Saturday, April 23, 2011

Happy Easter!

This year I'm spending Easter at home in Lviv. (Usually I try to come home for both Christmas and Easter, but it doesn't always work out). 
It's nice to be able to bake stuff with my mom. And although we haven't painted any eggs ourselves, the basket we took to church had some very pretty pysanky in it from our market. 

Happy Easter!

Ukrainian traditional Easter eggs (pysanky) and bread (pasky)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

On politicians in our popular culture and everyday life

The years when out of the political spectrum most Ukrainians could distinguish only Communists and non-communists and paid little attention to politics are definitely behind us. After all, sine 2004 protests known as “Orange Revolution” most of us have been following the twists and turns of the domestic political game very closely. And, to be honest, the Ukrainian political drama sometimes gets very intense and it frequently has us glued to the TV screen or a computer monitor for hours (e.g. when Shuster LIVE is on!).

By now, however, a few years of such intense attention have turned our politicians into some sort of folklore characters that have managed to enter every household. 

First of all, there’s an incredible amount of jokes, user-generated videos and photo collages circulated on- and offline – such as a recent YouTube video [ru] humoring President Yanukovych in a mix of official footage with parts of an old Soviet comedy. 

Then, there are TV sitcoms and parodies, such as those created by Ukrainian version of "Bolshaya raznitsa" [ru] TV show or "Kvartal-95" [ru]comedy studio. 

"Bolshaya Raznitsa", "Victor Almighty" episode. 
 Actors portray ex-President Victor Yushchenko and 
current President Victor Yanukovych

"Kvartal-95": an actress impersonates Yulia Tymoshenko 

An actress plays Yulia Tymoshenko in a
sitcom  "Nedotorkani" (available only online).

There's even popular fiction being written about our politicians - take, for instance, Yuriy Rohoza's To Kill Yulia (Tymoshenko) book series, where the first book promotes her, while the second one, according to the author, reflects his "disillusionment with Tymoshenko during her premiership" [ukr].

And while social polls continuously indicate [ru] that most Ukrainians don't only share Rohoza's sentiments toward Tymoshenko, but also feel this way about most other politicians, this does not hamper latter's widespread presence in our lives far beyond TV screen.

For example, owners of a recently opened pizza place in Lviv chose to use our political leaders as an interior decoration theme:

Puppet dolls in a Lviv Pizzeria resemble former and current
Prime Ministers Yulia Tymoshenko and  Mykola Azarov

A doll of Pinocchio's father in a Lviv Pizzeria bears a close
 resemblance to Ukraine's former President Leonid Kuchma

A doll of Pinocchio in a L'viv Pizzeria resembles former
Speaker of Parliament and Presidential candidate Arseniy

And, if you happen to forget who the main players on Ukraine’s political scene are – just visit a small photo studio around the corner from my parents’ house. A few years ago their price list contained photos of Yushchenko, Tymoshenko, and Yanukovych. Now, however, it looks like this:

A price list in a Lviv photo studio with pictures of
President Victor Yanukovych, Prime Minister
Mykola Azarov, Vice Prime Minister Serhiy Tihipko
and opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

One Flew Over the..."Mezhyhirya"

Apparently, our journalists got tired of waiting for President Yanukovych to fulfill his 2010 promise [ukr] to show them his "Mezhyhirya" residence (because of which, bthw, we now got one of a few good roads and a helicopter landing pad being built in Kyiv).

Today, reporters from Segodnya [ukr] newspaper have gone on a helicopter ride and released first photos of his lavish mansion.

According to the news source, out of dozen of Kyiv's helicopter clubs and private pilots only one agreed to fly them over "Mezhyhirya" on a condition that they wouldn't reveal his name. (Some said [ukr] they were afraid of getting shot while flying or being fired for taking journalists' offer).

Nevretheless, because of one brave pilot of Robinson-44 from Kyiv region, we finally got an actual idea of what "Mezhyhirya" is like.

Take a look yourself! (all photos by Segodnya)
A 'Club house', with a waterfall nearby and an indoor tennis court
A small private creek with a crossing
A waterfall
An arbor
A helicopter aerodrome
I suppose now the rumors about “Mezhyhirya” should finally stop. I must admit, however, that we all sort of guessed a while ago why Mr. President has been so reluctant to reveal this modest home to the public...

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Ukrainian politicians on Facebook and Twitter

Last night I have composed another GV post about the way our politicians use Facebook and Twitter. It is largely based on analysis by with some of my comments. The version I'm sharing here is somewhat shorter and excludes detailed analysis of seven most active politicians/parties' online behavior. For full text please refer to the link included above.

With over a million of Ukrainians using [uk] Facebook and over 80,000 users [en] on Twitter, more and more Ukrainian politicians choose to join these services. Currently, there are over 50 of them on Facebook and over 20 political parties and their individual members on Twitter. Ukrainian Internet-business and social media marketing website has set up a real-time popularity ranking [uk] of politicians’ accounts on these two services.

Ukrainian politicians’ popularity on Facebook and Twitter

According to, as of April 12, 2011, most popular Facebook pages were: opposition leader “Batkivshchyna” (uk. Fatherland) party head Yulia Tymoshenko’s (fake), with 5,421 “likes”; MP Lesya Orobets', with 2,229 “likes”; and deputy head of “Batkivshchyna” Oleksandr Turchynov's, with 1,602 “likes”.

Facebook accounts with 5,000 friends belonged to MPs Mykola Tomenko and Oles Doniy, leader of the right-wing party VO “Svoboda” (uk. Freedom) Oleh Tyahnybok had 4,995 friends, MP Lesya Orobets – 4,789 friends.

Most popular (verified) Twitter accounts belonged to: Yulia Tymoshenko – 12,832 followers, “Sylna Ukraina” (uk. Strong Ukraine) party leader and Vice Prime Minister Serhiy Tihipko – 4,294 followers, and Lesya Orobets – 4,197 followers.

Politicians’ activity on online social networks

On April 4, 2011, Maksym Savanevsky of also published an analysis [uk] of the politicians' online activity on Facebook and Twitter. 

Main conclusion of the analysis is that not a single political force has some sort of a strategy of operating in online environment. Some even demonstrate very low understanding of the technical side of things.

Nevertheless, the number of politicians on Twitter is likely to continue to increase due to the simplicity of the service and its successful utilization by Yulia Tymoshenko [the first Ukrainian politician to have a "verified account" on Twitter].  After joining the micro blogging tool, she has accumulated 12,000 followers in a little over a month and a half.

(Full translation of Maksym's major findings can be found here).

Social media, Ukrainian government and the opposition

Although online activity of Ukrainian politicians continues to increase, the number of those personally present on social networks remains comparatively low. This can be explained by the fact that the majority of political actors still perceive television as the main channel of communication with the electorate, and control over television – as the key [uk] to political success. However, taking into account the deteriorating press freedom [en] in Ukraine, it is understandable why most politicians who actively utilize social media (see rankings above) represent the opposition.

As for the President of Ukraine Victor Yanukovych, according to official sources, he has no accounts on social media networks [uk], including Twitter. A fake Twitter account @PresidentUA that seems to mirror some official announcements from the official presidential website currently has almost 2,000 followers, and another one, @Prezident_UA, has 715. A fake Twitter account that impersonates the Ukrainian PM Mykola Azarov (@PremierUkraine) has over 1,300 followers.

Back in 2009, the previous Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko set up a Twitter account @President_UA (see this GVpost), which apparently was maintained by his press-service. However, many Internet users criticized it for being boring and generally demonstrating a very low expertise with using the micro-blogging tool.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Ukraine: “Stalin” Tea Sparks Controversy

This post has been written for Global Voices and published today. I thought I'd share it here as well.

According to a recent poll [uk], up to 46 percent of Ukrainians feel nostalgic for the USSR, most of them being pensioners, as well as residents of Eastern and Southern regions of the country. At the same time, only 18% of Western Ukrainians and 19 percent of young people share this sentiment.
Such blurred attitudes toward the recent communist past are being eagerly exploited by manufacturers, who have been using Soviet symbols to market their goods for years. Nevertheless, the recent promotion of a domestically-produced tea named after the notorious Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin has sparked a heated discussion among Ukrainian netizens, many of whom felt that this time marketers have overstepped the line.
In February, Dnipropetrovsk city Internet forum user Vtoroy shared several photos of a billboard advertising the “Stalin” tea. He wrote this [ru]:
Впервые вживую вижу наружную полиграфию с изображением Сталина.
This is the first time I see [outdoor advertisement] with a picture of Stalin in real life.
Some bloggers, however, pointed out that this brand has been on and off the market for the past three years. When seeing it for the first time in 2008, LJ user sparrow_hawk wrote this [ukr]:
спосіб заварювання: на крові. і поміцніше
The way to brew it: on blood. And strong.
LJ user bulavec posted a photo of the “Stalin” tea on a store shelf in the Donetsk LJ community andnoted [uk] that it was being sold in Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk back in 2009. Around that time, LJ user Tamila Tasheva (tamila_tasheva) from Crimea wrote [uk] that she’d seen the tea in her region as well.
Apparently, this year “Stalin” tea has made a comeback on the Ukrainian market. A few days ago, Facebook user Father Nikanor Skipin shared another photo of a tea-advertising billboard also taken recently in Dnipropetrovsk:

Advertisement of Stalin tea in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine. Photo by Nikanor Skipin
Under the photo, he has posted [uk] the following question:
How do you like this piece of stupidity ???
User Tykholaz Igor agreed [uk]:
User Vlad Pupych wrote [ukr]:
боюсь, отруюсь.
[I’m] afraid I could get poisoned.
User Alina Lukashevich wrote [ru]:
хорошее чувство юмора у производителя))))))))))
The producer’s got good sense of humor))))
User Sergey Bacha also commented [ru]:
Этот чай судя по всему рассчитан на пожилых и очень пожилых людей, вот поэтому портрет Сталина взяли а основу. […]
This tea, by all means, is meant for the [elderly], that’s why they have taken Stalin’s portrait as a basis. […]
User Valeriy Kolosyuk replied [uk]:
Моїй бабці 89-ий рік. Не помічав у неї прихильності до Сталіна.
My grandmother is almost 89. I haven’t noticed her sympathizing with Stalin.
A Facebook user from Belarus, Ales Reznikov, wrote [be]:
беларусау гэтым ня здзiвiш
This would not surprise Belarusians
Sharing an example of Stalin being used for marketing purposes in another post-Soviet country, a Kyiv-based LJ user and photographer boga4 posted a 2010 photo of a bottle of wine taken in a souvenir store in Georgia [Joseph Stalin’s country of birth].

A bottle of Stalin wine at a souvenir store in Georgia. Photo by LJ user boga4
Although in 2007 the former Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko issued a decree banning all symbols and monuments to those responsible for the Holodomor (which would include Soviet leaders), it has hardly been carried through. The attitudes of the current authorities are made obvious by the fact that youth activists held guilty for destroying a monument to Stalin in Zaporizhzhya in 2010 have been prosecuted on charges of terrorism.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Why Ukrainian entrepreneurs are this year's most likely 'April Fools'

Late in November 2010 thousands of Ukrainian private entrepreneurs went out to protests against the new Tax Code, which would severely increase tax burden on small and mid-size businesses by wrecking the simplified tax system. While the rallies in November were the largest public protests since 2004 Orange Revolution (hence, the nickname ‘Maidan-2’ or ‘Tax Maidan’), this was not the first time entrepreneurs have come together to defend their rights.
Tax Code protests on Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo by REUTERS
In 2009, they have already organized to protest Tymoshenko’s controversial Decree # 1118. Adopted in the midst of economic crisis, it threatened the existence of private entrepreneurs paying a unified tax by causing them to lose clients that received VAT compensation. 

Curiously, then most civil society organization established to defend small business’ interests haven't actively reacted against the regulation. Instead, a self-organized initiative group that launched action sprang up from an unaffiliated entrepreneurs’ discussion on an online forum of Kyiv newspaper Private Entrepreneur, which attracted over 5000 comments from businessmen of various regions and resulted in street activities that ultimately lead to the abolition of the Decree # 1118 [UKR].

In Ukrainian context such situation was not surprising. After all, in our country informal civic initiatives (not constrained by the Soviet-style bureaucratic structure, intermingled relations with the state, or agenda imposed by donors) can often react quicker, mobilize resources better, and defend interests of a particular group more effectively than the formal civil society organizations established for this particular purpose.

However, when in 2010 the passage of new Tax Code threatened the ability of thousands of small and mid-size business owners registered as private entrepreneurs to earn their livelihoods, the action was more popular and coordinated. This time more newspapers opened special online forums [UKR], formal business associations alerted their members, and entrepreneurs themselves spread the word around prompting mass protests in Kyiv. Reflecting the changed press environment in Ukraine, perplexed mainstream media practically ignored thousands of people protesting on country’s main square, while social media played the crucial role in covering the demonstrations (see my timeline of events on GV).

The success of these protests was dubious: although they had initially lead to the Presidential veto of the Tax Code, in the end it had only delayed bill's eventual passage by the Parliament and the consequent effects on the small and mid-size businesses in Ukraine. The government, however, labeled its dialogue with entrepreneurs ‘successful’, while quietly dismantling protesters’ tent city at dawn (see reactions of Ukrainian blogosphere on GV).

 Police controls dismantling of tax protesters' tent city. Photo by Ukrayinska Pravda

In any case ‘Tax Maidan’ has clearly achieved one thing – it demonstrated ability of entrepreneurs from different regions and business areas to come together in times of crisis. The next logical step would have been to institutionalize in order to continuously defend the interests of Ukrainian small business. Nevertheless, after long debates, the entrepreneurs’ movement seemed to repeat the fate of many similar initiatives in Ukraine that were strongest during their protest and demonstrations stage, managed to achieve their first practical goals, but then fell apart and lost effectiveness.

When I asked one of tax protest activists what hampered ability of entrepreneurs’ movement to get off the ground, he replied that it must have been people’s instinctive aversion toward any ‘voluntary’ associations inherited from the Soviet times. After all, in the words of our sociologists, most Ukrainians still believe any organizational activity is a privilege allowed or granted by government bureaucracy or international organizations, and not a right of individuals.

Moreover, the strong entrepreneurs’ movement is obviously against the interests of our government, which treats any sign of social activism with suspicion (to say the least), and has recently carried out a series of repressions against ‘Tax Maidan’ activists [RUS].

The statistics also remain grim – thousands small businesses have already disappeared [UKR] since the beginning of 2011, and up to 200 thousands more are going to close [UKR] after remaining norms of the Tax Code become effective on the 1st of April. And although some participants of the ‘Tax Maidan’ try to remain active, if Ukrainian small business fails to unite and act quickly, we are likely to see most of enterprises ‘die’ in the nearest months and yet another originally successful civic initiative dissipate without achieving any long-term results.
Most recent tax protests in Kyiv (March 2011). Photo by civic organization 'Vidsich'