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9 June, 2011  ▪  Dmytro Vovnianko

Cashing In On The Show

By building Potemkin villages the state is flirting with the electorate and international financial institutions

The practice linked — justly or not — with Governor General of Novorossiya Prince Grigory Potemkin is blossoming in present-day Ukraine. Officials are building “Potemkin villages” of all sorts to please officials, voters and even international financial organizations. The resulting painted village fences and repaired roads and remodeled façades (along routes travelled by officials and foreign delegations) are grotesque examples of managerial helplessness and, frankly, hypocrisy. It's a tradition, really.

In 1787, Empress Catherine II traveled to Crimea. The reception given to her by Prince Potemkin stunned her companions – Austrian Emperor Joseph II and foreign diplomats – with its unheard-of luxury. They were also impressed by the living standard of the local people. Not surprisingly, suspicions immediately arose that the villages along the route they took were simply for show and their happy "residents" had been brought in from all over the surrounding region. Researchers are still debating the truthfulness of these reports, but the term “Potemkin village” has come to designate the ruse of presenting what is wanted as reality when in fact reality is far removed from it.

Quite a few such “villages” have been built by dictatorships. In 1943, the SS leadership hosted a Danish delegation in Theresienstadt, an “ideal concentration camp.” The GULAG camps in Kolyma made an equally pleasant impression somewhat later on visiting US Vice President Henry Wallace. Soviet functionaries polished the stratagem to perfection as they built “Potemkin villages” in the consciousness of Soviet citizens. It often bordered on cynicism: while understating Soviet losses in the Second World War (claiming just a tiny fraction of the real figure) propagandists drove up the numbers of killed Germans so unabashedly, that the Red Army would have had to destroy the Wehrmacht three times in the first years of the war. Five-year plans and the always overwhelming results of social competition combined to make a grandiose advertisement campaign.

All of this became deeply rooted in the post-Soviet subconsciousness. Russia eagerly builds “Potemkin villages” on the same scale but more pragmatically: colossal budget resources are being “scattered” to this end. The much-advertized construction of the Eastern Siberia–Pacific Ocean oil pipeline resulted in damage to the pipes and an oil spill. The estimated total losses were 120bn rubles. More examples? Russia’s “Silicon Valley” in the village of Skolkovo, infrastructure upgrades in preparation to the Olympic Games in Sochi, the Nord Stream project and so on. All these global projects follow the same scenario: the great-power bravado-filled PR campaign, inspired reports, and loud corruption scandals.

The picture is similar in Ukraine. The “tax break,” “better life even today,” reforms and Chinese buckwheat are typical examples of flirting with the electorate via news reports, and a speed tram in Kyiv is one such real example. There was no mention of its unfinished stations (nearly half of the total) in the exhilarating TV reports about the launch of the project.

The Ukrainian government is trying to attract funds from international financial organizations for more global projects. They are also shown the “Potemkin countryside.” For they have to explain why the country’s national debt grew by USD 5.1bn in 2010 alone. In 2011, new financial injections are needed, and so “Potemkin villages” spring up like mushrooms after rain. The government even created a new agency specifically to deal with these issues, the State Agency for Investments and Management of National Projects. Headed by Vladyslav Kaskiv, this young government body has great prospects in making use of colossal budget resources. It was instituted in 2010 by a government decree and immediately attracted the attention of experts, because the 2010 budget permitted the Cabinet of Ministers to increase the size of the national debt without obtaining consent from parliament and to finance development projects with money borrowed from international financial institutions in excess of the plan.

In 2011, these norms were not included in the budget law, but the idea of implementing global projects is still alive: the 2022 Olympic Games in the Carpathians, New Energy, New Quality of Life, New Infrastructure, etc. The list may go on and on. In order to grasp the nature of these initiatives, one should consider what Mr. Kaskiv himself said: “The entire region [of Halychyna] and its cities will benefit from the Olympic Hope project whether the Olympic Games actually take place there or not. The main purpose is ... not even to host the Olympic Games but to bring back people, migrant workers to Ukraine and inject up to USD 5bn in Halychyna’s economy, which will be done during preparations for the 24th Olympic Games.” This statement was made during the president’s visit to Lviv in April. Ostap Bender, the great schemer, would be green with envy.

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