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Archive for the ‘Ukraine’ Category

ronnie and gorbyBear with me here as I take a break from the usual cavalcade of nonsense. This is probably the single most important issue facing young Ukrainians today. A new Iron Curtain is being erected in Europe and you can place the steaming, glistening heap of shame on the doorstep of a cowardly European Union.

On June 12th 1987 Ronald Regan bellowed to the world that the Soviet Union should tear down the wall between communist East and whatever West. The commies complied, and hopes of an open, free and prosperous Europe seemed to be the coming attraction. But as the EU expands a new curtain has gone up thus denying Ukrainians any chance at these promised liberties.

Between 2004 and 2007 the European Union experienced its largest expansion since its creation. Former communist satellites like Romania, Poland, Hungary, Czech, Slovakia and Bulgaria were whispered the secret password thus gaining access to the tree house. They promptly saw a general increase in standard of living and economic opportunities. Hooray!

What often isn’t mentioned is what happens to those countries who suddenly find themselves on the outside of the EU looking in. For years Ukrainians could move with relative ease between the borders of their former communist commrades. Ukrainians who once took summer vacations in Prague, went skiing in Romania and hit the beaches of Slovenia now find these doors slammed in their faces thanks cost-prohibitive visas and a plethora of other humiliating requirements. (In all fairness, Poland fought the EU over said requirements and Croatia has expanded the size of their bureaucratic hoops during certain months.)

Today Ukrainians only have handful of options for international travel… and they’re not pretty.

Russia, Belarus and Moldova are about the only places they have left for vacations. I’ve never been to a Russian beach, but I can’t imagine it being all that awesome. I

Welcome to Moldova

Welcome to Moldova

think folks here agree too. In my experience the shrinking  window of international mobility is probably the number two complaint (behind joblessness) amongst the young Ukrainians I’ve met.

My friend Nathan (name changed for privacy), a 20-year-old student here in Lviv, is set to embark on a work-study programme in Belgium this summer. In order to get the proper documents for this trip he must travel to the French embassy in Kyiv, [20 hr train ride to-and-fro] purchase a visa and make a declaration (in Russian….ugh) that he is being truthful about his trip. He must also provide blood work and proof that he has NO relatives where he is visiting. The rationale for this being; he’d be more likely to stay if he had family to shelter him.

Upon his return in a couple months he must then report back to the embassy and provide proof (usually pictures) that he did in fact work/study. The whole rigamorole costs close to $100US. And that’s just to ATTEMPT to get permission to go. He could still be rejected — with no refund. This $100 equates to roughly one half of the average monthly wage here. As a student Nathan only makes $0.70 an hour.  So essentially he worked 143 hours just to get the right to ask for permission to go to a country that is expensive even by EU standards. As a point of reference, this would be like spending $1,650 just to ask for permission to go shopping in Buffalo.

Really? Doesn’t this all sound like something one would have to endure during communist times? Isn’t this really just a new Iron Curtain erected by the EU? I know young Ukrainians feel betrayed by these restrictions.

Anyway…In hopes of easing these visa restrictions Ukraine reached out to her former neighbors by lifting their own visa restrictions in 2007. Today no visa is needed for any EU or N.American visitor to Ukraine. If you care to visit, you’ll have 90 days to explore cities from Yalta to Kyiv and Lviv to Donetsk. This conciliation comes with a heavy political price. Russia sees Ukraine as part of its natural sphere of influence, and tends to get cranky whenever Ukraine reaches west. A popular Russian punishment is turning off the gas.

So far, Europe has barely budged in their stance that Ukrainians be allowed more free access to EU member countries. Why would they? They already have Poles, Romanians et al to pick strawberries in the summer and they don’t want to rile Russia by helping Ukrainians. After all the EU needs Russian gas much more than Nathan’s $0.70 an hour purchasing power.

Spring break in Yalutsk

Spring break in Yakutsk

My concern is that there are only so many freezing natural gasless winters Ukrainians can endure before they say ‘screw it,’ close the border with Europe and the ‘west’, get a Russian passport and book a flight for scenic Yakutsk. Frozen T-shirt contest anyone?

Okay… the headline was a bit misleading. But I did learn from the best.

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Why sunflowers?

A few of you have asked why I have sunflowers as my banner? The answer is pretty simple. One interpretation of the composition of the Ukrainian flag is a field of sunflowers under a blue sky. Sunflower seeds are a popular snack here as street-vending babushkas sell handfuls of them on most corners.

Flag

Flag

sunflower-field-saskatchewan

Field

The sunflower field in the pic above is actually from Saskatchewan. Ukraine and Canada’s west share many geographical similarities. These similarities are a big reason many Ukrainian immigrants chose Canada as their new home.

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Hello, and welcome!

I hear this song in just about every bar/club/cantina I walk into. It’s Ukraine’s/Russia’s favourite call-and-respond anthem — and it’s damn catchy if heard several dozen million times. Introducing: U Nas Na Rayone (У нас на районе!).

Potap (the guy) and Nastya (the Amy Winehouse-lookin’ lady) rock a chorus in Surjik (a mix of Ukrainian and Russian) that essentially states, ‘This is our neighbourhood/This is how we roll.” The video has all kinds of stereotypical Ukrainian scenes. Dudes eating sunflowers, old folks collecting empty bottles of beer, Russian Facebook, the public de-dusting of rugs, beautiful women and two art-school friends from Kyiv riding a steamroller with their tongues in their cheeks.

Here are four dudes I recently met who love repping their neighbourhoods…Насладитесь!

BFF or in Ukraine бфф
BFF’s (or in Ukraine бфф) from Kamanets-Podilsky
Also, бфф 4 eva!
Also, бфф. Chemervtsi 4 eva!

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drunk russian cropA few posts ago I gave some thoughts on why booze, and vodka in particular, has such a debilitating effect on Ukrainian society. It was a bit of anecdotal nonsense, but this recent article in the Kyiv Post backs up this theory and sheds even more light on why the negative effects of alcohol are felt more here, than say in other countries with similar rates of alcohol consumption. Here are some choice nuggs…

There are many telling facts, including the existence of more than 40 brands of Ukrainian-produced vodka alone. But beer is often the first encounter that teenagers have with an alcoholic drink. And in Ukraine, beer is regarded more as a soft drink, akin to Coca-Cola, under the law. The domestic brands are very cheap and widely available through street kiosks. And, unlike the minimum age of 18 for purchasing hard alcohol, any child can buy beer legally.

“Beer isn’t alcohol, according to legislation, so anybody can legally sell it even to a 5-year-old child,” said Konstantin Krasovsky, head of the Alcohol and Drug Information Center in Kyiv.

Click here for more chilling facts… (more…)

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drunk russian crop

I recently read Nicholas Eberstadt’s moronically titled article, Drunken Nation: Russia’s Depopulation Bomb in World Affairs Journal. It takes a while for the author to get to the ‘drunken’ part, but he has this to say about alcohol consumption in Russia and its role in Russia’s well-documented grisly population projections:

Unlike drinking patterns prevalent in, say, Mediterranean regions—where wine is regarded as an elixir for enhancing conversation over meals and other social gatherings, and where public drunkenness carries an embarrassing stigma—mind-numbing, stupefying binge drinking of hard spirits is an accepted norm in Russia and greatly increases the danger of fatal injury through falls, traffic accidents, violent confrontations, homicide, suicide, and so on.

Obviously there are loads of people who don’t binge drink in Russia and Ukraine. But damn, if anyone breaks out the vodka you can kiss functionality goodbye.  And this is the problem. Drinking vodka often takes on the character of a chauvanistic jousting match where the first to blink sacrifices some part of his masculinity. Of course, lots of nations have a high rate of alcohol consumption. Israel, for instance, has about the same level of booze consumption as Ukraine. So why is alcoholism such a big problem in Ukraine and not Israel. I’m thinking it’s not why people drink, or even how much, but rather what they are drinking. Vodka. (more…)

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