Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Eight Days in the Uraine: 3-13 July 2014

The original plan had been to go to Russia, but that cancelled.  Political Tours then offered a week-plus  in the Ukraine and I signed on.  There were both internal concerns  which led   to changes in government, and  external conflicts involving  Russia, who had manipulated the separation of Crimea.  Investigating  whys and wherefores  looked interesting, if not from Russia,  then the Ukraine. 

There were six participants:     three  Brits -  a former NY Times correspondent who operated  Political Tours,  a  mental health  expert and sometime consultant to the World Health organization and a  former banker and now researcher in the funding of terrorist/extremist groups - a Belgium international lawyer, a South African doctor affiliated with the tour company,  and me, once active in US criminal justice system  and now a curious traveler.  Our facilitator  was a Russian specializing in the Ukraine who had worked with CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera and researched/wrote Lonely Planet guides to Ukraine and Moscow. 

Impressive travel companions.

Originally, we were to go to Kharkiv and Dnepropetrovsk but as  they were too close to  conflict zones we settled for Kyiv and Odessa.  Coming into Kyiv, I was impressed by the conventional tidiness of an urban middle/eastern European city.  Excepting for tents,  barricades and motley military folk in the Central Square (Maidan), there was little evidence of the recent uprising.  An uprising that certainly left its mark on the country. and led to a change in the government.   The time in Kyiv was divided by four nights i n Odessa, a seaport city normally favored by tourists.  Superficially, Odessa seemed peaceful and  over their upset - crowds in the streets and at the cafes.  Street musicians wailed away.

Both cities were interesting and safe places to wander about -  nineteenth century buildings, well kept.  Cobblestone streets.  Upscale stores. A totally incongruous glass Hyatt Hotel in downtown Kyiv,  totally at odds with surrounding architecture,  which, unfortunately, was not trashed by demonstrators.   Operating tram systems and, in Kyiv, a efficient  subway system.  Museums, opera  and ballet theatres.  We did a lot of walking in both cities and used the Kyiv subway.  Occasionally, a taxi.   

Several months prior to my trip, there had been peaceful demonstrations against the then government's actions vis a vis the West - not signing on with the European Union - and a lurch toward Russia's big tent.  Crimea went to the Russians; agitation in the East led to rebellion there.  The Kyiv demonstration turned violent when the then  government sent in troops, leading to casualties. At which point the then President,  Viktor Yanukovych, found it wise to pack up his mistress and take off. A subsequent election has brought in  a new leader, trying to to put the pieces together.  But there is an endemic problem of corruption - seemingly similar to Afghanistan - which could retard progress as much, if not more so, than the Russian interference. 

We met with at least twenty people, ranging from journalists, activists, politicians, business people, academics, diplomats,to   a grade school principal. and a former collective farm director. A varied bunch. Occasionally, I felt like a college freshman in a Ph.D seminar. 

Kyiv is really a lovely place, with the glorious St Sophia Cathedral complex the center of downtown.  There are also several museums:  we visited the National Art Museum, which had the the loot from Yanukovych's estate - expensive  items he had acquired during his stay(s) in office.  At the end of our tour, we went to Mezhygorye, his  palatial  estate - unbelievable  opulence..  The extensive collection of ill gotten gains:  houses, auto collections, boat - all of which was enjoyed by Ukrainians on a lovely weekend.  And with a collection of  commercial enterprises by the ambitious.

It was enroute to Odessa that we stopped at our driver's village and talked with a locall farmer, who thought  the current President  understood agricultural needs better than past leaders.  The nearby school , wile basic, was being painted and refurbished; the principal commented that parental alcoholism was a sometime problem.

At Odessa, we went out to the underused Port.  Also viewed the office building torched in the uprising.  Normally, opposing sides in Odessa managed to get along, to reach a modis operadi, but everything  got out of control, what with Molotov Cocktails being thrown and thirty dead. 

Then there was the trip to the covered market, most vendors  outgoing  but one who felt her thoughts about Ukraine, the EU and Russians were nobody's business but her own! 

Coming back from Odessa, we stopped at nuclear missile museum with retired Army officers as docents.  Besides seeing all sorts and sizes of missile, into the silo we went.  Three interesting bits:  the docent commented on the similarity between Russian and American  equipment; photos of Hiroshima/Nagaska concluded the museum tour; if Urkraine had kept their nuclear weapons, Russia wouldn't have Crimea.  (Note:  Ukraine gave up their nukes when the UK, the US and Russia agreed to the Ukraine's territorial boundaries!)

While at the museum, I talked with a college Engliish professor from Donets'k region who was on holiday with her husband and son.  She was most concerned about their future, her mother having advised her not to return home.  Later in Kyiv, we listened to a TV reporter review her expperiece as a detainee in Donbass, not a pleasant experience. 

Several  of the individuals I met were memorable:  the Kyiv University professor, a Mowarked asprant  to fighting forces, a former Ministry of Defense guy now an Odessa blogger, an anti Maiden activist with legal ambitions,and  a Maiden leader who wants all public servants to be vetted.  Most memorable besides the English Professor, was a woman working at the Hotel Urkaine who tried to help Maiden participants only to be rebuffed by attackers; she ended up working while   lobby became an ER facility. 

Conclusions:  Urkraine has a hard row to hoe.  It's  a complicated situation with no simple answers: that I learned during my stay there.  Like Afghanistan, there are many young enthusiastic  people willing to work for change, but it is a rough path ahead, what with an entrenched  bureaucracy.  And if that weren't enough to resolve, there are the Russians who do not want too lose influence and keep agitating - successfully?  unsuccessfully? -  where ever possible. 

Food:  Outstanding.  Managed to  sample all kinds of ethnic cuisine. 

Accommodations:  Excellent.  The Kyiv hotel staff were good:  I arrived mid night and theyallowed me to crash on the couch until my room ws ready later in the day, feeding me tea and a sandwich.  A boutique hotel, serving breakfast to order, in the room.  Located in a courtyard, walking distance to most meetings.  The Odessa hotel was also very cozy, with small rooms but a superb breakfast.  Again, well located.

Cost:  Tour:  5551.36 (inclusive of all meals).  Airfare: 2105.70.  Cat care: 380.