One of the most indelible memories of my trip in July as part of the Ukraine Media Partnership Program was one of the last experiences before I left.
I was standing in line at an airport newsstand to pick up a drink before our flight home, when the man behind me noticed me struggling with the language barrier. The labels were in Cyrillic, the clerk did not speak English and we had said goodbye to our translator at the security checkpoint.
He helped me pick the right drink, and we struck up a conversation about my experience in Ukraine. I was grateful for his limited understanding of English, which far surpassed my own knowledge of Russian.
I SHARED THE NATURE of my trip, spent traveling to work with the staff of our partner newspaper, Nikolaevskie Novosti, and touring the cities of Nikolaev, Odessa and Kiev.
He asked for my impressions of the country, and I shared my admiration for the architecture in Kiev, the beautiful countryside, the magnificent Orthodox churches and the history of the country. I told him I enjoyed my experiences and made friends with generous people I would never forget.
He didn’t believe me.
While he accepted my insistence that the people we worked with were fantastic, he could not believe that an American had truly enjoyed spending a week in his home country.
That differed from the discussions I had with my new colleagues that week. The people we met at the newspaper shared their love of their country and their pride in their community. When we discussed the country’s problems, responses varied. In some ways, conditions were not optimal, but they had come a long way since the Soviet era. In many areas, there was genuine concern, but determination. After all, their role as independent journalists was to be advocates for change.
OUR TOUR GUIDE in Nikolaev expressed her pride in sharing with us the history of a city that was closed to outsiders because of its role in military shipbuilding for its first 200 years. But she expressed frustration when she pointed out one of the city’s great houses, which had been purchased and converted into an indoor pool by a wealthy man who knew the right people. The protests of preservationists fell on deaf ears.
The tour guide in the Black Sea port of Odessa, which reminded me of Charleston, S.C., shared with us a historic coastal city improved over the years with the money of wealthy shipping magnates. But she also pointed out a brand-new hotel on the coast that remained closed, long after its completion, because of red tape.
The Kyiv Post, an English-language newspaper in the nation’s capital, shared stories of other problems in its July 12 edition, which I picked up on my way out of town:
• State-owned Boryspil Airport, the country’s lone international gateway, is at the mercy of employees of the national government when it wants to open a new air route, or even a new cafe. As the government has poured money into upgrades and expansions in recent years, fees on airline flights have passenger counts falling and make it less competitive with a former state-run airport across the city that was leased to a private operator, where fees are lower and passenger traffic is soaring.
• In a story on the troubled banking sector and its weak government oversight, an American investor who deposited $26 million into Kreditprombank was suddenly told he could choose between receiving 20 percent of his money back, or losing all of it.
• The departing U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, John F. Tefft, said his greatest frustration was “the fact that after 20 years you still have the level of corruption in society that you do.
“I believe the European Union is the future for Ukraine.”
AND THAT IS AT the heart of the matter. Issues of corruption and inefficiency handicap the people of Ukraine, and are a tremendous drag on a nation that is working hard to catch up to a Western world that made far greater advances during the Soviet era.
The nation is divided on the issue of favoring Europe over Russia. The eastern and southern oblasts, or regions, of Ukraine primarily speak Russian and favor ties with Moscow. The opposite is true in the western and central portions of the country, where the strongest support for the European Union pact resides.
If you look at a map of where protesters have occupied government buildings across the country in recent weeks, you will see evidence of the divide, as the vast majority have taken place in western and central Ukraine.
The Association Agreement, the name of the partnership deal with the European Union recently turned down by the Ukrainian president in favor of the Russian offer, has a lot of promise. Requirements in the agreement would bring standards and policies across a wide spectrum of government into alignment with the best practices of Europe. Trade complications such as tariffs would be lifted, and the import and export of products would be simplified as standards for Ukrainian goods would match those in Europe.
Western democratic norms would need to be adopted. While reforms have been made, most notably following the Orange Revolution of 2004, there is still much work to be done. The release of political prisoner and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko is seen as one of the cornerstones of a deal that would require Ukraine to address concerns over political persecution and selective justice in the country.
THE INTRODUCTION of anti-protest laws during the current conflict, which led to a dramatic escalation in the hostilities, was seen as just one more sign that the status quo does not serve the people, that the best way forward for reformers is a pact with Europe.
As the conflict, known as the Euromaidan, continues in the streets of Kiev and in regional capitals across the country, my thoughts are with the people I met. Before July, Ukraine was just one part of a vast world outside our borders I had never experienced. But as I shared online a few days ago, news never has more of an impact than it does when it affects people you care about and places you have been.
We hope for the best for our friends overseas, and peace for a nation in turmoil.
(The writer is night online news editor for The Augusta Chronicle.)