Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ukraine still driving its people away

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If you're considering going over to Ukraine any time soon, consider tapping into the experience already gained by fellow Canadians who've spent many years there.

Whether you're going to catch football, observe an election, trace family roots, tour Chornobyl, find a mate, or for any other reason, there are some lessons that have already been learned the hard way and worth sharing. Why reinvent the bicycle?

A major lesson is taught by the masses of people who once lived in Ukrainian lands, but have spent the last 12 decades looking for ways to get out. Waves of immigrants arrived in Canada for various reasons: economic, political, ethnic, religious, etc. Their common trait -- good reasons to leave.

At different times, they fled from the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and invasion by Bolshevik Russia and Nazi Germany. Staying would have meant subservience at best, death at worst and increasingly likely as the fronts of famine, world war and other man-made disasters criss-crossed through their villages, towns and cities and killed millions.

It was a matter of life or death. They tried the fight, but ended taking the flight route, many with the hope they'd return to fight another day.

There are those in Ukraine who'd question that decision to leave and the diaspora's right to tell those left behind how to lead their lives. Most Ukrainians are polite, yet seem to harbour a silent envy of Canadians because they can hop in a plane and return to one of the best countries in the world, given the state of affairs in their own.

When they learn you were born in Canada, Ukrainians don't understand why on Earth you'd want to live and work in their country if far greener pastures are available.

They wonder if there's another reason why you're in their country, like skipping bail or otherwise running from the law, debts, personal problems. Why would you even want to live there?

They don't realize Canadian-level living standards could be easily achieved in Ukraine if those in government weren't treating their own people like the enemy to their plans to accumulate as much personal wealth in as short a time as possible.

A constant Canadian presence is maintained by embassy and technical-assistance staff. This is a rotating presence and different people coming and going, all contributing to a lively expat life in the capital city. The pub nights at the Canadian embassy are a welcome oasis when you need to recharge your Maple Leaf spirit, talk hockey and compare notes with fellow Canucks. It is here you will meet the Canadians who've made a go of it in Ukraine, and hear their stories.

If you talk to those who've tried doing business in Ukraine, the stories you'll hear are more horror than success. The successful ones abide by a simple rule: You have to live in Ukraine and keep a constant eye on your venture.

You can't be an absentee landlord, otherwise assets will be stolen. One day you'll fly in and be handed a court ruling banning your participation in corporate meetings. By the time you're through the appeals process, armed thugs have raided your plant, changed the locks and installed their bosses to manage operations.

The bosses likely enjoy the ruling regime's political protection because, in the current environment, the Party of the Regions uses governmental powers to coerce businessmen to do its bidding.

Resistance to this Soviet-era nostalgia for a one-party state is futile.

Want to see a Gogol novel brought to life? Easy. Go and observe elections in the rural areas in the central oblasts that will decide whether or not the next parliament to be elected in October will be in the president's pocket.

The vote will be one of confidence in President Victor Yanukovych, the loser of the 2004 Orange Revolution.

In 2010, he narrowly beat former premier Yulia Tymoshenko for the presidency and started exacting revenge and began jailing political opponents, including Tymoshenko.

The opposition is fractured, but from behind bars Tymoshenko continues to inspire the most support among anti-regime voters.

Recent amendments to the constantly changing electoral law include the re-institution of the voting system used in 2002, when half the Rada was elected by party lists, half in single-mandate districts. Voters cast two ballots: one for a party, the other for the person they wanted to send to Kyiv to represent their interests.

In 2002, many winning candidates ran as independents in the single-mandate districts. Those who enjoyed governmental support during the campaign reciprocated after the elections by joining the party of power. All of a sudden, Ukrainians had a parliament that only half-represented the will of the people. The other half represented the government's ability to pull the wool over its own people's eyes.

And you can bet there will be electoral funny business on election day and the weeks running up to the vote. In the last elections, Canadian observers discovered a plot to suppress the vote in rural areas: Letters were dropped the night before elections announcing the vote was postponed due to lack of state financing.

Tricks such as substituting pens with disappearing ink were discovered.

The Canadian mission tallied about 100 polling stations that reported uncharacteristically high spoiled ballot rates of 10 per cent or more, resulting in thousands of lost votes.

More than 120 Canadians have already answered the call for observers ahead of the vote in late October, including 14 from Manitoba.

There will be more. Canadians have been involved in helping Ukraine shed the oppressive aspects of Soviet parody of democracy from before the USSR fell apart.

Observers from Canada have been dispatched to dozens of election missions in the last 20 years. Canadian taxpayers have contributed $2.3 million toward the establishment of a national voter registry, and Ukrainians know that because it was advertised as a Canadian-backed initiative.

This lends to our cred as Canadians and observers. Ukrainians are very aware of geopolitics and admire Canada's place in the world as a non-aggressor with no imperialistic designs. Canadians are generally loved and respected, but our rap is double-edged: Our good nature makes us seem naïve and gullible at times and easily duped into scams that run aplenty in that part of the world.

Whatever your reasons for going to Ukraine, make sure you bring your best game with you and stay on your toes. If done right, a trip to Ukraine can be a most fulfilling experience.

Time spent there will help you understand why people began immigrating to Canada more than a century ago. You'll also see why so many people still want to leave today.

While these insights produce a warm-and-fuzzy feeling of being grateful for what we have in Canada, they do not satisfy the desire to see justice and fairness done in the old country, Ukraine, the land of always-battle and constant struggle for a people that deserve better.

At least what we have in Canada.

 

Stephen Bandera spent a decade working in Ukraine as a journalist and translator before returning to his home in Winnipeg, where his parents emigrated after the Second World War and where he was born and raised. He currently is working in Toronto preparing coverage of the Olympics in London, England.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 23, 2012 J6

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