Julia R. Barton
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Middle Class in Ukraine

By Julia Barton May 22, 2012

Like her country, Olena Koshil has been running non-stop for 20 years. At only 32, she manages a TV production company in Kiev. She speaks several languages and has been working in national TV since she was a teenager. In 2004, like many other urban professionals, she became involved in the political upheavals known as the Orange Revolution.

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Tourist Shortage in Yalta

Host Bob Edwards:

This holiday season, some travelers will head to warmer climates, while others will flock to ski-lodges in the mountains.  But for resort towns that have neither sun nor snow right now, this is the “dead season.”  Such is the fate of Yalta, on the Crimean coast of the Black Sea.  But reporter Julia Barton recently found that despite a lack of tourists, Yalta refuses to give up hope.


Yalta is wedged on a tiny piece of land between a mountain chain and the sea.  Still, a lot has happened in this small place.  Here in 1945, Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin signed a treaty that would change the fate of the world.  And nearly ten years ago, just up the coast from Yalta, Mikhail Gorbachev was held prisoner in a failed coup attempt that led to the fall of the Soviet Union.

Not that you get much of a sense of history from strolling down Yalta’s boardwalk on a cold autumn night.

A couple of Russian tourists in black leather jackets amuse themselves by singing karaoke versions of raspy prison ballads.  Gone are the crowds of Soviet workers who packed Yalta’s state-run health resorts and restaurants, even in the off season.  Now there’s almost no one in the video arcades, the discos, or on Yalta’s famous “rope-road,” a ski-lift ride up the mountainside.  Still, rope-road attendant Grigory Ivanovich is stoic about all the changes.

“We’re still working,” he says. “Not as always, but still working.”  For Grigory Ivanovich and others here, that means year-round employment, although there’s only money to be made between May and September.

“If the sun shines,” he says,  “then that’s a good day.”

But others here welcome the off-season.  Alya and Olya are waitresses at a 24-hour bar on the empty boardwalk.  They while away their 12-hour shifts by—what else?—singing karaoke.

“Honestly, now we just relax,” they say.  “We sing and drink and talk.  During the high season, we can’t sit down for a minute.”

Olya is from the inland city of Simferopol, and Alya is from the coal-mining region of Donbass.  Neither of those places has anything like Yalta’s spectacular views, cliff-side palaces and ships that come and go. Yalta is a world apart, and it seems that’s always been its role.

Towering mountains sever the city from the rest of Ukraine and Russia and all the troubles there.  At night, away from the karaoke bars, there’s only the sound of the Black Sea hitting a rocky shore. 

“So it must have sounded when there was no Yalta,” wrote Anton Chekhov more than a hundred years ago. “So it sounds now, and it will sound as indifferently and monotonously when we are all no more.” 

But Chekhov, who was dying of tuberculosis in Yalta, found hope in this landscape, a sense that something better was still to come. And despite all the difficulties, an odd sense of optimism seems to propel Yalta now.

Not far from a statue of Lenin that still presides over Yalta’s boardwalk, there stands a plastic replica of the famous casket of King Tut.  As carnival music blares around you, this King Tut promises to tell your fortune for only a dollar.  The offer still stands even when it’s pouring down rain and the mummy is wrapped in plastic, with his attendant huddled in a pup tent beside him.

A middle-aged woman in a hooded sweat-shirt emerges from the tent as we approach.  She lights up a cigarette.  Her name is Natasha.

“I have no desire to sit in the rain, but I need my salary,”  she says.  Natasha makes 30 dollars a month. It’s the last hour of her 12-hour shift, and we’re her first customers. 

Natasha unwraps King Tut from the wet plastic, which immediately gives her a shock.

In his chest, the mummy has a computer screen, which has gone haywire from the rain.  Beneath the screen is a hole.

STICK YOUR HAND IN, the mummy commands.  In a few seconds, a fortune comes out of a printer hidden in his knees.

The fortune is full of meaningless figures: four stars for health; nine stars for love and finance.  We ask Natasha if she’s ever consulted King Tut.  Every day, she says.

“He says everything will be fine.”

NPR, 12/20/2000


Ukraine’s Domain Name in Dot-Dispute

by Julia Barton

Dot-ua is a domain in search of a master.

The country code for Ukraine has been around since 1992, soon after the former Soviet republic gained its independence. But the company that registered it is defunct, its founders having fled Ukraine’s ailing economy for the West.

Stepping into the breach is Ukraine’s successor to the KGB, known as the SBU, which said recently that it will take over the top-level domain name.

Not so fast, says a San Francisco networks administrator who officially has control of the domain-name registration through the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

Dmitry Kohmanyuk, who runs the domain with a group of volunteers in the U.S. and Ukraine, says he wants to give up the responsibility, but only to a service “based on the Internet principle of nondiscrimination, and open to everybody.” He doesn’t believe the SBU is such an entity.

If the Ukrainian government presses its case, it could become a serious test for the still-evolving rules for administering country-code, top-level domains, or ccTLDs. Guidelines drafted last year say that “a government’s wishes with respect to a ccTLD must be given very serious weight” but that “it is equally important to shield a ccTLD manager from shifting political winds.”

Gennady Pritsker, secretary of the International Association of Top Level Domains — who helped draft those guidelines — admits there’s no way of enforcing the key principle, that governments should be an “integral part” of the Internet community, not a dominating presence.

Although contracts for administering top level domains are held by ICANN, the Ukrainian government could take over dot-ua if it really wanted to, Pritsker said.

"The government is a sovereign entity, so who’s to stop them? ICANN is a private California corporation; they’re not going to summon the national guard to Ukraine," he said.

Neither Kohmanyuk nor SBU have appealed to ICANN, but if they do “it will be hard for ICANN to make a decision,” said Esther Dyson, ICANN’s former chairwoman and an investor in the Russian and Eastern European Internet. A spokeswoman for ICANN said the corporation will reserve judgment until approached.

Observers inside Ukraine say the dot-ua struggle fits a familiar pattern in a country where both the government and mafia have been known to demand a piece of business ventures in the name of “protecting” them. (The SBU says dot-ua needs protection from “internal and external attack.”)

"The post-Soviet mentality is quite straightforward in this respect: control," said Ivan Lozowy, director of the Institute of Statehood and Democracy in Kiev. "In a country where the rules are not firmly established and the situation is wide open, it is natural to ‘grab’ as much as possible."

But this particular grab comes at a time when the Internet is playing an increasing role in the country’s political life.

Last year, Georgiy Gongadze, the founder of a fiesty political site Ukrainian Truth, was found murdered outside Kiev.

Then came the bombshell release of digital audio made by a disgruntled presidential bodyguard who later received political asylum in the United States. On the audio, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma can be heard calling Gongadze a “son of a bitch” who should be kidnapped by Chechens. The president insists he said no such thing, and said that the audio has been doctored.

Regardless of whether Ukrainians embrace Kuchma or push him away, it’s clear that the Internet isn’t going away.

Only 500,000 Ukrainians, or 1 percent of the population, has regular access to the Net. As in many of the former Soviet republics, poverty and decrepit phone lines make dialing up both expensive and frustrating.

But Internet cafes are springing up around the country (one in Kiev brings beer and dumplings right to your terminal), and so are political forums like Maidan.org.ua, a sounding board for anti-Kuchma protesters.

For the second time in three years, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has placed Kuchma on its Enemies of the Press list, citing not only Gongadze’s murder, but “habitual censorship of opposition newspapers and increased attacks and threats against independent journalists.” That’s made freedom of speech on the Internet more vital than ever, said Jed Sunden, the founder of SputnikMedia, Ukraine’s most popular Web portal.

Sunden pays to register all of his company’s websites under dot-com and dot-net domains, thus avoiding the uncertainty of dot-ua’s future. But many Ukrainian companies can’t afford the fees, Kohmanyuk said. Right now dot-ua registration is free, though Kohmanyuk would like to see the domain name run by a nonprofit that only charges enough to pay a few administrative salaries.

Kohmanyuk says government security forces should have nothing to do with the venture. He’s confident that the SBU will give up its efforts, saying the agents he’s met don’t understand how the Internet is governed, much less how to administer a top-level domain name.

"They want us to give this all to them … it’s pathetic," Kohmanyuk said. "It’s like someone asks to drive your car, and they don’t even know where the steering wheel is."

But the SBU’s deputy for technological systems, Valery Balabanov, said the issue is a political one.

"If the maintenance of the dot-ua domain is disrupted, Ukraine would simply cease to exist for the outside world," he said on Ukrainian TV. "There would be nowhere to send mail."

Wired.com, 6/22/01


Ukraine’s Embattled Democracy

Ukraine’s Embattled Democracy

Unpopular leader steps up pressure against political foes

By Julia Barton, Chronicle Foreign Service

Earlier this month, President Leonid Kuchma, who is embroiled in the biggest scandal in his nation’s 10-year history, had a message for his employees: My way or the highway.

"I call on each state employee, from ministerial rank down, who either sympathizes with or takes part in opposition activities to resign or publicly distance himself from anti-government formations within the next seven days," he said, according to the Ukrainian wire service UNIAN.

Only a handful of Ukraine’s hundreds of thousands of state employees took the president up on his dare. But the ultimatum is another alarming sign for an international community concerned that the recent scandal may be pushing Europe’s largest nation off the road to democracy.

In a statement Monday, the European Union delicately pointed out that edicts such as Kuchma’s are not “consistent with democratic principles.” President Bush has also warned that Ukraine’s leaders are facing a serious test “as regards their devotion to the principles of democracy and human rights.”

Kuchma’s troubles began in late November, when his opponents released fragments of recordings secretly made in the president’s office, tapes that they say implicate Kuchma in election-rigging, bribe-taking and the murder of a young opposition journalist, Georgy Gongadze, whose body was found beheaded in the woods outside Kiev. Kuchma has proclaimed his innocence, but skepticism is running high.

The opposition also complains that Kuchma, who was elected in 1994 as a reformer, has been ruling Ukraine lately more like a mobster boss than a democratic leader.

One former prime minister of Kuchma’s, Pavlo Lazarenko, is being tried in federal court in San Francisco on money-laundering charges. Until recently, Kuchma had been able to deny any connection to Lazarenko or other allegedly corrupt officials. But an ex-guard who secretly recorded the president for years says Kuchma is the worst offender, accepting “gifts” of millions of dollars from state companies. Kuchma calls the guard “sick in the head.”

Despite four months of protests in the capital, Kiev, and other cities, Kuchma has maintained his grip on power. The fear, however, is that he is able to do so only by resorting to tactics even more divisive than his ultimatum to state employees.

Ukraine is filled with internal splits that were papered over by long years of Communist rule. The divisions are not as severe as the ones that led to years of civil war in Yugoslavia, but like the Balkans, Ukraine has been scarred by its history as a battleground of Europe.

Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions were under Russian, and then Soviet, control for more than 300 years, and nostalgia for the former Soviet Union remains strong. Western Ukraine, much of which was forcibly annexed by the Soviet Union during World War II, retains a strong nationalistic and anti- Communist streak.

The divisions run so deep that Ukrainians actually fought on both sides during the war. While Kiev and Eastern Ukraine still celebrate the Red Army’s victory over Nazi forces on May 9, in parts of anti-Communist Western Ukraine, it’s a day of mourning.

Kuchma seems adept not just at straddling the divide but at playing one camp against the other.

Four hundred miles west of Kiev, the mood in the formerly Polish city of Lviv has turned sharply anti-presidential. Local radio and television stations are airing opposition-produced spots that urge listeners to “demand the truth. ” Last week, some 4,000 students from Lviv’s many universities went on strike, demanding the release of dozens of colleagues arrested in Kiev after anti- Kuchma protests.

About a quarter of the jailed protesters were members of the right-wing nationalist organization UNA-UNSO, which has strong roots in Western Ukraine. The group first gained notoriety in the mid-1990s when it sent paramilitary troops to Chechnya to fight the Russian Army. Although UNA-UNSO’s leaders say they now eschew fascism, the organization’s Web site contains a letter of support for far-right Austrian politician Joerg Haider, and UNA-UNSO members still spout the rhetoric of aggrieved nationalism.

"The Ukrainian people are in the background of Ukraine," said one member, Nadeya Maya, at a recent protest in Lviv. "In front are the Russians, Poles, and Jews. Ukrainians work for them, or they have to go abroad to earn a living, and there they have other masters," she said.

The presence of groups like UNA-UNSO in the protest movement has been a boon to Kuchma, who has exploited their extremist past to tarnish all his opponents. In a speech on national television February 13, he warned of “professional revolutionaries” seeking to destabilize the country.

"We should not forget the lessons of history. You will recall how fascism started," he said, in what is seen as an appeal to voters in Eastern Ukraine, many of whom lost grandparents or other family members in battles against the Nazis.

On Wednesday, Ukraine’s security service arrested Andry Shkil, the leader of UNA-UNSO, for inciting mass disorder. If convicted, he could face up to 12 years in prison.

"Kuchma’s strategy is an emphasis on order and in rising above the violence, " said one senior U.S. diplomat in Kiev.

A 15-minute film airing regularly on state television takes that tactic to the extreme. Without narration, the film shows footage of confrontations between protesters and police in Kiev on March 9, the birthday of Ukraine’s national hero, 19th century poet Taras Shevchenko.

After several minutes of footage of protesters spitting on and beating police, the film cuts to a calm (though heavily guarded) President Kuchma laying a ceremonial wreath at a statue of Shevchenko. Kuchma then departs, and in the next scene, protesters rush to the statue and trample the flowers. One is carrying a stolen police shield vandalized with a swastika, an image that state-television emphasizes by stopping the film and superimposing a large red circle over the shield.

Polls show that the president may need his Soviet-style propaganda machine to survive: In a recent survey of more than 2,000 voters by the Ukrainian Center for Political and Economic Research, only 6 percent said they would vote for Kuchma if elections were held that day. Still, the president’s spokesman, Oleksandr Martynenko, says Kuchma hopes he can push through reforms he has been promising Ukrainians for years — lowering taxes, privatizing land and cutting down on the Soviet-style bureaucracy that plagues daily life. He proudly points out that Ukraine’s economy showed its first upturn last year after nearly a decade of stagnation.

Asked about the public’s trust in the president, Martynenko said performance is what matters.

"Ukraine is a post-Soviet society where people don’t judge leaders by what they say or occasionally do but by their (own) quality of life and salaries," he said. "People have so many other problems that scandals which in any other democratically developed country might be a big deal don’t seem as important to people’s lives."

But for young, Western-leaning protesters, that attitude — as much as Kuchma himself — is what needs to be overthrown. The majority of Ukrainians have been too conditioned by Soviet life to accept “stability” at any cost, said Eugene Gudz, a student from Kiev Mohyla Academy University, as he stood on the sidelines watching the March 9 demonstration.

"In our country," he said, "stability and authoritarianism are synonyms."

San Francisco Chronicle, 3/24/01


Ukrainian Journalist Found Dead


NPR’s Bob Edwards: Last week in Ukraine, a body was uncovered which many believe is that of a journalist who’s been missing for two months.  The discovery has caused a storm of controversy in Ukraine, and as Julia Barton reports, it comes at a time when journalists in the former Soviet Republic feel their rights are under attack.



Heorhiy Gongadze founded the internet newspaper “Ukrainska Pravda” last April to provide critical coverage of politics in Ukraine.  But the night of September 16, Gongadze disappeared. And since then, the paper’s staff has gone from covering the news to being at its center.


Despite pet birds chirping in a cage, the mood at “Ukrainska Pravda” is especially grim these days.  That’s because last week, the publication decided to investigate a body that had been found in the town of Tarashcha,  about 90 miles from Kiev. The paper’s editor, Olena Prytula, has complained of a lack of cooperation from authorities overseeing the investigation into Gongadze’s disappearance.  But she says the coroner in Tarashchy turned out to be a sympathetic soul.


PRYTULA: He didn’t act as an official, he just acted as a human being. He said if you really think that’s Georgiy, you should take this body and bury it, and you’ll feel better.


The body, which was unearthed on November 3, was decapitated and badly disfigured.  But Prytula says several factors positively identified it as Gongadze’s, including the contents of the stomach, jewelry found on the body, and shrapnel lodged in one wrist.  Gongadze had been wounded in the same spot while covering a civil war in the neighboring republic of Georgia.


But in a bizarre twist, authorities snatched the body while Prytula was out seeking official permission to remove it.  She says the corpse was taken without the coroner’s knowledge.


PRYTULA: He just came to us and said, “There’s no body.” He was surprised and told the police so right front of us.


The coroner confirms Prytula’s account, and authorities now say the body is in a Kiev morgue undergoing a thorough autopsy.  But the macabre chain of events has put public officials on the defensive, including Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma.  The President recently expressed doubt that the body might be Gongadze’s.

“To say that this is Gongadze is a responsibility that only the forensic experts can take on,” he said.  “It’s a matter of further investigation, but I think we’ll soon bring this all to a close.”

But many outside observers say the president and his close circle are partly to blame for the dangerous working conditions of journalists here.  Last year…the New-York based “Committee to Protect Journalists” placed President Kuchma third on its list of Enemies of the press world-wide…citing incidents of violence and censorship leading up to the elections in which Kuchma won his second term.


MYCIO: I would say that without a doubt, journalism, real journalism—reporting on events, on issues of public concern, on individuals of public concern—in an objective, professional way, is a very dangerous profession right now.

Mary Mycio directs the IREX-ProMedia “Legal Defense and Education Program,” a U.S.-funded initiative to help Ukrainian journalists.  She says most newspapers and television stations here are now under the control of so-called oligarchs…men and    women who gained wealth during the privatization of Soviet-era industries and who now hold powerful positions in Ukraine’s Parliament and presidential administration. Mycio sees the Internet as one bright spot, and so does the U-S Embassy here, which gave a one-time grant of $24,000 to Gongadze’s website after his disappearance. Olena Prytula says the money has given the site enough independence to confront authorities about Gongadze’s disappearance and possible murder.  But it hasn’t protected them from a sense of shock.

PRYTULA: The biggest horror is the fact that something like this is possible in our country […].  As for me, I’m not afraid of anything anymore.


Prytula says she’s pursuing DNA testing to prove the body she saw is Gongadze’s.  But she and Gongadze’s family still fear that even when confronted with proof, authorities may not release the corpse, and the case of the missing journalist may never be laid to rest. 

For NPR News…I’m Julia Barton in Kiev, Ukraine.

[NPR 11/20/2000]

(Source: NPR)