Thursday, December 29, 2011

Ten reasons to be optimistic for Ukraine in 2012

The words 'clutching' and 'straws' spring to mind, but here are some attempts at being optimistic for the coming year.

1. The Russian awakening

If you're trying to imitate the Putinist system in Ukraine, 2011 has not been a good year. The Arab spring has already challenged the convenient myth that the desire for democracy is simply a curious fetish of the western world. Putin's recent interviews have verged on incoherency, with their conflicting arguments and bizarre plot threads (Hilary Clinton has around 100 000 cheques to put in the post, and little chance that the money will arrive before the end of the New Year shopping rush. In any case, if all these people really are being paid by America, why pick on Clinton rather than Obama?). So with its slogan 'За честные выборы' ('for free elections'-a sensible call to rally around rather than trying to find a unified voice on all the various complex issues) the Russian awakening could get awkward for anyone wishing to push through a preferred outcome for the 2012 parliamentary elections in Ukraine. If the March presidential election in Russia gets messy, then the Ukrainian ones might all the more so. After all, for those Ukrainians who think 'if they're doing it in Russia, it must be right for Ukraine' there will surely be no choice but to follow the latest trend in Moscow.

2. The not completely unfree media

On a related point, the regression of the media in Ukraine has not yet reached that of Russia. Even though every major tv channel is owned by interests close to the Party of Regions, Ukrainian tv news still covers protests and incidents, such as the recent deaths of two Chernobyl cleanup veterans in Donetsk. It does not childishly ignore such items as Russian tv tends to do, choosing not to cover the story of the thousands massing not far from its offices in Moscow. The furore from the attempt to hush up the famous Yanukovych wreath episode (always worth re-watching) was a learning exercise for the authorities here. So Ukrainian media is more like a 'Murdoch on steroids' than the rigid tool of an authoritarian regime, and that's something at least.

3. DCFTA in a critical condition, but not dead yet

Time will tell whether Ukraine has successfully played the neo-Titoist east-west balancing game between Russia and the west or whether the country's number is finally up. The situation in Belarus, where Russia is now helping itself to the country's gas pipeline network and strategic assets, is a great warning here. The EU has, in the end, put on the table quite a reasonable free trade deal which Ukraine could do well out of, if the country can get the better of its debilitating parochialism. I agree with the view that's been expressed elsewhere that Tymoshenko shouldn't necessarily be the EU's red line (we should see what Strasbourg has to say about it first) but the 2012 parliamentary elections must be free and fair, and the general 'Donbasization' of Ukraine's business environment needs to subside. It's not yet too late to put Ukraine back on the right path and for everyone to benefit, and for various reasons 2012 may just prompt a rethink in high places. Here's hoping anyway.

4. Ukraine can't isolate itself completely in 2012

2011 was certainly a year of increasing isolation for Ukraine. Foreign businesses have been pushed out or decided to leave, business visa rates raised for foreigners, and the EU told to back off and stay out of Ukraine's affairs. Russia will also turn nasty if Ukraine's gas pipelines are not handed over, leaving Ukraine with perhaps nowhere to turn. Against this background, we can expect it to get even harder for Ukrainian nationals to get those precious visas to Europe and America. That makes Euro 2012 a potential foil to this trend of isolationism, with the attention from foreign media and visit of many thousands of those cursed foreigners, hopefully breaking down prejudices on both sides.

What would be interesting is if Ukraine somehow managed to top Group D and and then win the quarter final, setting up a semi-final in Warsaw, with the diplomatic embarrassment of thousands of Ukrainians desperately queueing up in the hope of getting their Schengen visas for the match just 4 days later. That would bring their plight of being behind the 21st century's Berlin Wall unprecedented international attention. Yet I fear the boys in yellow will not be up to that task on the field. It is however difficult to see Euro 2012 having much of a political impact on the direction of the country, any more than the Olympics in China or Eurovision in Azerbaijan! There is a much greater risk that the 'feel good' factor will be used by the Party of Regions to try and coast through the elections later in the year.

5. Strasbourg will help us to clarify the Tymoshenko situation

The European Court of Human Rights and the word 'fast' do not normally go together with its enormous backlog of cases, but we have been told that Tymoshenko's case (or cases?) will be somehow fast-tracked by Strasbourg. Some have asked whether, with a good conscience, Tymoshenko ought to be able to barge her way to the front of the queue at the expense of the cases of others but if (just if) there is a serious problem with rule of law in Ukraine, that affects the 45 million or so people that still live there. An overturning of her conviction could stop the juggernaut of what appear to be politically-motivated cases. I would be sceptical however as to whether she will be freed by any verdict of theirs. Governments elsewhere in Europe (the UK for example) would like the ECHR's rulings to be considered more as advisory than binding on the countries concerned, and that will be music to the ears of Russia and co for whom petitions to Strasbourg are the last hope of many of their abused citizens. What doesn't make sense to me is that Tymoshenko's political career has paradoxically been boosted by the whole thing, if the recent poll ratings for her party are anything to go by. As I've written before, Tymoshenko is no Aung San Suu Kyi, but the authorities may end up turning her into one.

6. The rise of UDAR

Vitali Klitschko is a busy man. He's yet to hang up his gloves and is due to defend his title once again in Germany in the new year, but for many of us it's his political career that is being watched closely. Klitschko brings a number of positives to the table. He's personally very popular in Ukraine. He's Russian-speaking, so embracing, by some estimates, a good two thirds of the country, linguistically-speaking. He understands the west, having been based in Germany for many years. He is almost the only public figure in Ukrainian politics who hasn't worked his way up by corruption, bootlicking, contract killings and goodness knows what. And he's a pragmatist-the Russian Black Sea fleet can stay in Sevastopol, but not at the expense of Ukrainian democracy. That ability to break down mental obstacles is essential for Ukraine to progress. He needs to overcome a great deal of public scepticism to become a real challenger, but much will depend, as he should know as a sportsman, on who he puts in his team. The marketing campaign that lead Yatseniuk to crash and burn should be a lesson there. But if the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger can make it as a serious politician, there's no reason why Klitschko can't (and he can hardly be worse than some of the dross we end up with).

7. Southern vector

A counterweight to Ukraine's east-west tussle may be for the country to look south. In 2011 Ukraine and Israel began a visa free regime and Ukraine is now discussing a similar deal with Turkey. Turkey in particular is becoming a major player in the business environment here, in areas such as retail and telecommunications. Alongside Polish goods, Turkish goods are also now ubiquitous in Ukraine's shops. Turkey has some important similarities to Ukraine (both are large countries whose accession ambitions worry the old core countries of the EU) and it makes sense for both to develop deeper trade relations. The south may be just what Ukraine needs to avoid being captive to east or west.

8. Ukraine increases its cultural profile

This observation may be right or wrong, but I see Ukraine beginning to enjoy a greater flourishing of its artistic culture. It was great to see recently the Daily Mail (I'm not a reader) cover the work of Oleg Shuplyak, and the growing Kiev arts complex Mistetskiy Arsenal featured on Euronews. A country like Ukraine needs these outlets of cultural expression to find its modern day identity, and I see it starting to happen.

9. Ukraine doesn't forget

One of the great achievements of recent years has been the growing recognition of the Holodomor, a large scale human catastrophe that has been ignored in the past at least as much as others such as the Armenian Genocide. This year those of all political colours gracefully commemorated the occasion and it would now be politically unacceptable for those in power not to do so. The argument about whether it was specifically a genocide against the Ukrainian people will continue, but society has reached an encouraging consensus on the issue (I would argue that it was only part of the genocide, events such as the so-called 'Розстріляного відродження', perhaps translatable as the 'aborted renaissance' of Ukrainian culture, completing the picture).

10. (Some) Improved infrastructure

Again Euro 2012-related, there will definitely be some appreciable improvements in many things for a country that generally takes only baby steps. New airport terminals won't completely make up for the hassle of getting in and out of Ukraine but they will be very welcome. Kiev will see some improvements, such as as to the previous squalid medieval state of Andryivsky Uzviz (my opinion anyway-it was in a terrible state). New (South!) Korean-built trains will be quite a culture shock on Ukraine's railways (and are a much more sensible solution than the extravagantly expensive Sapsan trains Russia bought from the Germans, most likely as a pat on the back for letting them build Nord Stream). Six Ukrainian football teams now play in Premiership-standard stadiums rather than the crumbling concrete bowls they used to play in. Alas the construction of hundreds of miles of motorway that Yushchenko foolishly promised UEFA never materialised. The hot water will still get cut off every other week and most Ukrainians will see next to zero difference to their lives from these prestige projects, but they are a step in the right direction all the same.

The challenge for Ukraine is to put in place a system that really utilizes these improvements. Ukraine needs tourist information offices in its cities and an open skies agreement with the EU to allow more budget airlines in. What I fear however is Ukraine closing ranks after the championship. The authorities have already stated their intention to bring back the restrictions on foreign nationals changing currency that caused such havoc this autumn. It wouldn't surprise me if the visa regime for foreigners traveling to Ukraine was quietly reinstated later in the year. The types of business that benefit from tourism are generally small businesses, and seeing as the authorities have shown themselves to be anti-small business, such development may not be a priority for the government. The disconnect between expensive advertising campaigns and the arduous experience of actually coming here may continue to exist for a long time to come.

After two years of almost constant bad news, I really hope 2012 will be a good year. God bless Ukraine. Happy New Year!

1 comment:

VernE said...

Thanks for what amounts to an interesting overview of Ukraine in an optimistic sense. Nice to catch up with the situation there after nearly 3 years out of the country. In South Africa one is bombarded with negative news reports of the situation here leaving the impression that the country is going backwards. There has always been some similarity with attitudes and conditions between the 2 countries but if there is no breakthrough here I'm more hopeful for Ukraine. There has been a history of interplay between the Western dynamic (white sector) whose influence has waned significantly and the revolutionary one (black) and hopefully something at least like the South American model can come out of it.