Tag Archives: Ukraine

Can we have the right for dignity?

I’m sure everyone noticed that last week’s news was particularly bad. In fact, it was absolutely horrible. Here in the Netherlands the scale and impact of the MH17 disaster only now begin to be realized, as the victims are brought back for identification, and a seemingly endless caravan of funeral cars rolls on the road.

Sadly, these dignified images have been preceded by much less dignified ones. I’m sure you’ve seen those, too – it was pretty impossible to avoid them. Even the national news showed every obscene detail from the scene, without editing anything out. Why do they do it? We know there was a disaster. We know it is gruesome. We know it. But do we really need to see all the details on the evening news? Just a few years ago, showing parts of dead bodies on national TV would have been unthinkable. The dead were shown covered in a sheet or pixelated, preserving their dignity as a token of respect. Now, the mainstream media seemingly fight a losing battle with Twitter and Whatsapp for who is showing the most eerie images.

Its not even myself I am concerned about. Yes, my stomach turns if I see the victims of the tragedy of MH17 scattered in a field, but at least I am a grown-up person, well capable of dealing with it. But I have a daughter, who’s just one year old. Right now she’s too young to realize the horror of these images and too young to ask questions about them. It won’t take long though before she does ask questions about what she sees on TV and in the newspapers. And its me who will have to provide the answers. Some day I will have to explain to her that the world can be a bad, bad place at times. But I was hoping that I have a few more years before I have to have this conversation with her, and I would like to choose that moment myself and not to be forced upon me by some news editor chasing the ratings.

And actually, well, yes, its myself I am concerned about, too. Because if God forbid I make the news in the wrong way, the last thing I want is for my mutilated remains to be on public display. We now have the right to be forgotten. Can we also have the right for dignity? Please?

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How football bankrupted Ukraine

Ukraine has been out of the headlines in the last week, toppled by Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. But after this weekend, Ukraine will be back on top of the news, following the Crimean referendum. Its not going to be pretty for Ukraine and the question everyone will be asking is – how did it get this far? Well, I say football is to blame. This is my version of what happened.

Suppose you have a house. Its a nice house, a big one, that you have inherited from your parents. But it’s an old house, with plenty of problems – the roof is leaking, insulation is non-existent, some windows are broken and the piping is rotten. Your house needs a total overhaul to be restored to its former glory. The problem is – you have just lost your job, your wife is sick and the children need money for new school books, so you’re not exactly swimming in cash.

What would you do? You do have an asset – your house. So a reasonable option would be to take a loan with the property as guarantee, to last you through the tough times and make the repairs before the roof caves in on you. This way, you will have a solid home, your children will benefit from good education, your wife will go to a good doctor and if all goes well, with the new job you will repay the small loan you took and get your family back on your feet.

There is, of course, another option. Mortgage your whole house and spend all the money you get on a huge one-time party, making only cosmetic repairs, so that the roof doesn’t leak into the champagne and caviar you serve your guests. Invite everyone – the boss who fired you, the contractor who “fixed” the leaking roof the last time, hell, invite all your old girlfriends, too – show them how successful you’ve become in life. Who cares that the party will be over and leave you with a huge hangover, a ruined house and a loan you can’t repay? Sell your grandma’s jewelry, too, while you’re at it – no expenses can be spared for a good party!

Unfortunately, the last option is what Ukraine has done when hosting the Euro 2012. Various reports say that the tournament has cost Ukraine 10 to 14 bn USD – four to six times the original estimate! What’s even worse, half the money wasn’t event spent on unnecessary infrastructure like lavish football stadiums – it was just stolen. Who remembers now that Ukrainian media seriously claimed that Ukraine’s road to the EU will start at Euro 2012?

Football alone was not the cause of the downfall of Ukraine. The financial crisis and widespread corruption have hit Ukrainian economy hard, eventually leading to the ousting of the government of Viktor Yanukovych (and a Russian invasion). But hosting the Euro 2012 tournament has undoubtedly made the problems worse.

Ukraine’s woes must be a warning sign to other “emerging” countries that waste their assets on prestige projects. I’m talking to you, Russia and Brazil – chopping the fruit garden around your house and selling your winter coal stock to finance an even bigger party won’t make it better.

The conclusion is obvious – hosting huge events like FIFA World Cups and Olympic Games is possible only when you already have the money, the infrastructure and the judicial system that can cope with such huge money flows. Otherwise, you will be left with a herd of white elephants and a huge debt millstone hanging around your neck, like Ukraine, or Greece. And the last word about the burden of Beijing 2008 Olympics on China’s economy has not been said yet, I’m afraid.

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Will Crimea be the last straw for Russia?

By now it is pretty obvious that Russia is taking control over Crimea. The naval base at Sevastopol is essential to the Russian Black Sea Fleet, but is taking control over Crimea and risking a war with Ukraine really the best way to safeguard it? The invasion of Crimea is yet another in a long line of Russian involvements in post-Soviet conflicts. In many cases, these involvements resulted in “frozen conflicts”, leading to the establishment of separatist regions supported by the Russian government – regions like South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh. Far apart, and each with a different background these regions share one common feature – if it wasn’t for Russian military back-up, they wouldn’t exist in their current pseudo-state form.

A Russian Navy vessel is being towed out of Sevastopol harbour

A Russian Navy vessel is being towed out of Sevastopol harbour

Over the years since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia has been involved in a growing number of conflicts, mostly in the Caucasus but also in the Balkan, in Tajikistan, and more recently, in Syria. The gas-generated cash flow has fuelled the Russian appetite for rebuilding the Empire. While the Russian army achieved limited successes in the 2008 war with Georgia, the scope and nature of that conflict were very limited. However useful for propaganda purposes, these limited successes blind the Russian leaders and Russia’s population to the real capacities of their armed forces in a serious conflict. The bloody Chechen war has illustrated the shortcomings of the Russian army with brutal accuracy. That conflict still drags on, and Russia keeps losing men, money, strength and face in the Caucasus while achieving nothing.

So what will happen in Crimea? It is unlikely that Russia will fully annex Crimea or that the region will move for full independence. Based on past Russian involvements, the creation of yet another pseudo-state with limited to no international recognition seems the most probable outcome. Unfortunately, that would lead to a lose-lose situation for everyone except a couple of Russian generals.

Crimea's economy is largely dependent on tourism, and a military invasion is not going to be good for business

Crimea’s economy is largely dependent on tourism, and a military invasion is not going to be good for business

Already bankrupt Ukraine will be drawn into a low-intensity civil war and will lose its territorial integrity. The Crimean Peninsula is essentially an island, connected to the mainland only at Perekop, a strip of land only a few kilometres wide. In case of a conflict, the 2 million Crimeans will be cut off from all supplies, and will be dependent on Russia to provide them with all they need via the sea. Russia may have the capacity to block Crimean airports, but it is unlikely that it has the capacity to sustain the population through a blockade. The suffering Crimeans will seek refuge in Russia, adding to the millions of refugees from older conflicts already living in Russia. That’s not the end of Russia’s worries – taking control over Crimea from crippled Ukraine is easy, keeping it might prove a whole different story. The peninsula is populated not only by Russians. Ukrainians are a quarter of the population and another 1/8th are Crimean Tatars, Muslim people with a long record of bad blood with Russia. Anyone thinking that they will accept the de-facto annexation of Crimea by Russia is in for nasty surprises.

Many Crimean Tatars are reduced to a cheap tourist attraction

Many Crimean Tatars are reduced to a cheap tourist attraction

The Russian economy is already strained to the limit by epidemic corruption, runaway military expenses and lavish spending on luxury projects like hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics and the 2018 FIFA World Cup. All-in-all, it might just be that the burden of a conflict over Crimea with Ukraine, Russia’s biggest European neighbour, will be the last straw for Russia. If you have any investments in Russia – now is the time to start worrying.

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The Russian Empire – a bite of Evil?

In the Western public opinion, Russia is mostly associated with the Soviet threat, Tzar extravaganza, crazy Russians, vodka, ballet and dancing bears. The core of the former Russian (and later, Soviet) Empire is comprised of Russia itself, along with Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. Covering roughly half of Europe, these countries are separated by many issues but are unified by centuries of common history, Eastern Orthodoxy and the use of Cyrillic script.

  • Why go there?
    Westerners tend to approach these parts with caution. Mr. Putin’s escapades only heighten the tension – at times, re-creating the myth of the Crazy Russians seems to be his life’s quest. But at the same time, the myths fuel the interest for the shattered Evil Empire. Just think of actually visiting the missile base that was set to blast away your hometown just 25 years ago!
  • What’s it best for?
    To be dwarfed. By churches, subway stations, Soviet monuments and art, and just about everything else you see. If you like it big – this is the place for you.
  • When is the best time to go?
    Its a land of extremes – the summers are Hot and the winters are Cold. September’s Indian Summer, known locally as Babye Leto (Old Ladies’ Summer), often offers pleasant weather and fewer crowds.
  • How to get around?
    All the major cities are well connected by night trains, which offer the traveller plenty of opportunity to rub shoulders (quite literally) with the locals. Try to book in advance, especially in the summer months.
  • Why is it best to avoid?
    Language barrier. All signs are in Cyrillic script and hardly anyone speaks English. Find a local to guide you, learn basic Russian and be prepared to use a lot of mimics and gestures.
  • Where to go if you just have one week?
    Go to Kiev. It’s called the Mother of Russian Cities for a good reason. Kiev offers all Moscow or St. Petersburg have to offer at a much lower price tag. Plus its conveniently located, being only one train night away from the other capitals – Moscow, Minsk and Kishinev, as well as the Black Sea.

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Going to The Doctor

One of the nicest things about getting a round-the-world ticket is that it gives you the chance to get to places you’d normally not be visiting. Granted, I visit Israel quite often, my family living there and all, but it was not a part of our original travel plan. However, the bizarro world of Round-The-World tickets came into play once again. Here’s how it worked (take a deep breath and try to stay with me): first we (well, I) wanted to drop by Novosibirsk, where I was born and raised. Since Novosibirsk is not really a world-class hub, getting in and out was a bit tricky. So we swapped it for Ukraine, enjoying excellent fruit, sunny beaches and Chernobyl.

Nothing amusing about the amusement park in Chernobyl

From Ukraine the next stop was supposed to be India, but there were no direct flights available. Given the choice of flying via Helsinki or Amman, we’ve opted for a Amman,  so we could do a side-trip to Petra, as long as we’re at it. Added bonus of flying with Royal Jordanian – one of the channels of the in-flight entertainment system was reading sutras from the Koran. Quite meditative and relaxing, even though I didn’t understand a word.

Amman is where things get complicated. According to the rules of round-the-world tickets, you’re allowed 2 stops on the continent where you’ve started, ours being Europe. However, the airlines count the Middle East as a part of Europe, so Amman was supposed to be our second and final stop in “Europe”. But a stop of less than 24 hours doesn’t count as a stop, and since we’ve had a few more miles in our ticket allowance, we were able to catch a connecting flight from Amman to Tel Aviv. To make things more complicated – flying back to Amman would violate the rules since it would add an extra stop. Fortunately, we weren’t planning to fly anyway as we’ve crossed the land border between Israel and Jordan from Eilat. Apparently, a land “segment” is not counted as a stopover, so we were all set. To summarize it all – we were able to drop by in Jordan as and Israel without paying more than the airport taxes. Nice!

Tel Aviv – the world capital of chill

And then we were in Tel Aviv. This is where The Doctor comes in. Not the doctor as in a physiologist, but The Doctor. Every time I’m in Israel I have a sort of “mandatory program” and “free exercise”, just like the Olympic gymnasts. There are some things I do every time I’m around, like seeing friends and family and going to the Western Wall, and there’s the other stuff, like going to the Dead Sea, which I do occasionally. Visiting The Doctor is definitely part of the “mandatory program”. You see, The Doctor is Dr. Saadya, the best falafel place in Tel Aviv and a spot I cannot praise enough. Back in the old days, I spent a very enjoyable half a year working there. Now, going for a falafel at Dr. Saadya not only provides me with an excellent meal, be it breakfast, lunch, dinner or a snack (yes, I can eat falafel on every occasion, at least, if its The Doctor’s). It also reminds me of the time spent doing one the most enjoyable jobs I’ve had. I mean, who else knows a falafel joint that plays The Smiths, or The Sex Pistols on a regular basis? And the falafel is really, really good. So working there provided me with an instant reward of seeing hungry, anxious  people coming in and thanks to me (and, of course, The Doctor) becoming well fed and happy people. Sometimes going to see a doctor is a good thing. Provided its the right doctor, that is. So if you’re in Tel Aviv – go see The Doctor, at number 45 King George street. Tell Avi or Yehuda, whichever Doctor is on duty, that Michael says hi. And do yourself a favour – have a falafel. Instant satisfaction guaranteed.

The Doctor’s hands are working the falafel magic

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At Lyudmila Mikhailovna’s place in Ukraine – just another small European country

An hour on the tube. 2 hours at the airport. 3 hours flight. An hour of formalities. An hour on the bus. 3 hours waiting for the train. 14 hours on the train. 3 hours on the trolleybus. Finally, we’re in Yalta. As we disembark, we are mobbed by a dozen women. “Very cheap, very nice, come with me!” they shout. I wait until the first assault has subsided and address the calmest of them, the one standing in the back. After a brief negotiation of the terms, Lyudmila Mikhailovna (that’s her name) takes us to her place. She kindly pays the bus fare of 1 hryvna (0.10 Euro).

At the highest level of the highest tower lives Lyudmila Mikhailovna

She lives on the highest spot in Yalta and the apartment is on the highest floor. We rent a room for a week. Our residence is Lyudmila Mikhailovna’s living room, where a sleeping couch is already unfolded. She shares the 3-room apartment with her daughter and grandson. In the best of Russian traditions, the husbands are nowhere to be found. Lyudmila Mikhailovna’s late husband’s picture is on the cabinet next to our sleeping couch. He used to be an officer in the Soviet Navy. Apparently he has won the ultimate prize of last stationing before retirement in Crimea, where the sea is warm, where there’s no snow and where the fruit is cheap. We never hear of the father of her grandson.

Lyudmila Mikhailovna likes going to the beach

Lyudmila Mikhailovna knocks on our door. She apologises a thousand times, but she would like to have our passports. Not that she doesn’t trust us, but she’s had an unpleasant experience before. Rich guys, from Russia. Stayed for weeks. Big cars, big wallets, shameless enough to run away from an old women without paying rent. How can one be difficult about handing over a passport after a story like this, and who cares whether its true? Renting the living room must be a welcome supplement to the household income. Lyudmila Mikhailovna’s pension is probably the main cash flow, since we never see her daughter go to work. While the room is rented, Lyudmila Mikhailovna sleeps on the closed balcony, next to the stored potatoes and onions. She doesn’t seem to mind though, as the balcony is the coolest place in the warm summer nights of Yalta.

The city market is Lyudmila Mikhailovna hunting ground

Every now and then we run into Lyudmila Mikhailovna in the city, on the way to or from the market. Yalta is a small place. Once we return to the apartment to find her worried. It is unusual – she is never worried about anything except earthquakes. Have we seen her earlier with or without a handbag? We don’t know. She refuses to go into details. Not important, she says. She’s been stupid, she says. Too embarrassing to speak of, she says. We let it be. In the evening Lyudmila Mikhailovna comes to us to confess. She went to the market with her false teeth in the handbag and forgot the handbag at one of the market stalls. “I’m such a silly old duck”, complains Lyudmila Mikhailovna. She’s still good humoured enough to see the funny side of it though. “Devil knows why I had to put those teeth in the handbag”, as she puts it so subtly.

We part as best of friends, and Lyudmila Mikhailovna makes us promise to come again. That’s one promise I will be happy to keep some day, hopefully soon enough.

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Let the Euro games begin!

The month of May is traditionally full of European action. Not only the UEFA Champions League and Europe League finals are played. The Eurovision, that big annual small European countries festival, is also taking place in May. For one day a year it magically doesn’t matter whether you’re as small as Malta or as big as Russia, whether you’re a republic, a monarchy or a dictatorship, the points are yours to give as you please. It is also the time to settle scores, as the (public) voting reflects political grievances, migrating populations, historical conquests and alliances and religions. A goldmine for a modern anthropologist and a must for anyone who wants to become familiar with the complex fabric of European society.

Netherlands-Macedonia qualification match for FIFA 2010

But by now this is all ancient history. Its June, and almost time for another great European spectacle – the UEFA European Football Championship or Euro. Its the biggest all-European sporting event and, like the Eurovision, the chance to settle some scores. In this year’s tournament, every group features a match loaded with emotions and history. In Group A Poland vs Russia is a match between two neighbours who have invaded each other a countless number of times, and the recent aircraft crash in Russia, that killed the entire Polish government has not improved the relations a bit. In Group B the clash between Netherlands and Germany needs no introduction to anyone remotely familiar with football history. While back in the old days the Dutch grievances were fuelled by the German requisition of bicycles during WWII (whoever says “you can take our Jews, if you just leave the bikes” – ends up with no Jews and no bikes), nowadays the bad blood is mostly based on the loss of the World Cup Final in 1974, which even the winning of the Euro 1988 did not set right. In Group C Spain vs Italy is perhaps not as charged as the previous fixtures, but it is nevertheless a match between the last two champions of the world, and is no minor affair. Finally, in Group D the opening match between France and England brings with it a rivalry that goes back to the Tapestry of Bayeux of the 70’s – the 1070’s that is! While England and France are no longer invading each other militarily, both countries keep grumbling about mutual cultural, linguistic and economical invasions.

The Euro is, however more than just a game. The Olympic Games have for the past 60 years almost exclusively been held in big countries and the last FIFA World Cup in a small country dates back to 1962, leaving the Euro as a small European country’s best chance to win big glory. In the 21st century tournaments held in small countries have become more a rule than an exception, and with the Euro often co-hosted, it has visited no less than 7 small countries! And while the “older brother”, the FIFA World Cup, was almost exclusively won by the big guys, the Euro has seen its fair share of small European triumphs. Greece, Denmark, Netherlands and Czechoslovakia are all small countries that made it big time in the Euro, proving that size not always matters. At least in the Euro it doesn’t. Let the Euro games begin!

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