Saturday, October 25, 2008

Meltdown, crisis, bubble burst, or collapse – are these the signs of a world going into a financial recession or even something more serious: like your 2 year-old or your teenager acting out? Here in Ukraine we don’t really see kids acting out but we do see the politicians acting out, and this is coupled with the signs of a dreaded financial meltdown.

The political and financial crises are feeding off each other. The President has tried to dissolve parliament and declare national elections for December 7, now postponed to December 14. The Prime Minister says we don’t need an election, we need to deal with the financial crisis and negotiate a 15 billion dollar loan from the International Monetary Fund. Apparently contingent on getting a loan will be a series of unpopular downsizing measures, and the Opposition Leader does not want to be seen supporting this. The people want bread, borscht and calorie-rich sour cream. No elections and no cuts. If having three parties in a marriage doesn’t work, can we expect anything better in politics?

But at least the Rada (Parliament) is entertaining. The Prime Minisister's people are most creative in preventing a vote to hold elections. They have literally blockaded the Presidium so that Parliament cannot convene. Now the Speaker’s office has accused this bloc of sabotaging the Rada electronic voting system by jamming small articles like tin foil, coins, and paper clips into the computer network's hardware. Apparently computer hard drives can only take a limit of 64 MB of paper clips.

The tragedy is that the people seem to be forgotten in the discussion. As politicians squeeze kopeks into hard drives, this is what is really happening:
--foreign investors are pulling their money out of Ukraine. Ukraine 's credit rating has dropped to B+.
--the price of steel is dropping. A major steel plant in Zaporozhye has gone to "1/2 shifts" because of reduced demand. Workers are being laid off.
--the price of metal is dropping. One of our staff has been selling metal, left over from his late uncle's property. He told Ben that in a little over two weeks the price dropped from 90 kopeks per kilogram to 70 kopeks per kilogram, and now it is down to 40 kopeks per kilogram.
--exports have recently fallen by 40%.
--the government has imposed a freeze on withdrawing money from savings accounts. A mother told Ben she can't take any money out of her savings account and she fears that when she will be allowed to, the money will be worthless. A repeat, many fear, of 1991. Someone else said he used to have an ATM withdrawal limit of 2000 UAH, now it is 200 UAH.
--people are trying to convert their grievnas into US dollars. This has impacted us because we are limited to a daily withdrawal of 50% of our previous withdrawals. We suspect there just aren't enough $$ to go around.
--last week Ben saw a queue of empty car-carrier trucks at least 3 kilometers in length, lined up along the car assembly plants in Zaparozhye. Because of higher interest rates and less credit, consumers are not buying cars.
--the price of gas has gone down somewhat, and is around 5.80 UAH/litre, $1.23 Canadian. Very much on par with what we pay in Canada—however, a reasonable wage is still around $200/month.
--a large part of Ukraine’s recent boom was fueled by foreign credit. Now in large cities high rise cranes have stopped working. Building construction has stalled.
--inflation, which currently is the highest in all of Europe, is predicted to go be over 25% for 2008. Inflation really hurts the fixed income pensioners. --The President has called for the laying off of every 5th bureaucrat. No doubt many will now be hesitant to line up and take a number for anything. Clearly, this global tsunami keeps sending shock waves around the world.

Ukrainians are an extremely resilient people. They have been through much worse. What they want is stability, predictability, and some reason to believe that members of the Rada are acting for the good of the country. It would sure help if they started behaving like Ukrainian children.

We know that many of us are also significantly affected by these events. Your contributions, big and small, are appreciated all the more.

Ben and Linda.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Last week we wrote about Linda’s instructive time in the Ukrainian health care system. The care and service she received was very good. Two days after visiting the doctor she was in the air, flying to Vienna. She did not feel congested and had no trouble on her subsequent trip to Victoria. And while Ben is suffering from PLS (Post Linda Separation) he accepts that nothing outside of two weeks of medically induced coma will help. While he says he doesn’t suffer from boredom or malnutrition in the apartment he is getting out of Molochansk, joining Dema and his father in spending the weekend outside of Kiev. He is going to help our Ukrainian Director clean up and renovate a small house he inherited, located in a tiny village outside of the city. Dema says he will get to know the “rhythm of life,” Ukrainian style. Ben wonders if it is a nice way of saying “roughing it,” Ukrainian style.

This year we have done a great deal more traveling in Ukraine. Our primary trip was to join the Mennonite Heritage Cruise, sailing from Odessa to Sevastopol and then visiting former Mennonite Villages in the “Krim” (Crimea). Walter and Marina Unger graciously invited us aboard, and we even had the opportunity to sail up the Dnieper to Zaparozhye. It was a wonderful time to further develop our understanding of Mennonite history in this area.

And speaking of history… this week Ben had the opportunity to take a German Aussiedler to Udarnik (Neukirch) to visit the village where her great grandmother was born. Even though she grew up in Kazakhstan in a church-attending Mennonite home, her knowledge of the Mennonite story in southern Russia was virtually zilch! She always thought that the word Mennonite only referred to people of a certain language group - Low German. Now, in coming to Ukraine to lead a series of seminars for women in the Kutuzovka Church, she did a little research and soon found out that her family came from this area. She wanted to know more and so Ben drove her to Udarnik to see the place of her forefathers. At the school the Ukrainian history teacher told her the story of her people. Even a student joined in and talked of the Juschanlee River. She visited the museum and the monument and was astounded to realize that she was learning her own history from Ukrainians. Then Ben took her to visit Margarita Pankratz in Alexanderkrone. From Margarita she learned of the church life, the hospital, and life of a little girl in a Mennonite village.

As they drove back to Molochansk, the car was warmed by the low, fall sun. The spring-coloured green fields of winter wheat made a wonderful stage for the display of red bushes and yellow trees. Occasionally they would see a large, rust coloured combine grinding through sunflower fields, chased by blue Soviet-era trucks waiting to load up. Ben’s friend was quiet, needing to reflect on what was and what is. She never imagined that it was Ukrainians who could put together the pieces of her past.

Ukrainians, whose “rhythm of life” at times seems a downward crescendo of war, starvation and deportation, still have time to help us find who we once were.

Ben and Linda

We hope you will consider the “Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine” in your Christmas giving. Although there is a growing middle class in Ukraine, the gap between them and the poor seems to be growing too. Your gifts, small or large, are appreciated and put to careful use. They are tax receiptable in Canada and the United States. Direct them to:
Paul Siemens, Treasurer,
5 Monarchwood Crescent,
Toronto, Ontario M3A 1H3.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Over the four terms we have been in Ukraine as North
American Directors we have been in remarkably good
health. This year we both picked up a cold just as we
were leaving the Dnieper Princess cruise ship.

Getting a cold was a small price to pay for a
wonderful tour of Crimea with old and new
acquaintances. We didn’t get sick on the Odessa-bound
train with its gagging washroom and we felt perfectly
healthy during the rough Black Sea crossing to
Sevastopol where one of the lecturers had to cut short
his question-and-answer period. But somehow, on this
river-boat which was scrupulously clean and where we
were fed wonderful, nutritious meals, we picked up
this cold.

Our staff in Molochansk quickly noticed the irony of
the situation—“you never get sick with Ukrainians but
as soon as you are with Canadians you fall ill. Why
would you ever go back to Canada? Didn’t we tell you
to wear heavier clothes in summer (the temperature was
in the high 30’s)? Next year, don’t have the fan
turned on in the summer.” The fan gets blamed for any
illnesses that could occur in the next 4 months!

When Linda didn’t show up for work on Thursday morning
all heaven broke loose! Vitally, our maintenance man
and driver, announced that he was getting the car to
take Linda to the hospital. He quickly phoned Dr.
Irina (whom we fortunately know) and declared that he
was bringing Linda in. Their concerns were somewhat
justified in that Linda would be flying home in two
days and did need to get some decongestants. One of
the German shepherds (missionaries) was seconded to
translate in the hospital. Ben went back to the
apartment and told Linda, who was planning a leisurely
breakfast, that the car was already at the door in
preparation for the trip to the neighbouring city of
Tokmak. The car ran smoothly while Linda coughed.

Now, Vitally is a fine, considerate man. But while
taking Linda down the hospital corridor he had reason
to tell the following joke: apparently a man was on a
stretcher being wheeled down the corridor and he
noticed that at the end of the corridor was the sign
Morgue. He said to his attendants, “I am not dead!
Why are you taking me to the morgue?” They gave the
comforting words, “We are not there yet!”

In previous blogs we have noted that Ukrainians are a
people who like to visit and chat. Many people seem
to enjoy visiting in the hospital corridors. While
the good doctor was looking down Linda’s throat
Vitally walked in unannounced, just to make sure
everything was being done properly. Another, unknown
doctor came in, also to observe the goings-on.
Fortunately this was only a nose/throat illness, not a
“woman’s health issue.” Dr. Irina, who didn’t miss a
beat, asked Linda when she had her tonsils removed.
Linda replied that she has never had them removed. “I
can’t find them,” said Irina. Fortunately she didn’t
spend a lot of time looking! Ben suspects that Linda
had coughed them up earlier…

A good assortment of medications was picked up at a
local Anteka (pharmacy). Linda got a puffer (which is
basically a medicated tire pump) to be applied to the
nostrils and the mouth. How the ears got missed we
haven’t figured out yet. She also has a 5-day supply
of pills as well as nose drops. She bought the most
expensive Kleenex box she could find—apparently this
is 120-grit, which is better than the normal 80-grit
and a great improvement on the 50-grit toilet paper.
Fortunately Linda is taking the cold back to Canada,
where it came from!

Linda’s style of coughing has also evoked considerable
interest. Why do cough into your elbow, not your
hand? No wonder she has to wash her sweater every
other day when she hacks into the sleeve.

Meanwhile, Ben’s cold is rapidly subsiding. He really
hasn’t had a cough and doesn’t need any puffer
gadgets. Every evening he takes a half-glass of
locally made “clear black wine,” coupled with Neo
Citran (called TeraFlu here) and falls asleep. Until
you can shoot wine from a puffer he will stick with
the tried and the true. By the way, Ben is looking
for his tonsils because Dr. Irina will want to see him
on Tuesday.

Ben and Linda