Another attempt to make some kind of sense of what's going on east of the Dniester. Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan come in for special attention.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Will the Rada be disbanded?

Contradictory signs, so far. Baloga says he's ready to draw up the presidential decree; Tymoshenko comes whipping back to Kiev; the Party of Regions appears to be preparing a contingency plan; but Yushchenko looks to be dithering, as usual, but may well be leaning towards dissolution.

Ukrainian politics are absolutely fascinating.

Three Tymoshenko-related items

I'll go out on a limb to say that I've never really liked Yulia Tymoshenko. I just don't trust her. So, take these items with a grain of salt, if you must.

Any of you with an abiding interest in Ukraine have probably come to appreciate Украинская правда as a source of information (and entertainment) on full-contact Ukrainian politics. It's a great source and I recommend it highly.

Here, the paper prints an interesting story about how a Lviv-based Tymoshenko party paper allegedly "edited" a plagiarised interview, in order to remove bits critical of Tymoshenko, as well as falsified a part, in order to praise her. UP claims that, when asked for an explanation, the editor of the paper in question admitted excising the criticism, saying (paraphrase) "after all, we're a party paper."

Украинская правда also reports that Tymoshenko's aunt has filed a lawsuit against Viktor Yuschenko, for violating her rights by not dissolving the Verkhovna Rada. Eh?

Lastly, Yulia's latest visit to Paris has been cut short - see here.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Latvian-Russian Border Treaty to be Signed

I confess to a less-than-complete understanding of Latvian history and contemporary issues with Russia. I do, however, have a friend who understands them very well and has spoken eloquently on them, time and again.

The border treaty issue has been exercising him for some time and I think I finally understand why. With the treaty due to be signed, Latvia, in essence, not only turns its back on a piece of land forcibly taken from her, but also hamstrings itself, to an extent, in its ongoing struggle to have Russia recognise the fact that Latvia was forcibly incorporated into the USSR, leading to horrors of deportation and decades of subjugation.

I join him in wishing that Russia could recognise its sins of the past, if only for the sake of - I fervently hope - a brighter future.

For those who would like a much more in-depth look at this, and other, Latvian questions, I heartily recommend my friend's blog, Marginalia .

Monday, March 26, 2007

"Confident Turkey Looks East, Not West"

From The Guardian, at,,2042846,00.html

The "money quote":

Turkey's increasingly important regional leadership role is also changing the way it views the EU. As a vital transit hub, it provides much of Europe's oil and gas from the Caspian basin, Russia and, prospectively, the Turkic republics of central Asia. This is leading to closer cooperation with Moscow and reviving ideas of a Turkic Commonwealth from Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan.

Now, I have to admit something of a bias, inasmuch as I've always liked the Turks, despite the danger of saying such a thing, in light of the continuing vicious debate over the Armenian genocide, Kurdish issues, Cyprus, etc. While these issues are clearly important and even painful for many, they have no real effect upon my basic affinity for all of the Turks I've ever met.

Apart from liking the people themselves, Istanbul has become one of my two favourite cities to visit in the world (the other being London.) Istanbul is simply staggering in the breadth of history a visitor feels just wandering around. I could happily spend a couple of weeks in a cheap and nasty Kumkapi hotel, just to have the opportunity to see more of this timeless city. Best of all, Aerosvit offers a superb rate from Kiev to Istanbul - $270, with all taxes included. Hard to beat that.

So, I'd like to see Turkey in the EU. And I do agree with the gist of the paragraph above: surely an EU largely dependent upon foreign oil and gas is not going to poke Turkey in the eye?

A feel-good post for Canadians?

I'm not above tub-thumping for my home and native land. I love Canada and am thoroughly unashamed of saying so.

What is especially nice is to see that others, apparently, think of us in a rather good light as well.

That said, what is one to make of the awful rating for Israel? Or of the fact that The U.S. and Russia score nearly the same in positives, but that the U.S. rates worse among the negatives? The U.S. scores worse than North Korea. Yikes.

Perhaps those results, as well as the Canada-love, is more reflective of demonisation and idealisation, respectively?

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

More on TCO Riot

Found at

Hey! The author's a fellow McGill alum!


By Saulesh Yessenova (02/21/2007 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Tengiz, known for expanding oil production and a bribery scandal involving top officials and prominent shareholders, made different headlines last fall. This was in relation to a mass riot that broke out on 20 October between domestic workers and foreign nationals. The situation was reportedly ‘under control’ within hours, which lends credibility to eyewitness accounts asserting that it caused little surprise among locals and that the oil company, its subcontractors, and, perhaps, the state were prepared for a prompt response to minimize anticipated damage. If so, then was the riot, which claimed several lives and left hundreds injured, preventable?
BACKGROUND: The riot is said to have begun as a personal incident that enthused a massive fight, where Turkish nationals incurred most casualties. Reports and expert assessments have recognized socio-economic disparities that caused the violence. Still, ethnic animosities and the wild rush on the part of Kazakh workers have been captured more intensely than the situation regarding business and labor at Tengiz. This riot is the second serious disturbance at Tengiz, following the one in April 2005. Both centered on the Senimdi Kurylis (SK), a lead contractor of PFD UK and a major player in the construction of the Second Generation Project (SGP) for TengizChevroil (TCO). Both riots have grown out of the increased pressure generated by unresolved labor issues, indicating the absence of mechanisms of labor regulation and conflict resolution at Tengiz. The state and TCO have been aware of systematic corruption and labor discrimination and abuse at the Tengiz Rotation Village, an industrial base patronized by the oil company that hosts its subcontractors and their workers. Yet, no sensible effort has been made to create a more just and transparent environment at Tengiz in response to the earlier labor protests, which made the latest riot so predictable. As such, it appears to be a calculated choice on the part of corporate business and the state both interested in sustaining upward resource redistribution around the oilfield. Industry sources declare TCO to be one of the most dynamic hydrocarbon enterprises in the world. Its steady expansion over the past decade, and especially the launch of the Second Generation Project in 2004 with an estimated cost of $4 billion, boosted business activities around Tengiz. At present, TCO sustains the operations of nearly 100 companies; 14,000 employees are engaged in Tengiz worksites daily. Oddly enough, the economic boom that significantly increased business market and labor demand has been accompanied by recurrent labor conflicts at Tengiz. They began in the mid-1990s with TCO workers calling for more equitable labor arrangements and representation. None of their demands were met by any measure; however, a TCO union, which enjoyed strong support at a grassroots level, enabled peaceful negotiations. Anti-union corporate measures and the ambivalent position of the state subsequently curtailed organized labor. The decline of unionism meant the end of wage expansion at TCO and the beginning of a downward spiral of wages and work conditions among its subcontractors that eventually backfired with violent labor protests. Tengiz employees work 11-12 hours every day, carrying out extended shifts. Even local residents are required to be in camp residence despite their homes’ physical proximity to the worksite. Foreign employers have come to appreciate the situation when all employees engaged in the work process stay at the company premises day and night, since it provides the administration with the most direct means of control. This system, however, increases operational costs. Senimdi Kurylis, claiming 2,500 workers, is the second largest employer after TCO and a sponsor company to 60 other subcontractors. The company responded with transfer of the burden of the non-standard work pattern to its employees: it stripped domestic workers from paid time off, compensation for room and board and transportation to the worksite, as well as accident insurance. In 2005, the amounts SK retained in the form of unpaid benefits nearly doubled the amounts actually paid to workers. This illegal practice of benefit retention has widened the economic and social gap between domestic and foreign workforces, a prime motivation behind the riots. SK also disenfranchised Kazakhstan’s nationals by disregarding professional qualification, experience, and task complexity as the basis for calculating wages, which boosted corruption: human resource officers are said to routinely retain first- and even second-month salaries earned by those whose paperwork they process. In 2005, the average wage of a domestic worker, based on a 28-day shift and overtime work was below 30,000 tenge ($230), i.e., less than $1/hour. In terms of a standard work schedule, based on 40 hours of labor per a week, this pay is located below the legally enforced minimal wage in Kazakhstan.
IMPLICATIONS: In 2004-2005, Tengiz witnessed a series of localized labor protests that were contained by means of company security. The dispute in April 2005 began in a similar way; however, it spread out, igniting a massive strike that involved 3,000 domestic laborers demanding fair compensation and respectful treatment. The protest spilled over the gender divide: hundreds of female workers, employees of canteens and maintenance companies, joined the male-driven protest, embarking on a strike against labor discrimination as well. The state was appalled when learning about the magnitude of legal abuse at Tengiz; its subsequent actions, however, were inconsequential, producing inept initiatives that did not help to improve the situation and severely circumscribed its authority around Tengiz. In the aftermath of the 2005 riot, local authorities expressed their unease with poor conditions at the Tengiz Rotation Village, hosting subcontractors and their workers. TCO has claimed no responsibility, pointing out that it is located outside the corporate property. At the same time, the oil company declined a proposed plan to increase the state’s control at the Village, which was feared to threaten the autonomy and integrity of TCO’s economic activities, protected by its contract with the state. A core crude producer in the country, TCO generates $200 million of annual revenues for the national budget, and the completion of SGP construction is expected to significantly increase oil profits. The state settled the case with a small office in charge of labor-management relations and workplace regulation that focused on the grievances of individual workers. State authorities came to think that should they reinforce the law, it would “hurt” business, pushing many subcontractors out of the Tengiz market, and might even cause highly undesirable work delays just like the riot did by paralyzing the entire construction process. SK has never been charged or even properly inspected. Along with the other companies, it has been allowed to harbor corrupted practices and systematic labor discrimination and abuse that brought another wave of violence in October 2007.
CONCLUSIONS: The situation created at Tengiz points to a dysfunctional relationship between business, labor, and the state, placing the oil project at odds with the ideas of economic and human development. The economic growth trend observed around Tengiz in the past few years has brought no sensible advantages to the domestic labor force that can be translated into long-term gain. This is a direct outcome of an earlier corporate effort to dissolve organized labor at TCO and its continuous strategy to insulate Tengiz from outside interference, while the state has appeared to play along, seemingly prioritizing oil profits over labor development and justice. In June 2007 – the anticipated date of SGP completion, leaving behind thousands of workers beyond company gates without any mechanism that would help to mediate their situation. Other hydrocarbon projects in Kazakhstan, for example, those in Aktobe and Uralsk, have been recently rationalized in a fashion similar to Tengiz. The problems that Tengiz workers have faced therefore are not limited to a single project site; instead, they have direct relevance to other oil enterprises across the Caspian Basin and, perhaps, elsewhere in the world.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Saulesh Yessenova received her Ph.D. at McGill University in 2003. At present she is a fellow at Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Germany. She conducts her research in Kazakhstan’s Caspian Sea Basin.

Russia playing both ends against the middle?

I find Stratfor to be pretty much hit-and-miss, not necessarily "predictive" or "insightful", as they like to describe their podcasts. And their announcer's absolutely horrendous mispronunciation of Russian names is enough to drive one mad. A recent podcast, however, set me to thinking.

In it (the March 13th edition,) they suggest that Russia does not intend to ever complete the Busherhr project in Iran. By refusing to do so, they maintain leverage over both Iran and the USA, and play a bigger role on the world stage. The USA will have to play nice, to avoid pushing Russia to continue the technology transfer, as will Iran, if it ever wants the project done.

It certainly sounds possible. Anyone else want to discuss this one? I'm looking at you, Vilhelm.

A Short History of Marina Lewycka

As a subscriber to the Action Ukraine report (an often tendentious, but welcome sort of JRL for Ukraine, subscribable by e-mail to I received this on Monday.

I had read A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian last year, so this rather piqued my interest. While it's not the greatest book I've ever read by a long shot - not even the best in the past few months, that honour being held by A Confederacy of Dunces -- I found it a very enjoyable read. And isn't that the most important thing?

And, anyway, I found this to be a rather charming story.


PROFILE: Of novelist Marina Lewycka First Novel: "A Short History of Tractors In Ukrainian"The Sunday Times, London, UK, Sunday, March 18, 2007

High-octane wit and sparkiness helped boost Marina Lewycka's improbably named first novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, into a runaway bestseller. Her uproarious comedy of manners made nearly every must-read list and was even the No 1 choice of holidaying Labour MPs.

Two years on, the imminent publication of her follow-up book is prompting speculation over whether the 60-year-old author has fulfilled the highexpectations of fans.

Writing a successful second novel can be a difficult trick to pull off.Muriel Spark's follow-up, Robinson, was her worst book by far. Neither Monica Ali nor Zadie Smith were given rapturous receptions the second time around. Often, a writer's best efforts are eclipsed by the starburst of hype surrounding their initial discovery.

The first shots in a likely critical battle over Lewycka's new tragicomedy Two Caravans, published this week, were fired in The Times.

The reviewer either had a sense of humour failure that day or was critically unsparing, accusing the author of playing for "cheap laughs" and indulging in linguistic "caricature" reminiscent of Manuel from Fawlty Towers.

But it will take more than one critic to shatter Lewycka's belief that she is about to stretch her literary wings.

"Publishing one's first novel at 58 is both wonderful and terrifying," she said. "Terrifying, because I feel this sense of urgency now. I have so little writing time left, and so many things I want to write."

Such aspirations are only natural after being shortlisted for the 2005Orange prize for fiction and winning the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse award.

A Ukrainian born in a refugee camp in Germany before growing up in Yorkshire, she had been contemplating retirement from her job as a lecturer on media and public relations at Sheffield Hallam University when her quaint debut novel made her a rich woman who could take her pick of literary festivals and foreign tours.

People who meet Lewycka tend to fall in love with her warmth and sense ofhumour. "She is extremely likable and funny, without any pretension," said one. "She lives in the same house in Sheffield and has the same friends."

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is the infectiously funny tale of the ructions within a dysfunctional Ukrainian immigrant family in Britain when the ageing widower Nikolai is beguiled by a young, grasping Ukrainian divorcee with Botticellian breasts who marries him to get a British passport. Nikolai's quarrelling daughters unite to resist the "fluffy pink grenade" who explodes in their midst.

Two Caravans deals with another kind of economic migrant - workers on strawberry farms exploited by gangmasters. Here is a larger cast of characters, including Irina, just off the coach from Kiev and eager to find true love with a romantic Englishman, two Chinese girls and an 18-year-old from Malawi who has come to England to look for her sister.

Lewycka would have been happy to write a sequel to the Tractors book, she admitted. "But everyone advised me against it, saying that sequels inevitably compare badly with the original. They said I should write something completely different but exactly the same - a tall order, but Ihope I've pulled it off."

That's precisely what she has done, according to Peter Kemp, the Sunday Times fiction editor - an indication that a battle of reviewers lies ahead."Her last book was entertaining, but this one is better," Kemp said.

"It's a very buoyant, witty and informative book about the horrible jobs that people from eastern Europe and Africa find themselves trapped in. It's a stylised comedy and not meant to be social realism. In fact I admire the way she had managed to moderate the tone."

For the disparate ensemble of Two Caravans she found inspiration in Chaucer - one of her favourite poets, along with Shakespeare, Donne and Keats. Unlike Chaucer, she writes mainly in bed, from early morning until lunchtime. "It's to do with the business of being in a separate world," she explained.

Her "lovely" husband, a mining consultant who once worked for the National Union of Mineworkers, brings her porridge. ("He works at home, too, though not in bed.") She then places her laptop on the tray, which rests on a beanbag to protect her from its heat.

The couple, who have a grown-up daughter, were 1960s left-wing activists who met in the London commune where Lewycka was living. "It was all a bit sordid," she recalled. "When my mother visited, she would come down the stairs with a dustpan and brush."

One of the two unpublished books in her drawer was a serious political novel that she hoped would "change the world".

"I sent it to everybody, but no one wanted it. It was so mortifying." She started writing Tractors about 10 years ago, but her lucky break came when she joined a free MA creative writing course at her university.

The students' novels were sent out to an external examiner, who also happened to be an agent. Bill Hamilton, of A M Heath, recalled: "Her bookwas extremely polished.

She had the attention of the tutors, all of whom were well established novelists who gave wonderful hands-on support and advice. That's what gave her the confidence to complete it."
Lewycka not only presented Hamilton with a fully fledged book, but also a title that stood out as strikingly original. It initially caused some bookshops to shelve the novel in their agriculture sections, and Amazon to list it under science and technology.

She even suggested the cover, arriving at a lunch with some "lovely, rather naive Christmas cards to show the rather incompetent Ukrainian artwork that she thought would be a good style", Hamilton said.

Her acclaim in Britain was in stark contrast to the sense of alienation she experienced in Yorkshire as a child. "I got picked on. They call it dual heritage now: you're one person with your friends, another with your family." Her parents ate borscht and spoke a strange language.

She was born in a refugee camp in Kiel, Germany, at the end of the second world war, the younger daughter of Ukrainian refugees. She was too young to remember the camp.
"As I understand, when the Nazis invaded Ukraine, they took a lot of able-bodied people to labour camps. My parents were part of that. At the end of the war, they met through the Red Cross. I was the product of that union."

They came to England because the camp was in a part of Germany that had been liberated by the British in order to escape Stalin's Soviet Union where a grisly fate often awaited prisoners of war and labourers.

Her father was an eccentric who, like Nikolai, had written a book about tractors. She thought the notion was hilarious. "But once I started looking into the world of tractor enthusiasts, I got hooked. Tractors lack glamour,but they feed the human race and they changed the world."

She has been writing for as long as she can remember. She composed her first poem at the age of four and a pile of rejection slips attest to her perseverance. "It's a compulsion. I have a story and I have to tell it. I'm an Ancient Marina, in fact."

Before Lewycka's mother died, Marina taped their conversations, hoping to write her story. But the war was taboo for both her parents, and she created a blend of fact and fiction in Tractors.
It was only when she began researching Tractors that she realised she had a family in Ukraine. Her parents had lost contact with their relatives and believed that had all died in the second world war.

Chancing upon a Russian family-search website, she posted a query and several months later three Cyrillic e-mails appeared in her inbox, purporting to be from relatives. "This must be an e-mail scam," she thought.

But the letters that arrived next took her breath away. There were photographs of her parents as children and sepia photos of unknown grandparents, aunts and uncles - "men with long moustaches and women in crepe de Chine dresses and amazing hats". And an invitation: "Marinochka, please come!"

Her cousin Yuri met her in Kiev and took on her on a magical mystery tour of her family in his old BMW. "I have an intense sense of homecoming," she wrote. There was her father's dilapidated old house with its earth closet at the back, and an 86-year-old neighbour who burst into tears.

"She tells us what she remembers: that the old Lewyckyjs were loved by everybody; that the Germans tried to drive the whole population into the River Bug as a reprisal for two soldiers killed by partisans." The whole experience, she said later, was "like stepping into the pages of my own book".

She can only watch helplessly as the pages of her latest work are dissected.But those who know Lewycka have little doubt that she will observe theadvice she gives to literary late-starters and those with other dreams to fulfil: "Keep going, keep going. It's not too late."

Thursday, March 01, 2007


Having had a bad enough night on Saturday, when Scotland gave up three tries to Italy in seven minutes and wound up losing the match, things got worse on Monday.

When in Almaty, I frequent an Internet cafe called Cafemax. It's really very good: big, clean, bright, well equipped, etc. Even the coffee is pretty darned good.

So, there I was, well ensconced in my favourite corner, when two groups of young lads came in, taking up two tables on either side of me. Now, I'm getting older, but I'm not yet a crotchety old man. Still, to hear these kids (they were all about 17-18) depressed me: they spoke in nothing but Russian мат. That strikes me, in an Enoch Powell-y sort of way, as a real degradation of the culture.

The work that I was doing in the cafe made my mood even worse. I was doing a Russian to English translation of a monitoring and evaluation report of an international programme to support Kyrgyz environmental NGOs. These things are normally written in a rather flowery way, bearing very little relation to the facts on the ground, but making everyone -- especially the faraway governmental aid agencies -- feel very good about themselves and allowing them to continue to draw public funds for doing something they appear to know very little about.

What struck me about the report was that it pointed out just how little has changed in the 11 years since I first arrived here to work on a USAID-funded NGO support project. The same old tired approaches, the same complaints and recommendations ("more funding," "help us connect with other donor organisations, etc.") from the NGOs. I felt sure that I could have simply substituted a report from my earlier time here, and that no one would have noticed the difference. How many more "bulletins" (largely unread, in my experience,) can the taxpayers of the U.S.A., Europe or Canada fund? How many more times must a new programme be established, without even a cursory attempt to learn from the minimal success, and much more frequent failure, of previous programmes, to achieve the Golden Fleece of the conventional aid world - "impacts" and "success stories."

Working in Uzbekistan brought those issues into sharp relief. We were under constant pressure from our Washington office, and from the local and Central Asian USAID Missions, to come up with success stories. Not "successes," mind you. I would obviously agree that "success" is what we were all looking for, but this was "success STORIES." This involved taking some completely insignificant event, which we funded, and "spinning" it into a notable success for democracy, women's rights, etc. I even received two wiggings for not being "creative enough" in my reporting of these alleged impacts. No one was interested in knowing that we were NOT making even the slightest dent in the general repressiveness, poverty, extrordinarily poor health care system (more about that in an upcoming post, or anywhere else. Honestly, it looked as though we were just trying to shove money out the door, reaping the vast overheads for the D.C. offices, and not really caring a fig about what was really happening.

When Matt Bivens, who -- prior to working for the Moscow Times -- had worked for a USAID-funded market reform project in Almaty and written (hilariously) about the experience in Harper's (the article, titled "Aboard the Gravy Train," may still be someone in online archives,) he provoked a furious response from the USAID Central Asia Mission, but one that was extremely unconvincing and fell strangely flat. Why? Because Matt was right on the money - U.S. tax money, for that matter.

"Blame," such as it is belongs to both sides. NGOs need to understand that, until they become relevant to their own "constituencies," no amount of foreign aid can make them sustainable. Enough of the "experts" taking charge of a disadvantaged community's agenda (oft unrealised by the community itself,) and spinning it into a money-maker for themselves and relatives. The only NGOs worthy of respect, in my view, are those in which people with a real stake in the expected outcomes are involved. Special Olympics in Kazakhstan, for example. It's run by parent WITH disabled children, so they have a real stake in improving the lives of their loved ones. There are, of course, other examples, but they're fairly thin on the ground.

On the foreign aid side, how about reading the reports of preceding projects and taking a real look at where they've failed, before attempting exactly the same approaches? As these reports belong to the donor, it's not as if there are any real trade secrets in there that cannot be shared. Perhaps send a few people out who actually speak the language, or languages, of the area at issue? And, for God's sake, try to do a little real monitoring and evaluation, not just a whitewash and all-round pat on the back, but one that looks for what REAL impact a project may have had, or at the reasons for its failures!

Fisherman"s Blues

Fisherman"s Blues
Ice-Fishing near Astana (when it was still Akmola)