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Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Ukrainian agriculture in foreign hands

I am born in Britain of Ukrainian and Irish descent.

I watched the BBC article on the "land rush"by foreign companies in Ukraine and did find it interesting and very well done. Congratulations to them. You can hopefully still see it here:

I have just got back from Ukraine myself, and as always I found that there is no learning like just talking extensively with friends and family, and even strangers on long train journeys who end up becoming friends. Thankfully for me and thanks to my father for his efforts (and Irish mum for her patience!) I am fluent in Ukrainian and can have extensive conversations about complex topics in the language. On one train journey to Kyiv my talking companion thought I was from Ukraine and my wife was probably from Germany! Obviously for someone only just arrived that was a compliment!

Anyway, back to the BBC documentary.

The questions that arise for me on this issue are numerous. Who does Landkom featured in the programme deal with? Does it deal with the village folk directly or with the town and village councils, or with self appointed smartly dark suited "intermediaries" who pocket a percentage?
What rate do they pay for leases? Are they western comparable prices, or Ukraine standard of living prices? If the latter I can see why Lankom will be such a profitable venture.

Another thing came to mind. To what extent have the oligarchs and government ministers (same thing in most cases) invested in that Ukraine they love so much in this particular way? I would hazard a guess that the likes of Yulia Tymoshenko is a little richer and has more disposable personal income than Landkom. If shopping regularly on London's high street fashion stores is not a drain on her pocket and changing her clothes 2 or 3 times a day for Ukrainian TV appearances is the norm, how about a tractor or ten, Yulia? Spare cash to you, I'm sure. Hey Victor, how about you too? And that other vote rigger one, how about the same, and all those Yatseniuks, Akhmetovs, Tsurkis's etc, all gone quiet over there?

One thing I noticed on this year's travels is that the towns are flourishing cosmetically but the villages are in a state of decay. Kyiv and Lviv are the Paris's and Rome's of the east with their flourishing cafe culture, but some village roads are all but impassable for anything other than 4 by 4's. My wife's cousin's neighbour's house, once occupied, is falling apart with nothing other than a portrait of the couple who once lived there and some religious paintings hanging on the cobweb-plaited walls. The village club in my dad's western Ukrainian village, now derelict, looks strangely like something out of the Chernobyl forbidden zone... eerie, overgrown, and very sad. I walked through the rubble that was once the fully functional village cinema I visited when first there 15 years ago and stepped over discarded beer and vodka bottles. Why?

One answer kept cropping up in conversation. It was this. If there is no obvious profit for the various oligarchs and government ministers in a project or cause then they are simply not interested. I even heard an allegation that Polish companies in whom some of these people either have private shares, or completely own, import meat and gherkins and similar produce from Poland into Ukraine.

Think about it, a simple profit for them. A much better short term private investment for Ukraine's leaders than spending their cash on the Ukrainian rural infrastructure. Who would that benefit? The villagers of course, but who cares about them? Maybe these people need reminding that more than once our Ukrainian intelligentsia has said that "the village is the spine of the Ukrainian nation." If the village dies, Ukraine dies. Similarly if the village becomes the property of foreigners, so will Ukraine in effect, be sold once again.

It is interesting to note that although still theoretically communist, the Chinese Government has realised that this rush to the cities needs to be reversed. They are actually offering incentives to the young to return to their ancestral rural homes and work their land. In this global climate where for the "developed economies" there is the "post industrial era" and recession, and for the "developing world" industrialisation is rampant despite its disastrous effect on nature, surely this is an indication that the new oil is soil. Not only that, you cant eat oil, but with an ever increasing global population truly mutually beneficial wealth and wellbeing, and hopefully eventual population control will come from the ability to provide food, not petrol. It is poverty that contributes to overpopulation after all.

The problem as I can see it in Ukraine is understandable but needs to be addressed. The young are leaving the villages for their towns or to rush abroad in droves. They want a "quick fix" of cash now. The problem is that they are assuming that the same model applies to largely rural countries like Ukraine as to small ones like Britain, whose wealth came largely from the industrial revolution and imperialism and now (albeit with its disasters) from international finance and "city based" economies. Ukraine is more like France, largely rural, and its path to success is more likely to be in the black earth that the young are running away from.

They can't be blamed because without capital investment what chance do they have to even make a go of it? None.

The Ukrainian leader who realises this will be the one who saves Ukraine. Let us see who is first to visit the villages in the forthcoming election campaigns and invest heavily in rural Ukraine. Call me a cynic but I can already imagine the scene in my Fathers village, successive helicopters setting down these "caring" oligarchs and ministers on the overgrown forgotten village square so they can tell everyone that they love them, make a vague electoral promise, and then take off again back to the city, as if being rescued from a war zone.

Sadly, it is more likely that they will only "put their money where their mouths are" when they can see there is something in it for them.

Sadder still , it is foreign companies now instead of foreign armies, that can see the opportunities that have been "sitting on the end of Ukraine's nose" or should I say, under Ukrainians feet, ever since Ukraine existed. I'll end on a humorous anecdote I heard a few times: "In soviet times we had the money but there was nothing on the shelves to buy, today the shelves are full but we have no money."

I have to end with a question here though. In the coming years whose produce will be on those shelves?

I sincerely hope that with the help of this foreign investment by companies such as Lankom it will be mostly that of Ukraine's rural population before any produce is exported for that "mutual benefit". That remains to be seen.

Better still if some of those leaders of ours copy Landkom, and invest a few billion in soil, and not just oil.

- Stepan Pasicznyk a.k.a. "Ludwig."

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