Euro 2012, my Life in, and Best Work from Ukraine, Before the War

As the draw for the World Cup 2018 has just finished, throwing up a favourable draw for England, I couldn’t help but reflect on the run-up to Euro 2012 – the main reason I moved to Ukraine in the first place, sensing an exciting time to be in a country in the build-up to a major football tournament, with opportunities in journalism to be found.

In I worked at the magazine What’s On in Kiev, 2011, and 12. Their website was down for ages, but recently came back to life. And with it, not all, but 90 of my articles from that time.

Looking back over them, and not only, I can hold my hands up and say that ‘pre-war’, I perhaps did write a bit too much about the ladies. But, it was a different time, and far from just that, I’m actually proud of a lot of the work I did back then, although in the context of things now, they are rather like ‘notes from a lost country‘…

So here’s a ‘top 10’ of my work from Ukraine, pre-war: 

10. The Pain of Ukraine? 

My first article for What’s On magazine, January 2012, and it was about defending Ukraine from the attacks and prophecies of doom in the western media –

https://whatson-kiev.com/index.php?go=News&in=view&id=11540

9. Remembering River Palace

From October 2012, I had a look into the murky history, and mystery, of the former ‘floating brothel’ of Kiev, River Palace, for the Kyiv Post –

https://www.kyivpost.com/article/guide/about-kyiv/remembering-river-palace-314970.html

8. Tracking down Tymoshenko 

February of 2012, and I went looking for Tymoshenko in Kharkov, with some interesting results –

https://whatson-kiev.com/index.php?go=News&in=view&id=11662

7. That Said – 

My weekly column from What’s On, in which I tried to cover all aspects of life in Ukraine. From all of them, I pick this one to represent how it was to live in Ukraine, at that time, the spirit –

https://whatson-kiev.com/index.php?go=News&in=view&id=12064

6. Ok, it was a bit light-hearted, but you could hardly be in Ukraine pre-war, and not write about the sexual side of things. This piece, a cover-story for What’s On, was about the men who came to Ukraine expressly to pick-up women, and how that was working out for them – I liked how it came out, and felt it made a point –

https://whatson-kiev.com/index.php?go=News&in=view&id=12021

5. Odessa – from March of 2012, my first trip to Odessa, for a travel piece for What’s On – it was to be love at first sight, in Odessa, something captured here –

https://whatson-kiev.com/index.php?go=News&in=view&id=12310

4. Dnepropetrovsk – Always Parus 

I wrote this for my blog, and it was a labour of love, one of my the themes which most drew me in Ukraine, on which I wrote extensively – abandoned buildings, and the story behind them –

https://thetruthspeaker.co/2015/02/09/abandoned-dnipropetrosk-always-parus/

3. The Russian Heart of Ukraine – in which I wrote of my own experience of visiting Donetsk in summer of 2012, for What’s On magazine, and the Russian heart of that city, and not only –

https://whatson-kiev.com/index.php?go=News&in=view&id=12700

2. November 2012, for Pravda and I wrote about the post Euro-2012, post 2012 election malaise which had befallen Ukraine, and the state of the country at that time –

http://www.pravdareport.com/business/finance/26-11-2012/122926-ukraine_euro-0/

1.  In October of 2012, I wrote what I believe to be my most significant pre-war piece from Ukraine, about the case of Oksana Makar, her tragic murder, and the implications for Ukraine (a case I continued investigating, going to her hometown of Nikolaev), here for the New Statesman

https://www.newstatesman.com/world-affairs/2012/10/tragic-case-ukraines-oksana-makar-draws-close

And there we have it, some of my essays from a different time, a different world. 

Pro-Ukraine Troll Blasts Ukrainian Authorities after God-Daughter is Killed

In February of 2015, Twitter user @Natalyp72 wrote an abusive message, directed, to the city of Lugansk, Donbass, which in 2014 had endured a hellish campaign of shelling by the Ukrainian military in 2014, with mass loss of life.

She wished those who had voted out of Ukraine (after the terrorist coup of Euromaidan installed a far-right government in Ukraine, in early 2014), to be, in strong terms ‘cursed‘.

Last Friday, September 15th, fire broke out at the Victoria children’s camp, in Odessa. The fire engulfed one of the three-story wooden dorms, three girls perished, burned alive.

Firefighters complained that putting out the first was made very difficult by there being no emergency water sources on the territory of the children’s facility (praised by Ukrainian president Poroshenko in May as being ‘excellent’), and the pressure from the fire hydrant was weak, the fire reservoir had insufficient water, and was blocked. Firefighters could only find water supply over a kilometre from the campus, taking over two hours to extinguish the flames. Too late for the 3 young girls, aged 8,9 and 12, with a further two children injured in the dorm, which housed 42.

Mikhail Vovka, from the Federal State Dispatch Service for Odessa region, told reporters on Saturday, that the management of the camp had terminated their contract with a fire safety monitoring company. Therefore, when the fire started, no alarm had sounded.

In 2016, a modern fire alarm was purchased, installed and put into operation in the camp, but then it was deliberately brought to a non-operational state,” Vovka said, as reported by the Odessa Life portal.

Angry crowds of relatives, and more have protested outside Odessa City Hall, demanding answers (pictured). The tragic blaze has seen an investigation opened, mass sackings of senior staff there, several officials in local government dismissed, arrests even, of camp staff. There has also been anger at Ukrainian president Poroshenko, who hasn’t even bothered to visit Odessa, and has barely spoken of the tragedy. (Perhaps the lack of possibility to blame Russia influencing his inaction).

In the blaze, Twitter user @Natalyp72 ‘s god-daughter, Nastya, 9, persished. Natalyp72 (Natalya) tweeted in fury ‘Those scumbags forgot about the children there! They were trapped, and burned alive!

Condolences to Natalya on her loss. I went to her Twitter account, only to see she’d blocked me, despite our never having interacted. She seems to have removed her tweet of abuse directed at Lugansk, from 2015, but a number of similar, often fairly extreme pro-Ukraine tweets.

Sadly for Natalya, she’s found out, that in this Ukraine of 2017, not even children in a children’s camp described as ‘exemplary’ by the president of Ukraine, are safe.

My flat in Odessa: Now for Sale

In 2012, I fell in love with the city of Odessa. In summer of 2013, I used what I’d saved in my working life, and borrowed some, to buy a flat there, a few kilometres out of the centre, in the Kotovsky area, for $55,000, in September.

I imagined a life there. But it didn’t work out that way. In November of 2013, Euromaidan began, in March of 2014, crisis, conflict, April 2014 – war, and I left for Donbass, not to return (as of this point in time).

I’ve not returned to Odessa since, being banned from Ukraine for 3 years. However, my ban from Ukraine has now expired. 

Thus, I am now entitled to sell the apartment in Odessa, with full rights, and as I am not banned from Ukraine, I shall expect FCO support in this, if necessary.

This is not a farewell to Odessa, but I’m not a rich man, and can’t just have an apartment somewhere, unsure when I’ll be able to visit. Moreso with the amount of radicals, terrorists in Ukraine, and Ukrainian media having splashed my apartment all over the news:

If I have to pay tax to fund Ukraine’s war against civilians in Donbass ‘ATO’, I’ll give that same amount to the armies in the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics to defend themselves from ‘ATO’.

I will do everything fairly, and reasonably, as always. And we go forward.

Arriving in Donetsk, 3 Years Ago Today….

3 years ago today, I was arriving in Donetsk, for ‘one week’s work’, with the channel RT, in a bit of a panic at that time, as they couldn’t get their own correspondents into Donbass, calling me in Odessa, where I lived at the time, simply saying ‘get to Donetsk as soon as you can!!‘. I duly drove all night –

After a couple of days, RT managed to get their own correspondents in, and sent me down to Lugansk to see out the remainder of my contract. Then, on 12th April, I heard early on about something happening in nearby Slavyansk, called RT. The producer who answered first said ‘Where’s that?‘ Then ‘Graham, your contract’s almost up, just stay a couple days more in Lugansk‘. I replied that I was going to Slavyansk with or without them.

And there we have it. 

Saakashvili – Lost at Sea in Odessa

Graham Phillips

As he stood by Odessa’s port on Monday, readying to deliver a resignation speech, as governor of Odessa, which would launch a broadside against Ukraine, Mikheil Saakashvili looked considerably older than his 48 years. He looked a very long way indeed from the once dashing figure, electrifying the global political scene with pledges to bring Georgia into the sphere of modern Europe.

In fact, he bore more than a passing resemblance to Michael Henchard, the main character saakashvili-odessa-1in Thomas Hardy’s ‘Mayor of Casterbridge‘, worn down by successive failures, as he issues a weary ‘I am to suffer, I perceive’.

Saakashvili prides himself on being an educated man, speaking five languages – but it’s unknown if he’s a fan of the work of titan of English literature, Thomas Hardy. If he were, he’dve recognised his 18 month tenure as the governor of Odessa beset by the kind of foreboding background Hardy used to set the mood for tragedy to come. In October of 2015, coming on for six months of his reign, a civilian passenger boat capsized in Odessa, with the loss of at least 12 lives, the worst maritime disaster of its kind in post-Soviet Ukraine. Saakashvili rushed back from his trip to the western Ukrainian city of Lvov to be there, but there were already comments at that time that it would be better if he hadn’t bothered. 

Almost exactly a year later, in October of 2016, Odessa was lashed by extreme storms, leaving at least three dead, again, the worst of its kind in post-Soviet Ukraine. Meanwhile, Saakashvili’s own time at the helm of Odessa lurched from crisis to disaster to catastrophe, before on Monday he walked the gangplank.

saakashvili-tieThere may be not be an image quite as iconic as Saakashvili eating his tie upon realising he’d misjudged his South Ossettia military action of 2008, but his ill-fated time in Odessa leaves a legacy of embarrassments, memes, unfulfilled pledges, and the feeling that almost everything he touched there turned to failure.

His appointment on May 30th 2015, came somewhat out of the blue. Saakashvili had been an enthusiastic cheerdleader for Euromaidan, but in the aftermath of that, had actually moved to the USA, Williamsburg, Brooklyn. February of 2015 saw him called to Ukraine, initially sitting on a fairly inconsequential advisory panel for a couple of months at the start of the year, in April he turned down the chance to become First Vice Prime Minister of Ukraine, stating his unwillingness to rescind his Georgian passport to take up Ukrainian. But then May, suddenly everything had changed. The former close ally of George W. Bush jr was hurriedly rolled out a Ukrainian passport on May 29th, appointed porohenko-saakashviligovernor of Odessa.

Tbilisi native Saakashvili was the first non-Ukrainian by birth to be named to head of what is in effect a provincial government. The post was made vacant largely because previous incumbent, Igor Palytsia, was an ally of oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, with whom Poroshenko had had a very public falling out, before effecting a purge of those loyal to him.

According to Poroshenko, his old friend (from university days) Saakashvili “has proven with deeds, not words that he can not only give birth to creative ideas, but also put them into practice.” He added Georgia’s ex-president had changed his country “in the direction of transparency, effectiveness, anti-corruption, appeal for foreign investors, fair justice, protection of citizen’s rights, democracy,” something Poroshenko “would like to see very much” in Odessa.

And so it was, the man who made a venomous hatred for Russia one of his calling cards, saakashvili-putinfrequently calling Russians ‘barbarians’, and personal vendetta against Putin ‘I hate Putin’, was appointed governor of a city in which pro-Russia demonstrations would easily outnumber pro-Ukrainian, before the brutal events of May 2nd 2014, the burning of Trade Union House with mass loss of life on side of pro-Russian protesters, and subsequent campaign of repression against them.

Saakashvili’s appointment saw him posting an ‘I heart Odessa’ status on his Facebook, and indeed the US were so happy with the appointment they promptly offered to foot the bill for the salaries of Saakashvili and his team. In the city which was once considered the fourth city of the Russian empire, Saakashvili started out by making the obligatory big noises about plans to make Odessa the most powerful port in the Black Sea, and so forth.

Yet, the man known as ‘Misha”s professed love was never reciprocated by locals – he met with a decidedly choppy response from Odessites, from the start, with the mishiko-go-homeblack sea residents, famous for their laconic sense of humour, taking to hanging ties on landmarks around the city. July of 2015 saw anti-Maidan activists marching a goat through the city with placards declaring ‘Saakashvili Go Home’, and acvitists stating:’ Activists continued their protest campaign a few days later, this time launching a giant red balloon featuring his image and the phrase ‘Mishiko Go Home!’, complete with a large red necktie dangling from his mouth. Then in August of 2015, an actual statue of Saakashvili, taking the role of dog to Obama’s master, appeared on the city’s iconic Primorsky Boulevard.

saakashvili

Meanwhile, on the more serious side, reports emerged of Saakashvili, along with being wanted by his own country’s prosecutors for embezzlement, abuse of power and politically-motivated attacks, also wanted for murder in Georgia.  Things only got worse with the appointment of his team, a self-consciously ‘star-studded’ line-up looking more akin to the judging panel on a tv talent show than those capable of managing a port-and-resort city of 1 million which had derived much of its former prosperity from hundreds of thousands of yearly Russian visitors.

The appointment of Maria Gaidar as deputy governor, a glamorous, young Russian opposition maria-gaidar-odessafigure, was one Saakashvili likely thought would be a hit. He even stated she was ready to rescind her Russian citizenship, and apply for Ukrainian. However she fell at the first hurdle, when refusing to say that Ukraine was at war with Russia in interview, attracting the ire of Ukraine’s media, and Euromaidan supporters who had trumpeted Saakashvili’s appointment as a triumph. Ukrainian parliament member and former deputy governor of Dnepropetrovsk Borys Filatov, famous for his “we will hang the scum” line regarding Crimeans seeking independence from Ukraine, responded harshly to Gaidar’s stance

They simply don’t give a **** about our country. They are making money here. Or are fulfilling their sick ambitions. Or are training themselves ‘on cats.’ Choose the option for their motivation yourself,” Filatov posted on Facebook.

Then there was Saakashvili’s obsession with Yulia Marushevska- activist and aspiring actress best known for her part in Euromaidan promotional video ‘I am a Ukrainian‘ in Saakashvili OdessaFebruary of 2014. She spent most of her time after that appearing on chat shows speaking about that, until Saakashvili seemingly spotted her political potential, making her third in command in his team. It’s unclear what she did in her months in this job, but in any case, in October of 2015, Saakashvili promoted her to Customs Chief for Odessa, in charge of the biggest port insert.

Saakashvili’s other appointment to deputy,  Afghan war hero Vladimir Zhmak, also had no experience in civil service, something an enthusiastic Saakashvili saw as a plus, posting on his Facebook that their lack of experience was a good thing because my goal is to bring new, fresh, uncorrupted, competent people.”

Yulia Marushevska Odessa 1What happened? Gaidar’s tenure was an unmitigated disaster, alienating even those who had supported Saakashvili, with her backing out of taking Ukrainian citizenship, resigning in a hail of protest in May of 2016.  Zhmak signed off in July of 2016 with a cheerful ‘Goodbye Odessa’ message on his Facebook. Marushevska has proved incompetent spilling into inept in her role as customs chief, embroiled in endless internecine conflict, with Odessa’s port practices stuck in the past, and revenues actually decreasing by 30 percent, while in Ukraine as a whole, revenues were reported as up 21 percent. Marushevska is now reported to be considering her own position. 

What were Saakashvili’s other big ideas for reform? Fire everyone, call them all ‘useless’, employ new and untested people. Unfortunately for Saakashvili, his new people turned out to be just as, if not more ‘useless’ than their predecessors, and he failed in making any headway in his ‘war against corruption’. 

saakashvili-odessa-busInitial, PR-winning stunts, such as his taking public transport to ‘touch base with locals’, petered out. By October of 2015, locals who’d opened precious wine in honour of his appointment were beating a path to his door to berate him. And after his candidate for mayor, Alexander Borovyk, was defeated, by Gennadiy Trukhanov (who Saakashvili had frequently, publicly slated), in October of 2015, Saakashvili largely withdrew from the Odessa scene.

Meanwhile things had quickly unravelled for Saakashvili with other government figures. In December of 2015, at a government meeting, he got into a heated argument with interior minister Arsen Avakov, that ended with Avakov throwing a glass of water at Saakashvili, who retorted that Avakov was a “thief” who would go to prison. Avakov later described Saakashvili as a “bonkers populist”

Even a western media inclined to be more than benevolent to Saakashvili had long changed their tune on him, by the time of his resignation. Polish press were writing in February of 2016, that ‘His work so far has failed to bring any spectacular successes in any of the priority areas of activity.’ This article in Foreign Policy, from October 2016, painted a prophetic pictured of a man defeated. The Ukrainian press were stronger still, a Ukrainian saakashvili-odessa-2journalist writing in October of 2015 that Saakashvili was ‘dull’ and ‘stank’. 

The writing was on the line in May of this year, when Saakashvili gave an interview to Shaun Walker of the Guardian, calling Ukraine’s government a ‘bunch of mediocre people’, with ‘no vision for reform’, and openly criticising his former ally, Poroshenko. The article predictably made waves, causing Saakashvili to issue a statement that Walker, his ‘longtime friend’, had ‘clearly perverted’ their conversation. Walker, however, stuck by his article, with dictaphone recording to back it up.

Much of what Saakashvili said in his resignation, blasting the Kiev government, singling out President Petro Poroshenko, saying he had been complicit in obstructing various reforms, had clearly well fomented when he spoke with Walker in May. But the vitriol had only increased with the passing of months, as he blasted: ‘“What difference for Ukrainians does it make who will treat them like dirt: Poroshenko or Yanukovych; what difference who will steal from them?”’

Having made some effort to speak Ukrainian during his tenure, Saakashvili reverted to the Russian he knows better for his signing-off salvo –

Saakashvili’s taking on the role in Odessa was largely motivated by his desire to escalate his personal (somewhat one-sided) battle with Putin. He leaves the post, with harsher words about the man who employed him, Poroshenko. He leaves with almost all of his much-vaunted reforms, and project, having ignominiously failed. As Walker wrote ‘The sad demise of Saakashvili and his bold new vision‘. He wrote that in 2008. Time moves on, but Saakashvili’s ‘bold new visions’ always seem to end the same way.

And so it is, like Michael Henchard, after another failure, Saakashvili sets off again.

Odessa – My Nostalgia for Summer of 2013

Graham Phillips

Everyone knows Samuel Johnson’s adage about ‘when a man is tired of London Londonhe’s tired of life‘. Well, I’m guessing that’s not quite the same for Kiev, which in late 2012, with the rise of Ukrainian ultra-nationalism, I was quickly tiring of, albeit not quite ready to return to a London which I’ve always loved, but, only having embarked from in 2011, wasn’t just ready to return to yet.

However, leaving Kiev in early 2013, I did spent some time back in the UK, and in London, pondering the next move. Belgrade, Prague, Riga, all were considered as I looked to continue something which had started in 2011 for the first time, spending some time living out the UK.

But, after some long walks and lengthy deliberations, the decision came out as Odessa, a city I’d fallen in love with when visiting while working for What’s On magazine in Kiev, 2012. So it was, driving across Europe, and western Ukraine, I set off in July of 2013 –

And so it was, I arrived, and, with a long-term plan of making a life in Odessa, set about making the most of summer in Odessa – cycling along the beachfront on my bike, catacombs, hitting the beach, swimming, barbeques, vineyard tours –

And, of course, the city’s legendary nightlife too –

So, you can understand, when I look back to summer of 3 years ago, I feel real nostalgia. It was Odessa, when it was Odessa. There was a normal mayor, order, everything was good. Russians were there on holiday. Ukrainians were there. And they both got on great with each other, along with all the other nations there in that mega city by the sea, founded with Catherine the Great’s own money no less.

I guess, not to sound like the Wonder Years, that no one really knew back then, that that was the last summer of Odessa as it was. So, permit me for a bit of nostalgia as I look back to things as they were, 3 years ago in Odessa.