Last week, I attended the Institute of Strategic Studies national convention on the EU in Ukraine – experts & delegates from EU members gave evidence to Ministers & MP’s on the value of signing an Association Agreement with the European Union.
The debate was impassioned, and made me feel that I am in the privileged position of witnessing history being made: Ukraine means ‘land on the edge’ and now is a time of great uncertainty as we wait to see if Ukraine will sign in Vilnius.
Ukrainian colleagues and the business community feel strongly that Europe offers the best fit in terms of political aspirations for an emerging democratic state – freedom (of thought/speech/action) really matters when you can remember how it was to live in the time before “freedom”. And association with the EU would certainly accelerate much needed reforms as well as giving access to European markets.
We’re keeping an eye on you
But Putin’s Russia is not giving up the former states of the USSR easily: deals on gas & loans to help Ukraine’s struggling economy are the carrot; and the stick? Threats of trade embargos if Ukraine doesn’t join the Moscow-led Customs Union.
Meanwhile the European Union is understandably wary of having another failing economy coming to its party… where Greece, Italy, Spain, Ireland et al are propped up in a corner, Britain’s outside in the garden shouting at the neighbours, and the only guest still left on the dance floor is Germany. Europe has made judicial reform a key condition for the signing in Vilnius, and requests to Ukraine to clean up its act go beyond the release from detention of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the current President’s biggest political rival.
Ukraine languishes at 112th in a league table which measures ‘Ease of doing Business’, with a gnarly tax and legislative framework, and endemic corruption. So although most people are trying to earn an honest living, they are often thwarted by their leadership and the system. Education might offer an escape – around a quarter of places at universities are available for free to bright but poor students, but there’s huge competition, and bribery can still be part of the process of securing the place.
Buying butter & cheese from my favourite “dairymaid”
However, Ukraine has huge natural resources, one third of the “black earth” resource (the most fertile soil) of the globe is here, and its people – on my brief acquaintance – are educated, aspiring, and hard working. Sitting on the fence between Russia and Europe might be an option, and President Yanukovych is clearly trying to work out which way to jump depending on which side will give him the best chance of staying in power.
But as I wrote this (21/11/2013) the ruling Party of the Regions voted against various key reforms/conditions so it’s now looking almost impossible for the Agreement to be signed.
Visa restrictions currently make it difficult for Ukrainians to travel to the UK or indeed anywhere in Europe, and the costs of spending time there make it prohibitive for many. Which may explain the popularity of cinema here – a chance to travel to new places for 35 UAH (less than £3)? Cinema has been at the fore over the past week as almost every film in the British Film Festival season has played to sell out audiences. I loved the National Theatre’s Frankenstein on film, made available again as part of the theatre’s 50th anniversary season; I really enjoyed the BAFTA shorts, particularly Tumult; and our screening of The Selfish Giant, in partnership with UNICEF, was an opportunity to put the spotlight on the bleak landscape for vulnerable children in the UK, and Ukraine, as elsewhere.
It occurred to me as I munched my breakfast herring, and spread weird jam on my dark brown bread that I might have ‘gone native’:
Breakfast herring, and unidentifiable jam
I can now count to nine in Ukrainian, say thank you & good night in Russian,ask for 100gms of butter,
and read the Cyrillic alphabet which makes getting around a bit easier – although some of the city centre underground has signs in both alphabets, there’s no consistency and signs disappear as you try and emerge at the correct exit without getting lost in the vast underground market areas that surround the central metro stations.
I’ve been going to some of the Young Learners lessons in my free time – giving young people who are learning English the opportunity to ask questions (like “Which architect do you most admire and why?”- so quite searching!) of a native speaker.
Our discussions about arts & culture in the UK and here have led me to think more about why culture matters – the arts are a great way of telling stories about who we are as people, and culture is perhaps the sum total of a nation’s stories. As a nation’s collective memories, it draws on our recipes and songs as well as our theatre, our landscape and traditions as well as our literature, our feast days and the rituals that we still have around birth, marriage, and death… all a shared and valuable part of national identity.
The young people whose parents are willing and able to pay for them to learn English at the British Council today are likely to include some of the business people, politicians and leaders of tomorrow, and clearly the British Council can play a part in encouraging them to value artists, arts and culture – both their own and that of others. In discussions about how British musicians & choreographers are brilliantly mixing up traditions: like clog dancing and hip hop, one student told me that the same has happened with Hopak – a kozak dance that is being reconfigured by young people in exciting ways – so I shall hunt down some clips to share with you.
This week Ukraine lost against France, after beating them 2-0 last week, and went out of the World Cup. And this week Hull became UK Capital of Culture 2017 – hurrah for Hull, which badly needs a boost: youth unemployment is at 40% in the city, so let’s hope that the next 4 years offer the same boost to Hull as happened in Derry with its Capital of Culture investment. And fingers crossed for better news for Ukraine in Vilnius, but our hopes are not high.