By Dano Brossman a student at King’s College London, currently at Sciences Po Paris. Contributing writer to Slovakia’s print newspaper called Denník N.
I was told the military conflict in Ukraine is at sleep. What I saw surprised me.
A soldier in Kiev, Maidan Square will soon board the train and head eastwards.
The bus station in Košice, Slovakia’s eastern metropole, is crowded. People wait outside,
yet only a few of them stand next to me. I am waiting on the second platform with
only a handful of other passengers. All six of them speak Ukrainian and we are
about to cross the eastern frontier.
“Uzhorod vokzalna?” I ask a teenager sitting in the front raw. “Da, to Uzhorod
vokzalna,” he confirms. After three hours of travelling, we are finally here. Uzhorod a
town of about 110 000 people once belonged to Czechoslovakia. It used to be
relatively prosperous, strategically situated, with a multi-ethnic population.
The post World War II redrawing of borders and incorporation into the USSR
significantly shifted its history. Especially after the fall of communism.
Uzhorod Bus Station
Today, the city belongs to Ukraine. A country with one of world’s highest corruption
rates and only marginal foreign investments compared to its western neighbours.
The contrast with Slovakia is nothing but visible. From the moment I stepped out of
our bus the difference was disturbing. Decades old Soviet taxis, aging buildings and
bumpy roads are perhaps the most visible, yet less revealing signs. The
development gap between us – meaning eastern countries of the EU – and them, the
Ukrainians, used to be much more narrow. The starting line in the early 1990s was
similar, but Ukraine has been stuck behind. Why?
Equal but different
“Poland – comparable in size and history – had a similar GDP per capita after the fall
of communism. In 2013 its GDP was already three times higher than that of
Ukraine,” explains Ivan Mikloš, the ex-Finance Minister of Slovakia in an interview
for mono.sk. He currently works as an advisor to the Ukrainian Minister of Finance
and the Minister of Economy.
Among economists, Mikloš is known as the author of unpopular, but successful
reforms. Through economic liberalization, integration and a flat tax system, he
significantly contributed to converting Slovakia, once called “the black hole in the heart
of Europe” into a prosperous and functioning state. Now he is trying to execute similar
reforms in Kiev, but the task seems to be more difficult. The greatest struggle is war.
Prior to going across the border I tried to get a better understanding of what is
going on. Most sources agreed on one thing: the conflict in eastern Ukraine is at
sleep. I was told there is no actual fighting anymore, no offensive, except for several
ceasefire violations. Perhaps “several ceasefire violations” do not officially
constitute war, but what I saw looked like nothing but a country at war.
Going to the East. Similar pictures can be taken at almost every train station.
“My sister’s husband fought in the east, but he’s at home now. His leg was blown
away by a mine,” says Vladimir, a lorry driver, as we stand on the platform in Lviv.
We are looking at soldiers in uniforms with large backpacks boarding our train to
Kiev. The sixteen-hour journey to the capital is a long one, with new groups of
soldiers entering the train almost every time we stop. “They are heading to the front
in Donbas,” explained Vladimir while we were sitting in a coupé slowly drinking a
full bottle of cognac “just to sleep better”.
Donbas is Ukraine’s eastern region, now almost completely administered by selfproclaimed separatist republics primarily centred around the towns of Donetsk and
Luhansk. Resulting from Russification process initiated by Joseph Stalin, the
majority of its population is Russian speaking and most men work in mines. The
region can be compared to Rhine-Ruhr area in Western Europe. It is rich for steel
and coal. The separatist tendencies are not new. They result from a combination of
socio-cultural ties with Russia, but also Moscow’s appetite for mineral resources.
Living like a boss for 60€
Concluding on a country’s economic situation by looking at old cars is by no means
accurate. It can be used as a mere symbolism. What is more revealing are the
Since the outbreak of the Maidan Revolution, Hrivna – the country’s currency – faces triple digit devaluation. Exchanging 60€ by a rate of 1:27 provides you with enough
money to travel 1500 kilometres by train, sleep in a three star hotel and eat in
restaurants. Four days later, I still had a couple of Hrivnas left in my pocket.
Devaluation does have its bright side. It boosts exports and attracts investors who
seek to minimize costs of employing workers. But the introduction of embargos
from Moscow closed the door to Ukraine’s traditional trading partner. As Vladimir, the
lorry driver says, in the last year he had done zero exports to Ukraine’s largest
neighbour, whereas before, Russia was one of the most frequent destinations. To
make matters worse, “War in Ukraine” headlines have been stimulating concerns
among western companies regarding the security of their employees and assets. In
total, the war-related economic constraints constitute for 20% loss in GDP.
Not yet there. A sign of hope, the EU flag along Ukranian next to municipal building in Zakarpatia.
Despite red numbers, Ukraine seems to be on the right path. It has pro-reform
ministers, several new MPs without direct links to oligarchy. The government is
looking towards the West, rather than the East. This does not mean it should forget
about Russia completely. Quite the opposite: in the months to follow, normalization
of relations with Russia is even more pressing than accession to the EU. The conflict
in Donbas must end and it will not without Moscow’s cooperation.
Mono.sk – Interview with Ivan Mikloš (conducted by Dominik Orfánus)
OSCE – organization for cooperation and security in Europe
DenníkN.sk – Interview with Ivan Mikloš (conducted by Mirek Tóda)
Conversations with locals