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City of Banjul
Saturday, September 19, 2020

Ukraine revisited

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After all this is the country where I spent the best part of my formative years in pursuit of higher education and this is true for many a Gambian including certain iconic figures such as Dr Tamsir Mbowe , and a host of notable figures in both the public and private sectors. 

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The relationship with Ukraine kicked off in the last decade of the last century when I was offered a scholarship to pursue graduate and postgraduate studies in the then Soviet Union precisely in 1990, after a two-year glorious teaching career at the then Gambia High School. These were very interesting times and the former Soviet Union was in the throes of Perestroika and Glasnost – a reform process that was to have significant ramifications for the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and indeed the whole world. Thanks to this process which was unleashed by then Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev the Berlin Wall came down and the “iron curtain” was unfolded thus effectively ending the Cold war, much to the delight of the East Europeans who were forced to live behind the “iron curtain” since the end of the Second World War. 

Ukraine hosted Gambian and African students since the early ’60s and my generation was one of the last batches, given that the Soviet Union collapsed before our very eyes and the newly independent states including Ukraine did not have the appetite to provide and sustain an army of foreign students in their countries.

Ukraine – a country located on the eastern fringes of Europe with 46 million inhabitants is a much-endowed nation and used to be the bread basket of the former Soviet Union. The people are highly talented, industrious, educated, proud and the women folk extremely beautiful. The country is equally endowed with vast natural resources including iron ore, coal and the soil is black as the country is located on the black earth zone of the world with rich and vast agricultural farms across the giant steppe. 

Bread and Irish potato (kartofel) the stable food come in various forms, colours and shape and are never in short supply, including juicy apples, succulent fruits and dairy products including ‘malako’ (milk) and “kefir” (sour milk) which are in abundance and in high demand. In  terms of culinary delights, Ukrainian food was exotic and my favourite delight was “borsh” – a soup like stew mixed with cabbage, meat and tomato paste, and very nice when served hot with “churni kleb” (black bread) which is the favourite bread in Ukraine. Given the harsh weather conditions of  Ukraine with freezing temperatures during the harsh winter months “borsh” is usually very handy in the evenings.

And while I studied Diplomacy and International Relations at the Taras Shevkhenko Kiev State University (1990 – 1996), I immersed myself in Ukrainian/Russian culture, studied the ancient history of Kievskaya Rus – the cradle of Ukrainian and Russian civilisation, read the works of the great Ukrainian nationalist and poet Taras Shevchenko as well as the legendary Russian literary giants such as Tolstoi and Pushkin  and the exploits of Bogdan Khemilnitsky – the great Ukrainian leader who presided over the unification of Ukraine with Russia in the 17th century. At the same time I interacted with a vast array of Ukrainians including the talent pool of intellectuals such as Professor Gumenyuk, Dr Manshola – erudite professor of International Relations and Foreign Policy, Professor Pashuk who later served as Ukrainian ambassador to Argentina, Dr Martinenko – the erudite professor of Political Science as well as Dr Rizhkov – the ever-affable professor of Diplomatic Strategy and Principles of Diplomacy. 

I also used the opportunity to visit and reconnect with my fellow Gambian students in other cities such as Odessa the seaport city on the black sea, Kharkiv, Donetsk and Lviv to explore the scenic beauty of Ukraine and interact with the charming locals. During weekends I undertook occasional forays to the Kreshatik at the centre of Kiev where the crisis unfolded in the Maidan (square) to frolic and window shop or just enjoy the ambience and the beautiful locals… Our hostels affectionately called “obshezitiye”, (communal residence) which was located in the sprawling Lomonosova district in the outskirts of Kiev were lively dwelling places of abode with a mix array of students from all corners of the globe including Arab, Chinese, Latinos and Africans. The lingua franca was Russian and this facilitated interaction within the diverse student population from different continents and regions with different socio-cultural orientations.

 The foreign students strove hard to overcome language barriers and studied hard to meet the stringent requirements of Ukrainian professors. Apart from the occasional racial remarks usually directed at African students by the xenophobic and unexposed locals mostly young boys and drunken men, the harsh wintry conditions and the serious economic challenges faced by the foreign students, the Ukrainian experience was by and large very interesting and rewarding. Despite the odds we soldiered on and graduated in our chosen fields armed with the requisite knowledge and exposure to serve our countries. This we did with distinction and I rose through the ranks to serve the country in various capacities in both the public and semi-government sectors including director of marketing, at the defunct GTA now GTBoard. Given my background and exposure, I took cue from one of the earliest secretary generals of the UN Dag Hammarskjöld who once underscored that “faced with the world of others, one learns that he who has fully absorbed what his own world has to offer, is best equipped to profit by what extends beyond its frontiers… the road inwards could become the road outwards”. With the inspiration, I took my assignment and calling in the tourism sector with seriousness and further undertook a series of specialised training in destination marketing and tourism management and strategy in diverse centres of learning such as the prestigious University of Bocconi in Milan, Italy, Cyprus School of Tourism Management in Nicosia, Kaoshiung Hospitality Institute in Taiwan as well as the Mount Carmel International Training Centre in Israel. As such I was proud and honoured to be given the chance to promote The Gambia’s unique selling proposition in diverse countries across the globe with a view to attracting more tourists and it was in this vein that in 2005 I was selected to represent The Gambia at the UN World Tourism Organisation General Assembly held in Dakar Senegal and this was the first of its kind to be held on African soil.

As I write this piece, I continue to grapple with a very mysterious ailment which has constrained my ability to further serve this country, but I consider this a temporary setback and a bump on the road, which I hope to overcome with the grace of the Almighty  Allah. 

Meanwhile, it is worth mentioning that, the beautiful country called Ukraine has been cursed by geography given its location on the fringes of Europe next to a giant eastern neighbor – Russia; thus the name U-kraina which in Russian roughly translates as people in the periphery or region.  In fact, in every sense Ukraine is just like Russia in miniature, ranging from a common ancestry, similar Slavic identity, linguistic affinities, and family and blood ties. Hardly is there a Russian without a family in Ukraine and vice versa. Ukraine is the cradle of Russian cultural and religious civilisation and its capital Kiev is known as the mother of all Russian cities since ancient times.

Invariably, since early times, but more pronounced after the breakup of the Soviet Union, there has been this push and pull between the vast half consisting mainly of ethnic Russians in the east and the western part as to which way to face – east or west.  The western part is resolutely turned towards the European Union and advocates for a liberal market economy, its majority Christian Catholic and well-educated population speaks Ukrainian and are fervently nationalistic and invariably supports opposition groups and opposes the outgoing president.  On the other hand, the population in the east is majority Orthodox Christian, speaks Russian and looks confidently towards Moscow for stability and economic security.

However, the vast majority of Ukrainians believe that Europe is the natural home for the Ukraine and I remember one of my Ukrainian course mates used to remark that Ukrainians are as white as snow, geographically located in Europe, endowed with beautiful and friendly people and as such her membership of the European family of nations should not be questioned. I concur entirely with this sentiment as Ukraine, though, located in the periphery of Europe, and shared historical and cultural ties with Russia, but her European identity is beyond doubt. As such, the country should be gradually integrated with Europe, but at the same time should maintain close ties with Russia given the close cultural and economic ties that condemn them to share space and interact at various levels. 

Apparently on the surface it might seem that clamour for membership of the EU is the driving force of the current turmoil and to a certain extent it is so, but invariably, the current revolution dubbed ‘Euro Maidan’ has its roots in the way and manner Ukraine has been governed and re-engineered since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. As remarked by the last leader of the Soviet Union Mikhael Gorbachev, “there has been very little Perestroika (restructuring /reform) in Ukraine” as the ruling elite and successive presidents ranging from Leonid Kravchuk – the first post-Soviet president to Leonid Kuchma, presided over a corrupt and moribund system of government, “fearful that reforms and the accompanying adjustments will bite hard and could result in social backlash”. Accordingly, a leading scholar on Eastern Europe further underscored that, “this situation has stifled the potential of this beautiful country and the resultant economic stagnation paved the way for social tension”. 

Therefore, the revolution and the accompanying social revolt unfolding of late in Kiev and other cities is justifiable for obvious reasons as the Ukrainians crave for a better future within the European comity of nations and clamour for a complete overhaul of the economic, social, legal and political dynamics in line with their European neighbours such as Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. But given the peculiarities of their country, they must do so with caution and “make haste slowly” which would require them to balance the interest of their various constituents at the level of the regions particularly in the hotspot of the Crimea with a majority Russian population.  Crafting an all inclusive government, strong enough to tackle corruption and initiate the right constitutional reforms are some of the challenges confronting the new Ukraine.

 However, in these turbulent times, the country is facing serious challenges in terms of economic and social tension and also the role of Russia should be balanced in the equation as this giant neighbor has every reason to be concerned given the close economic and cultural ties with Ukraine, not to mention the fact that nearly half of the Ukrainians are either ethnic Russians or Russian speaking.  For geopolitical and geostrategic reasons  Russia will feel vulnerable in the event that Ukraine tilts closer to Europe as this could open the doors for Nato expansion to its door steps. Based on experience if there is any military alliance that the Russians dread to the core is Nato and the Russian leadership understood the implications of Nato expansion to its door steps and will employ everything within their means to thwart this move. 

The onus lies on the new leadership and their powerful backers in Europe and America to prove beyond words that this is not a zero sum game, and it is in Russia’s interest to let Ukrainians go. Otherwise Ukraine faces the prospects of severe political crises and even a split in to two, which is not in the interest of Europe neither Russia. Ukraine relies entirely on Russia for energy supplies, and besides most of the gas pipes to Europe from Russia pass through Ukraine, not to mention the economic links.  It is therefore in their mutual interest to maintain cordial ties.

 In conclusion it is evident that what is at stake in Kiev has ramifications in the field of energy security in Europe, regional integration and international balance of power and this could lead to a second cold war if the current standoff is not handled with restraint by all stakeholders.

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