Saturday 27 September 2008

Back from Rubezhnoye

I returned last last night after a gruelling 13-hour trip back from the corrugated packaging factory in Rubezhnoye, Ukraine where I was working all week. It’s a client we’ve worked with since 2002, and this time my colleague and I were reviewing the implementation of a EUR 151 million business plan, and helping out with a large procurement contract.

Rubezhnoye is a small industrial town located about 150 km NE of Donetsk, near the Ukrainian-Russian border in Lugansk Oblast. It’s not like other cities in Ukraine, where you can find WiFi, western cafes and restaurants, and all the comforts of home. There is no internet, except for a highly overloaded satellite uplink which serves the 50-odd managers in the plant. Accessing any kind of news is impossible, and walking down to the newsstand to buy the Financial Time or Herald Tribune is an option which simply doesn’t exist.

So, after a week without news, I returned to Athens to find – NOTHING HAD CHANGED! Republicans still squabbling with Democrats about the $ 700 billion credit bailout, Obama still sniping away at McCain, who was sniping back: the only news was about whether they would be sniping at each other from the same room, since there was some doubt as to whether the first debate would take place. How anyone can take the two US Presidential candidates seriously on the financial crisis when they’ve taken massive campaign contributions from investment banks and Fannie Mae is beyond me.

In Greece, the Vatopedi scandal, involving an illegal land claim by the Vatopedi Monastery, followed by an even more illegal land swap, was still smouldering. Unfortunately, it looked as though ultimately no one was responsible. I have the feeling that the media in this country are already looking for the next big issue.

In Ukraine, there was some news, but again nothing really new. The Orange coalition had collapsed the week before. My estimate is that Iulia Timoshenko and Viktor Yanukovich will form a caretaker government until sometime next May or September, when conditions will be ripe for an election. Everyone party is scurrying around to raise cash to finance this election. The Gazprom gas price hike looms over everyone, yet nobody knows exactly what will happen – except that most likely, some Ukrainian politicians (and Gazprom) will make money, and Ukrainian citizens and companies will pay for it.

In short, it’s business as usual. Crooked government in the US, Greece and Ukraine. Dishonest or inept politicians across the political spectrum. The intersection of money-rich campaign donors (and even monasteries!) bribing politicians, so they in turn can make yet more money. A depressing state of affairs.

Yet in Rubezhnoye, the real economy continues at speed. A new packaging plant and paper machine are being built that will increase output, creating new jobs and enabling Ukraine to produce new packaging materials, supporting the movement of goods and economic growth. My client pays its taxes, pays its workers competitive salaries, and contributes to the environment: over 80% of packaging material is wastepaper, gathered from recycling points across Ukraine and Russia. Starbucks and Pizza Hut and WiFi may be missing, but life goes on without them, and pretty well, I would say. If only someone could do something about these politicians….

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