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16 December, 2011

"Welcome in Ukraine"?

Money spent on promotional videos will be wasted if the country fails to shed its Soviet attributes

Viktor Yanukovych made a revealing mistake when he said in English, “Welcome in Ukraine!” This mistake symbolizes the stubbornness with which the Ukrainian ruling circles are building a government system hostile to man. Many Ukrainians have been dealing with Soviet-type realities on an everyday basis for so long that they have become accustomed to them. In contrast, foreigners who find themselves in Ukraine immediately form an unfavorable impression which they carry along with themselves to their circles.

Next year, Ukraine will co-host Euro 2012 and will welcome perhaps the largest number of foreigners in its history. So information about our country will spread on an unprecedented scale in the form of real-life stories experienced and told by specific people which will later be passed via social networks person to person and will be gladly taken up by media outlets. However, there are apprehensions even now that these stories will not be overly positive. The government is scrambling to do something about it. A series of positive promotional videos has been launched. The police are ostentatiously being taught English, or so the Interior Ministry's press service happily reports. English-language signs have been put up here and there. Of course, this is not enough. Other countries are investing many more systemic efforts in spreading positive information about themselves. First, the Foreign Ministry can do a lot along this line. Apart from promotional videos, day-to-day, sometimes tedious work must be performed, particularly with respect to the mass media, the public and opinion leaders. Embassies have to be centers for disseminating positive information about the country they represent. This is not to mention the fact that states that want to systematically advance their interests in the world set up special information networks that report on the country and its culture. They also help NGOs, at least those that are interested in cooperation. Virtually every embassy of these countries operates relevant assistance programs, cultural centers and information centers. Ukraine is bringing up the rear in this area. When such entities do appear, their activities are merely formal in nature and are often not geared toward generating interest among the target audience. Of course, a lack of funding is a great problem. The way Ukrainian diplomats are financed does not offer much hope for any miracles.

However, the issue lies elsewhere: after all, funding can be found through private investors. A more serious detrimental factor is that the atmosphere of everyday life is damaging the country's image.

Reform-shy Ukraine has traditionally been compared to and contrasted with Georgia. There are objective indices, such as ratings in which our country is near the bottom. But there is also subjective first-hand experience – visitors to Georgia can easily see for themselves the country's successes. Upon arrival, foreigners deal with polite officials and non-bribe-taking law enforcement officers. Incentives for small businesses, which were an essential part of the economic reform, are a prerequisite for the emergence of new enterprises and honest competition, in particular in the tourist sector. And then, competition enhances quality, as is known. Georgians themselves saw why reforms were being carried out and the benefit they brought, and now they convey this understanding to the guests. Meanwhile, the situation in Ukraine prompts citizens to express totally different emotions.

If a shopkeeper’s thoughts are focused on whether his business will survive another inspection and how high kickbacks are now, he will not have time to make sure his staff is not rude to his clients. If he did not spend on bribes, he would be able to pay more to salespeople, improving their attitudes to life and their work. Only tax and regulatory reform that would remove these problems can be an efficient tool for invigorating business and creating jobs. So far, the reforms undertaken by the current government have, on the contrary, exacerbated these problems. If a policeman sees his job merely as a chance to avoid a social dead end and earns his living by fleecing citizens (collecting enough to be able to share with his higher-ups), foreigners will continue to be an irritant, if not a source of bribes, to him. In these conditions, it is hard to hope that law enforcement officers will be able to strike a civilized balance between strictness and politeness in their attitude to soccer fans, that they will be able to protect people from con-artists and thieves and, finally, that they will truly be capable of helping both visitors to the country and Ukrainians themselves.

If a taxi driver pays that same policeman for operating without a license, he will, no doubt, seize the opportunity to compensate this expense by overcharging his foreign clients. For example, a trip from Boryspil Airport to Kyiv may cost not the standard UAH 150-200, but $150-200. In fact, this is the initial sum Kyiv taxi drivers at the airport ask arriving foreigners to pay.

This list of ifs, which is no secret in Ukraine, may be continued. Similarly, everyone knows how these obstacles can be removed, but unfortunately, this is not about to happen. Thus, Euro 2012 may backfire on Ukraine: the perception of our country as lying outside Europe may only be reinforced.


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