Recent press coverage of Ukraine has been extremely negative. Now, as the European Football Championships get under way, a Ukrainian writer gives a bird's eye view of the state of affairs across the country. Not a pretty picture, thinks Yuriy Andrukhovych
The recent explosions in Dnipropetrovsk, one of east Ukraine's largest industrial cities, could well be regarded as a last warning. Living in Ukraine is no longer just uncomfortable, loathsome and colourless: it is becoming ever more dangerous and bloodstained.
I should be happy to believe that the explosions had nothing to do with the authorities. Why, indeed, would they bother getting into this kind of trouble? But the very fact that public’s first reaction is to be suspicious of the authorities is in itself utterly illuminating.
I would most sincerely prefer to be wrong when I say that the current leadership of this country will stop at nothing. If they run out of common sense (and they don’t have much of that), one would hope that at the very least they would be protected by their instinct for self-preservation.
My intention was to devote these notes to my experiences while on tour with a new book this April. The tour was a remarkable opportunity to have another look at my country from within. In two weeks, my publisher and I covered a distance of approximately 2,700 kilometres in his car, visiting ten cities and towns in central, west and south Ukraine. It would have been impossible to include the east in the trip as well, because the country is too large and we would have needed another two weeks at least for that.
‘Five years ago the nation was full of drive. It had a future, despite EU reluctance to offer us any prospect of membership. The 85% of students that today are eager to leave the country for good would not even have dreamed of doing so then. I miss the country we had in April 2007.’
I meant to write about the country that I saw from the car window: about its stagnation, indifference to itself, its deterioration and ruination; as well as the mandatory and ubiquitous bribes needed for the road police.
Five years ago
I meant to make a comparison for I had something with which to compare this experience. Five years ago, I was on another tour with a new book, also in April. That time I travelled by train across the whole country: from Uzhgorod in the west to Kharkiv in the east, and from Odessa in the south to Rivno in the north. The halls where we presented the book were packed with people. During the presentation in the town of Ostroh, my friend and moderator Sashko Irvanets received a text message that Ukraine and Poland had won the competition to host Euro 2012. He announced the news to the audience and heard a roar of joy in response.
Five years ago the nation was full of drive. It had a future, despite EU reluctance to offer us any prospect of membership. The 85% of students that today are eager to leave the country for good would not even have dreamed of doing so then. I miss the country we had in April 2007.
I feel sorry for…
I feel sorry for business people that are visited by the ‘Donetsk guys’ (people connected to the current authorities or their representatives). The message is ‘We like your company, hand it over,’ usually for less than a third of the company’s market value. The ‘Donetsk guys’ have only one way of doing business: they grab everything successful and profitable from the owners. Intimidated and robbed of any hope, business people rush to take out a bank loan on all their assets and escape abroad. Soon there will be no honest business people left in this country.
I feel sorry for the journalists from the only independent TV channel, TVI. They are being pestered by the tax authorities whose main mission in today’s Ukraine is not tax collection, but political persecution. The channel stands accused of tax fraud. The reason is obvious: they criticise the president and the political system he has created. They are the only people in our TV space that are still criticising him. This is why they have been framed with a criminal tax case.
I feel sorry for the Ukrainian language that is being edged out. It is once more unwelcome in films. The tax authorities are seizing bank accounts and equipment from the country’s only successful Ukrainian-language film dubbing studio. More and more trash from the Russian pop culture market has been dumped on us. During the last few days, news has been circulating that even the commentators of the Euro 2012 games will be specially invited Russians. This is supposed to be a ‘prestige booster.’
I feel sorry for prisoners and those on trial, who have no more than a 1% (!) average chance of being acquitted in the Ukrainian courts. I feel sorry for political prisoners whose chance of being released allowed to run in the elections is even lower.
Yes, there are political prisoners in our country. Among them there are VIP political prisoners (Yulia Tymoshenko, Yuriy Lutsenko and a few others) as well as the ‘nameless’ ones whose can be numbered in dozens if not hundreds.
All this is hard to believe, but it’s true.
For a long time we tried to tone down the reality. We thought ‘they’ (those in power) would mess around a little, come up with a few threats and stop, for ‘they’ (the authorities and the opposition) were essentially the same, and would not hurt each other.
‘Yes, there are political prisoners in our country. Among them there are VIP political prisoners (Yulia Tymoshenko, Yuriy Lutsenko and a few others) as well as the ‘nameless’ ones whose can be numbered in dozens if not hundreds.’
We didn’t believe Tymoshenko and Lutsenko would be placed under arrest, but they were.
We didn’t believe they (Tymoshenko and Lutsenko) would be tried, but they were.
We didn’t believe they would be sentenced to prison terms, but they were.
What are we not to believe in now?
That Tymoshenko was really beaten up in prison? That the authorities will stop at nothing?
Still hard to believe, but true.
Ukraine in 2012
On my tour this April, I was travelling by car, rather than train. The roads in this country are in an appalling condition, though sometimes we came across reasonably decent stretches that had been quickly built by some Macedonians or Turks.
Now and then unknown philanthropists addressed us with remarkably polite messages from the roadside posters: ‘Thank you for keeping the roadside clean,’ or in a more reserved tone, ‘Thank you for not leaving your litter behind.’ In fact they had no reason to thank one, as the roadsides were not clean or even litter-free. Could it be a special form of irony? Should one perhaps understand exactly the opposite of whatever one reads?
The rubbish on the banks of our rivers reflects rubbish in the heads. It’s true: we are what we are. Euro 2012? We’ll show you how it’s done!
The impression created by the roadside posters is that the economy has ground to a halt and that there are no more goods or services (thanks to the efforts of the guys from Donetsk). The only commodity still being promoted are the various bosses apparently running in the next election. Their faces on the posters, like gigantic alien heads, grin down at us, conveying some kind of standardised greeting – and we are supposed to be pleased that they are there.
The most accurate statement belongs to the governor of Odessa: ‘The people decide and the authorities act!’ We are fortunately now well aware who ‘the people’ are for these circles: it’s the elite, the top bosses of the criminal world who take the decisions here, rather than us mere mortals.
Oh, naive Europeans! Do you still think you are talking to politicians when you are in negotiations with the Ukrainian leaders? Politicians, you say? Criminals, more like! To them you are harmless, and probably defenceless too. You are trying to engage in civilised political discussion, whereas they only respect one kind of argument: a knock over the head with a baseball bat!
This was the kind of people you greeted with such joy on the occasion of their victory in the 2010 elections!
The president of this country has not had a wasted life. He has quite a few achievements to his name: he lives in a gigantic mansion near Kiev, surrounded by forests where he hunts wild animals, and by water reservoirs where he floats in a special ‘palace on the water.’ Legions of musclemen with shaved heads guard the perimeter of the Yanukovych estate, which extends over many hectares. He has led our country out of wild capitalism and into wild feudalism. This is why he regards himself at the very least as a monarch. He has a diamond-encrusted toilet worth 350,000 euros, not bad for a former juvenile delinquent in prison who used to relieve himself into a bucket! ‘I made it!’ he thinks every time he sits down on his precious toilet, the symbol of his victory.
Fear is back
Sometimes I come across online comments about our Ukrainian reality from foreign observers. Here is one such comment: ‘Every time I read this kind of story, or watch videos and see pictures with all those cars, watches, helicopters, houses and trips to exotic islands, I ask myself: how come you are all so patient? How much longer will you go on tolerating it? Or is it that you just don't care?’
‘We do care,’ would be my answer, but we have a problem. We are afraid again. This is what’s happening. Our fear is back. The fact of the matter is that the authorities control everything: the Prosecutor’s Office, courts of justice, police, special services. If there were one tiny weak link in that structure, we would break through it, but they are united and they cover each other’s backs. One might think of it as a large-scale Sicily in the interwar period.
‘We are afraid again. This is what’s happening. Our fear is back. The fact of the matter is that the authorities control everything: the Prosecutor’s Office, courts of justice, police, special services.’
Why don’t you visit Euro 2012 and protest for us? There is just a chance they won’t dare hit you with batons or fire tear gas at you.
Or even if you don’t feel like protesting...
If you are just fond of this rotten Soviet legacy, this not quite southern but quite polluted atmosphere, the toxic emissions from gigantic industrial plants, the Lenin-Stalin monuments, the vodka with the beer chasers, the litter-strewn roadsides, ruined historical buildings that are being replaced by endless ‘business centres’ and ‘shopping malls,’ if you desire the approachable friendly girls, not necessarily infected with HIV or sexually transmitted diseases, if you are keen on the ubiquitous guards, policemen, agents, the ‘sportsmen’ with baseball bats ready for an attack……then you are most welcome here, at Ukrainian Euro 2012!