore, we wish to take advantage of the election campaign to get information to the people. And the main method we will use is the campaign “Door to Door”. Lukashenka has, for many, many years, specifically denied us access to television that has been monopolized by the authorities. At the beginning of the year there were 18 independent newspapers where four years ago there were 60. Starting next year, he will only allow the publication of three independent newspapers. So there are less and less media outlets for real information. There is still the Internet and a few tiny newspapers that are published underground. The main method is to literally go to the people. We will win when we are able to get to the people’s minds. First, we must convey that we are the majority, there is no need to fear, we must fight and behind us are the truth and the future.

P: Yes, people will not know if their neighbor is for the opposition, or not. If information is controlled, it’s really difficult…
AM: It’s ironic, the TV continuously feeds information that support for Lukashenko is 90% in some cities, 60% in others. He is simply not telling the truth. The situation, in reality, is quite the opposite.

P: What mechanisms will the “Door to Door” campaign use?
AM: Clearly it will involve people literally walking with information. It’s winning with people. It’s conversations and then leaving behind information. Also we ask what problems people have and engage in further conversation. Of course in normal times we would immediately be arrested by the police for this type of activity. However, during the period of the election campaign we at least have a chance that we do not have a right to waste, although we know that our voices are not heard by the authorities for many, many years already. In strict terms, we demand fair elections. If he again makes the elections dishonest and not according to the constitution, we will call the people to the streets.

P: These new laws Lukashenko recently pushed through don’t help matters.
AM: It goes without saying. The actions I just described are punishable by three years in jail.

P: Do these laws apply during the election campaign?
AM: These law changes are directly about the campaign. He is limiting our access to mass media more and more and as if that’s not enough, he is now forcing us to be silent, not to talk. He is afraid that we will come to people with this type of campaign (“Door to Door”) and convince them with our words, we won’t need the newspapers. The government is correct to be afraid. Legally it is impossible for Lukashenko to win.

P: The Orange Revolution: is information about it distributed? Do people know about it?
AM: Unfortunately, only those people who read independent newspapers. There was also some TV, satellite TV, but the government continuously squashes this information. They were delighted when Timoshenko left, they see that there are rifts. They are also delighted when they see there are not immediate improvements in the economy. They interview those people that say “We’re disillusioned”. Propaganda is working continuously. Like in Europe, when the EU did not pass its constitution, the government immediately made a big issue out of it.

P: In a recent poll 45% of the population responded that a regime change is due. At the same time the economic situation of the average citizen is higher than that of the average Ukrainian. Pensions are paid on time and there is some sense of order. Will people remain passive, or do you believe they are ready to come out and risk the sense of order even though it’s at the cost of repressions of freedom? Will people go to the streets?
AM: The numbers, for example, are as follows. 25% are loyal Lukashenko supporters. 25% are supporters of democratic forces. Then there remains 50% undecided. People who are not sure if it’s better this way or that way. There are many that want change but are afraid. It is true that in Belarus people live, on average, better than in Ukraine or Russia. It is true that there is relative so-called order, but this is order based on use of force, on instilling fear in people.

P: Order based on a large club…
AM: Absolutely right. In the time of Stalin there was also order, and when Hitler was in power there was also order and the streets were clean. But order without freedom and choice has no future. Our foundation is not built on those people that want more bread and salo, but on those people who want freedom, on those people that want to live with their dignity and not be trampled upon. These are educated people. These are young people.

P: During the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, internal government dissension was one of the critical success factors. For example the Minister of Transportation ignored a direct order from the Prime Minister to stop all trains from Western Ukraine to Kyiv. What is the probability of internal government dissension in Belarus?
AM: This will be very difficult for us. In Ukraine, there is still, to some degree, regional self-government (samo-vriaduvaniya). Mayors are elected by the people. The Mayor might not have cared what Yanukovych wanted, he was more concerned about his constituency. They are the ones that keep him in place. We have nothing like that. All positions from the top to the bottom are appointed by Lukashenka. They depend on him absolutely. Of course there is some dissent, but I think in our case government officials will begin to come over to our side only when we begin winning. Or the rating of a candidate becomes significantly high relative to Lukashenko’s. Or our campaign will be so successful that that they will see our power. Or if there is a victory in the election of a candidate of the democratic forces. Until we demonstrate power, they will wait.

P: What can people that are not in Belarus: Ukrainians, Americans, Canadians, what can they do to help in the fight for freedom and dignity?
AM: There are two big problems that our partners, people that are not indifferent to what happens in Belarus, people for whom it is important for Belarus to become a free country, can help with. Information support is important, and help in fighting fear is important. We have to support the independent newspapers that Lukashenko is trying to shut down. They are published in Russia and need financial help. All 18 independent newspapers need help because in the end they will have to be distributed for free. It’s also very important to publish small newspapers locally. We have a great deal of experience in this. This is a big weapon for us. First, there is no censoring. Second we can distribute these throughout the country. These are the ways we need help with information. When I speak about fear it’s very important for Belarus that in democratic countries a fund has been established for victims of repression. When a person has legal expenses, they are covered, when there is fine, the fine is covered. When a student is expelled from a University for free-thinking, for participating in a political protest… when a student understands that there is a place reserved for him, at no charge, at a University in Prague or Warsaw he will be more self-confident and he will not be afraid to come out and fight for freedom.

P: Speaking of youth, is there a youth organization, a strong one?
AM: We do not have such a movement in Belarus, although we do have some development of youth organizations not only in Minsk, but in other cities. Organizations like ZUBR, Youth Front, and Rights Alliance, the good thing is that they have formed a type of coalition. They’ve united and together they are implementing a mobilization campaign.

P: The composition of your “Maidan” is comprised of what? Is it 50% young, 50% old, what is it?
AM: First of all it will be the youth, but small proprietors and business people should come out as well. They are almost all dissidents that understand that in the current regime there is not future for them.

P: You have two sons right? What ages are they?
AM: One is 31 years old, he’s a lawyer, finished law school and is now doing business law, and the other is still a student he’s 16.

P: And they live in Belarus?
AM: They live in Belarus, in the same city as I do.

P: Do you find any time for family?
AM: It makes me very sad; I also have a grand-daughter, that I see my family so rarely. There are times when a month goes by and I do not see them. They believe in me and support me, although they are afraid something might happen to me.

P: Do you find any current or historical world-renown figures inspirational? Why?
AM: In the history of Belarus there are famous people that are examples for me. First of all is one of the rulers of Grand Duchy Of Lithuania in which there were Lithuanians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians. He was Vytautas the Great who, in fact, started his political career in the town where I am from. He was able to unite a great number of nationalities, and there was a great deal of tolerance towards people. And there was also Kastus Kalinowski our national hero that in the year 1863 created an uprising in Belarus against Russia. In fact, my ancestors were part of that uprising. My grand father and great-grandfather were victims of repression. And regarding contemporary figures, Belarus is proud of its creative elite and these individuals support me and that is of great significance. They are a cultural elite that do not wish to live in Belarus the way it is now.

P: Is there an underground cultural, art movement?
AM: Yes there is an underground culture. Their writings are not published because of government censorship. We have successful rock groups that are famous in other countries and in our country they are prohibited from performing. They are not liked by the authorities. Yes there is much art and we want all art to develop freely and we will make it so.

P: To recap, maybe you could say something as if you were addressing the people of Belarus.
AM: I will say that uprising that I mentioned in 1863 the circumstances were very difficult. A small kernel of people called upon simple peasants, upon the nobles, regardless of the huge machine of the Czars Empire, the Army, they still rose up. They rose up because they believed that they would raise the spirit of the people. So I believe that when our revolution happens, like in Ukraine, the same as in Ukraine the goal will be the spirit. This will not be a revolution for financial gain. This uprising will happen with the slogan: “For your and our freedom”. It’s impossible for there to be freedom in one country, when in a neighboring country there is tyranny. We are fully expecting that when Belarus joins the family of democratic countries it will not only be our victory. It will be a victory for the entire democratic world. So I would say it like this: “For your and our freedom”. It’s good that in America, Canada, and Europe there are people that are not indifferent to this. Thank you for this. The issue of victory, however, is our issue. But your support of us is exceptionally important.

P: We are with you and wish you success!
AM: Thank you. Thank you for your interest towards us.

30 November 2005

Kalyna Beats the System

Tato, lay with me” says Kalyna, 4, at bedtime. Ok, I lay down with her. All is quiet. Then, “Tato, don’t mess up my bed” she says.
“Ok, but why not Kalyna?” I ask.
“I don’t want to make the bed again tomorrow morning”
"You don’t want to get comfortable under the covers? It’s worth making your bed isn’t it?”
“If we move to another house you’ll have to make your bed again” I add.
“One time Tato. One time in each house.”
“Dobranich Kalyna”
“I mean it, Tato.”

27 November 2005

Parliamentary Election Campaign 2006: Day 1

By Ukrainian law, yesterday was the first day of the Parliamentary Election Campaign 2006. For the first time in Ukraine, the party-list proportional system will be used to determine how the 450 seats are distributed.

A few items of note:
1. From what I can tell, there will be a 3% barrier for a party to get any seats in teh VR. A party must achieve 3% of the popular vote to be part of the proportional distribution.
2. Yulia held a meeting of her "block" behind closed doors. What happened outside the closed doors was covered by UA Pravda.
3. Mykola Tomenko walked from PRP (Party of Reform and Poriadok - Pynzenyk) to go onto the BYT (Block Yuli Tymoshenko) deputy list where he says he will be fifth. He was one of the big figures in the OR, and another personal favorite of mine because his background is academic (history) not business. The PRP has not yet decided to become part of BYT, although unofficially it is widely believed they will do so.
4. Anatoliy Matvienko's (another one on my A-list) Sobor Party is split. Yesterday he signed a coalition agreement with Yushchenko's Nasha Ukraina. But Sobor is also shown as a part of BYT.

I wonder if there is a website out there that has a party list with block affiliations updated in real-time? Add some odds and we could have a new betting site.

Holodomor: To Inflict Death by Hunger

By Yushchenko's Presidential decree, yesterday, November 26th was deemed a national day of remembrance of the victims of the Holodomor and political repressions. A country-wide moment of silence was observed at 16:00. "Neeka's backlog" has a link to the Wikipedia entry for the Holodomor. I've been aware of the famine, of course, but it's been a long time since I read anything about it. Also when people talk about Walter Duranty I finally know the full story.

26 November 2005

Conversation with a Dream Opening Night!

Last night Ola's art exhibit opened to a full house at Gallery RA. In the photo above, Ola is standing with Andriy the owner of Gallery RA and sharing her thoughts on the work she presented and how it came to be. The guests warmed themselves after the icy cold outside by sipping cognac and red wine and the mood was festive and high-spirited. In one room visitors experienced the dream, which was mounted on the ceiling and illuminated by a black flourescent light. The discontinuous Jazz explorations of Dave Holland provided a good acoustical background to the exhibit. In another room paintings, mostly of faces, were mounted on the exposed, ancient brick walls which gave the whole painting exhibit a unique feel. More pictures here. The kids liked being part of Mama's big night as well:

24 November 2005

OR Anniversary, Maidan Clears Out

When Maidan clears out Damyan and I linger to talk to people. The camera is like a magnet. People want to be heard. We try to speak with individuals but inevitably small groups form around us with everyone adding their thoughts to the discourse. It is really difficult to get a “real” interview going. Both Yushchenko supporters and their opponents seem to be throwing out canned arguments.

Victor from Kyiv: "It takes time to fight such deep rooted corruption. It doesn’t happen overnight. We have a lot of work to do and we have to stay together. It’s up to each of us in our sphere of influence to stop bribing and stealing."

Oleh, a Donetsk native, explains what a great economist Yanukovych is and that his platform is the only viable future for Ukraine. He mirrors the Regions Party line almost verbatim – you know the one about the OR being a well-financed theatrical presentation that a minority of the country was behind, etc. It’s interesting how uniform the positions and arguments are: political rhetoric and posturing mimicking the speakers on the stage. I ask several onlookers the question “Do you think Ukraine could slide back to a repressive regime like the one under Kuchma?” The answer is a resounding "NO" in all cases: “If it starts to slide we’ll really come out to Maidan again.”
“You mean you are not on Maidan now?” I ask Franz, a Yushchenko supporter from Donbass.
“No. This is not Maidan. It’s a nice reminder. But it’s not Maidan.”
(more pictures here)

OR Anniversary, Maidan

Memories of last year flood in as I walk down the slushy sidewalk of Prorizna towards Khreschatyk. The weather is a perfect copy of revolution Day 1. A wet cold penetrates immediately into my boots and gloves. No matter, the adrenaline starts pumping when I see the orange clad throngs heading towards Maidan. The crowd is larger than I expected, given the level of disenchantment voiced by most Ukrainians I meet. Maidan is full and fairly densely packed. The flag quantity is out of control. I stand, sandwiched in the crowd, looking through a forest of fishing rod flag poles. Orange flags and Batkivshchyna flags (Yulia Tymoshenko’s) with the purple band across the bottom of a Ukrainian flag are out in full force.

If I ignore certain things, like the large police presence and the occasional staggering drunk walking by, I initially feel like I did a year ago immersing myself in the positive vibe which I wouldn’t exactly call “subdued” like the AP reported. It’s actually quite festive. But then it hits me that a certain “bonding” is missing in the crowd. We’re packed like sardines in the crowd and I see a guy grab someone’s umbrella and rip it up. The umbrella owner had refused to take it down when informed that it was blocking people’s view. In another incident, after the crowd swayed back and forth to the closing song “Ukraina”, a fist-fight broke out in front of the stage. It’s possible that I idealize everything about the OR in my brain, but I have no recollection of anything like that happening. Was it PORA policing the crowd last year that helped prevent these situations?

Maybe it’s the absence of the element of fear that we shared a year ago. Things we feared: the electricity being cut, authorities clearing out Maidan by force, Russia making a move, and Channel 5 being taken off the air. (Last year thousands of people gasped in unison when Channel 5 blinked and then went off the air…followed by sighs of relief when it came back a few minutes later).
Lutsenko’s speech is a highlight of the activity on the stage. His animated appeal to keep the faith and stay the course is well received by the crowd. Sidenote: earlier in the day, our film-making cousin Damyan bumped into Lutsenko randomly on the street and snagged an interview. Here’s Damyan (with Ola):

He filmed many hours on Maidan last year (and the AvtoProbih around Ukraine) and he’s here to film the anniversary to include in his unique documentary: Orange Chronicles.

Yushchenko’s and Tymoshenko’s speeches are too long and rambling. An opportunity to show Ukraine a new unity is not taken advantage of. Yulia does a better job speaking, compared to Yushchenko and his flipping through stacks of notes and papers. What else is new? Yushchenko enumerates the achievements of the new government, many of which seem plausible and true (keep in mind I am a Yushchenko believer) but the audience isn’t exactly the model of attentiveness given the way he was speaking and the poor amplification. Both Y and Y go on and on about the need to be united and that they are willing to do anything it takes to be united, but neither does any sort of gesture towards the other one. The people I speak with are annoyed at the lack of unity on stage. They think the division is silly and not good for Ukraine.

OR Anniversary, 15:30 Here’s the Orange

Just after leaving my house, heading toward Maidan on the Zhytomyrska highway into Kyiv I am surprised to see a group of men on a pedestrian bridge overhead proudly waving orange flags. Beyond the bridge eight buses from Rivne were pulled over to the side of the road waiting for the rest of their convoy before continuing to Maidan.

This group, barely stopping to breathe between sentences, explained that they came from Rivne to celebrate a great victory. The victory of freedom. Smiles, flag waving, cars and trucks with horns blaring in acknowledgement -- a good start to the day.

22 November 2005

OR Anniversary, 08:30 No Orange In Sight

Only two things differentiated the ride to the kid's school this morning. First, a PORA poster hanging from the pedestrian bridge over the highway when entering the city limits. It had the faces of Yushchenko and Timoshenko and the text "Pora Jikh Spytaty". Second, a woman, one of dozens of people at the marshutka stop was wearing an orange bandana on her arm. By the time I got to work I probably passed a few hundred commuters walking on the sidewalks and waiting at bus stops. No orange in sight. No orange on any of the cars on the road either.

A year ago we were glued to Channel 5 in our apartment (most of Ukraine had no access to this channel) when around 2am, Yushchenko and Timoshenko asked everyone to come out to Maidan to protest against massive (mashtabny) falsifications. We kept the kids home from school and headed out to Maidan. I remember how taken aback I was at the numbers already assembled there before 9am. People were enthusiastically greeting one another and exchanging stories about how hard it was to get out of work for the day. Many explained to me that their bosses had said that going to Maidan would cost them their jobs. Their attitude was "Screw the boss, we're not kozly". Others related that their bosses had shut down the office and urged (practically required) the employees to go home, dress warmly, and come to Maidan. Still others were discussing how their friends and families from all over Ukraine were mobilizing to come to Kyiv. We waited for Yushchenko to come on stage. It was a morning of firsts for me. The first time I heard the historic chant "Yush-chen-ko". The first time I heard the Ukrainian language spoken by so many people in Kyiv, even before the Western Ukrainians arrived. The first time I heard "Shche Ne Vmerla Ukraina" sung in Kyiv with such passion and heartfelt pride. (Prior to that I had heard it sung at sold-out soccer matches by only a few people in the crowd. The majority looking on indifferently). Emails and photos from last year on Maidan here.

Ola's cousin Roman, a father in his thirties who tragically passed away last Spring, received a call from his mother.
"It's dangerous out there. There's talk of drunk hooligans from Donestk in buses. There will be provokatsiyi. Come home." said Teta Halya.
"I'd rather die out here, Mama, than spend another day on my knees. If anything happens to me tell my son that I stood out here, on Maidan, for his future. Tell him I love him."

21 November 2005

The Pleasures & Perils of Chucky Cheese Now in Kyiv

Yep. It's here. One floor up from the new skating rink at Karavan Mall, and it's called "Igroland". Take a Chucky Cheese, add a mini bowling alley section, an airgun battle area (where your kids can shoot foam balls at you), and a show theater area with live actors instead of robots and you have Igroland. Be sure to bring a supply of Hryvnias, because it's going to cost you. The place was packed with locals. I challenge anyone who claims the middle class is not yet developed in Ukraine (at least here in Kyiv of course) to visit Igroland.

20 November 2005

Deconstructing a McDonald's Receipt

The anniversary of the OR is imminent and most folks here are focused on more philosophical issues than anything that might happen at McDonald's, but not me. Standing in line at the Lukianivska McD's counter with my son the other day, a homeless guy politely asked if he could have my receipt once I finished my transaction. I agreed to give it to him, but apparently he was in a hurry and didn't want to wait. When the cashier handed me the coveted receipt I couldn't help but read it to try to understand what the value in it was. In the process I was amazed to find a phone number and e-mail address for feedback among other items of interest:

A. How does one translate the real meaning of "I'm Lovin' It"? "Ya Tse Lublu" doesn't quite capture it, does it? I should be glad it's in Ukrainian.
B. "FishMac" for $1.60. How much is a fish sandwich in the U.S. nowadays? FYI - there is a lot of money being spent at McDonald's. I remember a few years back the big sellers were ice cream cones, tea, and other small stuff. Now Ukrainians are buying the full gamut of McDonald's cuisine. I guess no one here has seen the movie "Super Size It". You can't super size anything here. Yet.
C. McLavash - Georgian Lavash sandwich. I bet this item isn't available back in America... is it?
D. Although it says it's the "dressing room code", it's actually a code for the bathroom. Simply punch the number into the keypad by the door and the lock opens. I guess that explains why the homeless guy wanted the receipt.

First Snow!

The first snowfall occurred almost exactly like last year. It started on the first day of the OR. The kids welcomed the snow suddenly asking questions regarding how many days left until Christmas. (The view is from the back of our house)

17 November 2005

Conversation With a Dream

Ola will be exhibiting her work in the Gallery RA on Khmelnytskoho, opening on Friday, November 25, 2005 at 18:30. Details here. Join us!

16 November 2005

OR Commemoration Schedule

Finally on ProUA we have some information about the celebration of the anniversary of the OR.  

November 22nd:
12:00-16:00 Tents and Field Kitchen Setup
16:00 Concert (Tartak, VV, Okean Elzy, Mandry, Burmaka, Petrynenko)
17:30-18:00 Opening of the meeting: “Maidan of Freedom” with a prayer for Ukraine.
18:00-18:30 Speeches by Bezsmertnyj, Stetskiv, Lutsenko, and Tomenko
18:30-20:00 Other Politicians
20:00-20:20 President’s Speech
20:30 Closing of meeting with singing of Ukrainian national anthem.

15 November 2005

It's Not a Suburb

We just moved to a village on the outskirts of Kyiv. A village where the old men and women sit on benches made of planks and inverted metal buckets. They sit silently with their heads at a slight angle watching their world change around them. The flow of newly imported cars, the old dachas being replaced by immense monstrosities and the flood of people at the marshutka stop all part of a new world that has been involuntarily thrust upon them. To add to their sense of disorientation here we com, this pack of loud Americans, moving into one of these architectural caricatures of a house. Never mind their amazement during our move into the house what with truck after truck hauling in 19 tons of strollers, hockey sticks, books, vases, and other crap we accumulated at our apartment in the center. The villagers peer in sometimes after we pull in to our driveway and before our automatic, remote controlled gates totally swing shut separating US from THEM. The scene must, no doubt, be horrific to them. Or maybe bizarrely fascinating is more accurate, as if a UFO has landed. The oversize doors of the SUV fly open. Empty juicy-juice boxes and lollipop sticks fly out to the ground followed by the footfalls of three….um…enthusiastic, simultaneously speaking children. And to think their coats are not zipped and its 13 Celsius out here? What’s that over there? Can it be the little girl has her coat off and she’s swinging it around above her head on the way up the stone stairs? And did the father just look at us and say something in Ukrainian? What the hell is going on here?
In light of all this it’s hard to agree with my friends who claim I live in the suburbs. It’s not really a suburb, more like a surreal version of a subdivision. A pack of huge funky (some may say ugly) houses built close together on top of old dachas and farm land. The kids love it. I think we’re staying for a while.