Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Ukraine ten years on

In 2003 I travelled to Ukraine with supporters of the Northern Ireland football team, a trip that cemented a long-standing interest in the countries of the former Soviet Union.  I was with a group of fans who visited Kiev, before taking an overnight train to Donetsk - the capital of the Donbass coal-mining region - where the match was played. 

I found the country hospitable and fascinating, although, at times, it could be a little rough around the edges. 

I remember the pitiful brown trickle which emerged from the shower in our first hotel room and being startled by lumps of falling masonry, which crashed into the pavement beside buildings undergoing refurbishment.   Only a short distance from Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Kiev’s main square, we had to stumble along unlit streets when we made our way back to the hotel at night and, in a bar in Donetsk, a drinker took out a gun and waved it about, after a dispute over an arm-wrestling match.  Whether it was the real thing or a replica, no-one was quite sure.

A couple of weeks ago, I returned to Ukraine, staying in the capital again for a number of days, before heading east, this time to Crimea.  Without attempting to be too analytical or drawing any sweeping conclusions, it’s fair to say that a lot appeared to have changed, but a lot of things about the country also felt rather familiar. 

Certainly the authorities in Kiev have sorted out the dodgy street lighting and any building work now seems to take the health and safety of pedestrians into consideration.  It’s hardly surprising that many areas of the city centre look like they’ve recently been spruced up, given that the final of last year’s European 2012 tournament took place in the Olympic Stadium. 

There are more 4*4s crowding the roads in central Kiev, the people look even more stylish and the streets are lined with fashionable restaurants and boutiques.  You still get glimpses of crushing poverty, although it's hard for a casual visitor to tell how deep this runs.  In nearly every large city you see homeless and addicted people in the scruffier corners.

What few people could have anticipated back in 2003 was how ubiquitous mobile technology would become over the next ten years.  I remember being rather proud when I used my first digital camera in Ukraine and I may have taken a mobile phone, for emergencies.  Now it seems that every child in Kiev clutches a tablet computer and commuters on the metro rarely glance up from the games of Angry Birds they’re playing on their smart-phones.

Of course Kiev is the capital city.  It is expensive, comparatively speaking, and much of Ukraine’s prosperity is concentrated there.   On the twelve hour train journey to Crimea we passed through villages which looked desperately poor.  Statistically, Ukraine is still one of Europe’s poorest countries.  A large amount of this poverty is in sleepy rural areas, which younger people often leave to live in towns and cities.

I remember discovering, in Donetsk, that many people considered themselves Russian rather than Ukrainian and that, for example, much of the television they watched was from Russia rather than Ukraine.  If anything Crimea is even more firmly Russian in its orientation. 

Ten years ago, I’m afraid I couldn’t have reported accurately whether the people of Ukraine were speaking Ukrainian, Russian or Esperanto.  While my language skills have improved only a little, this time I noticed that people in both Kiev and Crimea frequently spoke Russian.  However, in Crimea, many of the signs were also in Russian, there were plenty of Russian tricolours on display and a high proportion of cars had Russian number plates. 

It would be terribly unfair to draw any other comparisons between Donetsk, which was, back in 2003, a grimy, industrial town, with slagheaps on its outskirts, and Crimea, which has a sunny, hilly interior and a craggy coast with azure seas. 

The Donbass was a great deal of fun though.  At that time, before Euro 2012 and the arrival of hordes of England football supporters, Donetsk was not a common destination for English speaking travellers and people were curious about our group and keen to talk.

Crimea is a popular holiday destination, but the tourists are mainly Russian and Ukrainian there too.  We didn’t hear a single, native English speaker from the moment we left Kiev, until we touched down again briefly at Borispol Airport on the way home.  Although its attractions are thronged with visitors, a holiday to Crimea feels refreshingly like you’re getting off the beaten track.

We visited Bakchisaray, a dusty town, set in a rocky valley in the mountains, which is synonymous with the Crimean Tatars.  This Muslim people was exiled to Central Asia in 1944, but since 1989 they’ve returned to Ukraine in large numbers.  The centre of their culture is the Khan’s Palace, where coach loads of day-trippers arrive each afternoon, to enjoy shady rose gardens and tour the Ottoman harem.  Bakhchisaray is also an ideal centre for hiking the surrounding hills, and in particular the ‘cave cities’, where monks, Jews and others took refuge on remote mountain-tops.

In Alushta, on the southern coast, we enjoyed the Russian / Ukrainian take on the seaside resort.  Crimea’s climate and the warm seas made it enormously enjoyable.

Two casual trips to any country, over a space of ten years, can hardly sustain any serious insight.  It is possible to say that Ukraine is still a great place to visit, though, and, although it has become more popular, it’s still a relatively unusual destination.  Some of the rougher edges have been smoothed down a little since 2003 and, best of all, British citizens can now travel without a visa.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Gaol term for Navalny will be counterproductive

The media’s reaction to the 5 year prison sentence handed to Russian opposition activist, Alexei Navalny, after his trial for embezzling timber, is familiar.  The editorials read very much like any number of columns written after Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s multiple appearances in court, or the outcry after members of ‘Pussy Riot’ were sent to prison.  However this verdict is different and has more regrettable implications.   

Firstly, even staunchly pro-Russia commentators acknowledge that the case against Navalny is not strong.  At Da Russophile Anatoly Karlin argues that the trial is ‘further delegitimizing’ the Russian legal system.

When the state previously used legal methods or the threat of proceedings to sweep aside political challenges from Gusinsky, Berezovsky and, famously, Khodorkovsky, it was acting against men who were determined to use their wealth and influence to manipulate the democratic process.  The nature of the oligarchs’ asset grab in the 1990s provided ample grounds to act and there were both legal and moral arguments to do so.

Navalny does not have immense wealth at his disposal, he does not own a television station and he is not sponsoring political opposition for personal gain.  He became prominent through the very modern methods of blogging and Tweeting.  His opinions, which are strongly nationalist, may be unpleasant, but that doesn’t entitle the authorities to remove him from the electoral scene or to stop him from protesting, if those are the pretexts behind the case.

The strategic puzzle is that Navalny’s trial has made him more prominent.  From a relatively obscure figure he could become a serious contender in Moscow’s mayoral race, should he be permitted to take part.  There are suggestions that, from a standing start, he could command up to 30% of the vote. 

Khodorkovsky is an odious character and he had become one of the wealthiest, most influential men in the world, through highly dubious methods.  His apparent conversion in gaol to a benevolent, freedom-loving champion of the Russian people was unconvincing and as the owner of Russia’s biggest company, Yukos, he posed a credible threat to the rejuvenated country which Vladimir Putin was struggling to build.

In contrast Alexei Navalny is a minor figure and, should the 5 year sentence he has received be upheld on appeal, the result will be to create another dubious, high-profile martyr and a rallying point for opposition in Russia.