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Leigh TurnerHMA Ukraine, Kyiv
Following the announcement of the UK general election, FCO bloggers like other UK civil servants enter a state known as "purdah". This is defined in Wikipaedia as "a period... in which Government Departments are not allowed to communicate with members of the public about any new or controversial Government initiatives", and basically means that we should avoid comment on political themes or anything which might favour one UK political party over another.
The good news is that I've always tried in this blog to intersperse comments about politics with other, less political or entirely apolitical stuff, eg drawing attention to interesting things happening in Ukraine, the UK or both. Plus, I've just been back to the UK for Easter. During that time I was lucky enough to spend a day strolling the Jubilee Walkway, a route covering some of the key sights of London. As assiduous readers of this blog will know I'm a keen walker, and found the 14 miles or so of the Jubilee Walkway a terrific way to take in some of the capital's top sights. Rather than describe it in detail, I'm inserting below some pictures (taken using my phone - but now with new, improved quality) in the course of several hours. Key messages : (i) you can see a great deal of London in a day's walking; (ii) there's a great deal to see; and (iii) there are several fine green open spaces, and pubs, on the way. Any other thoughts?
Some people say you can measure the gravity of Shakespeare's tragedies by the dividing the number of characters left standing at the end by the number of corpses strewn across the stage. By that measure, the production by the National Theatre in London of "The White Guard", a play based on the eponymous novel by Michael Bulgakov, scores highly. What's most striking, though, is not the number of characters who are killed or maimed in the two-and-a-half-hour running time of the play. It's the sheer pointlessness of their deaths, as different armed factions circle the city and Ukraine heads towards decades of Communist rule.
The play has a pretty complicated historical backdrop, and I overhear several members of the audience expressing confusion about what is going on. That's hardly surprising. For me, the main messages are that chaos and anarchy are bad for everyone's health and quality of life; and that democracy, although imperfect, is a better way of choosing one's leaders than mob rule, armed insurrection or totalitarianism. OK, so we knew that already; but "The White Guard" rams home the message.
Much of the action in the play, incidentally, takes place in the "Turbins' House" in Kyiv. I read the book "The White Guard" before seeing the play - it's an easier read than some Bulgakov, and shows in more detail than the play the complexity, horrors and humanity of life in Kyiv in 1918. Recommended.
"How do you think the election of President Yanukovych will affect the Ukrainian economy? What about democracy and media freedoms? How about relations with the EU, or Russia? What will happen to practical co-operation on specific reform projects?" During my meetings in London in the House of Commons, the Foreign Office and other government departments and agencies, the same questions come up again and again.
What I usually reply is: we should judge the new president, and the new government, on their actions. It's well possible that having a president and a government pointing in roughly the same direction could make reforms easier, if the new leadership is genuinely committed to introducing such reforms. Similarly, there's a good chance that president and government will be able to take forward and conclude negotiations on an Association Agreement with the EU, including a deep and comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, while improving Ukraine's relationship with Russia and protecting Ukraine's national interests. Some observers are understandably concerned about the Rada (parliament) delaying the local government elections, or changing the law on how parliamentary coalitions are formed. That's why it's important to ensure that dates for the local elections are set, and that the Constitutional Court rules on the legality of the revised coalition law, as soon as possible.
What I found most encouraging in London was the intense interest in what's going on in Ukraine. Policymakers, parliamentarians and analysts in London really care about Kyiv and beyond. They want to see Ukrainian leaders act in a democratic, constitutional way. They're keen that action should be taken to reform the economy, improve the environment for foreign investment and tackle corruption. They want to do everything possible to take forward practical reform projects and seek new investment opportunities. Everyone understands that Ukraine faces tough decisions; and that there are challenges ahead. But no-one is rushing to judgement. Rather, decision-makers in London are watching closely; and hoping that decisions taken in Ukraine will justify continued UK support for Ukraine's democratic course and her path towards EU integration. There's no doubt that the elections, as in any democratic country, offer an opportunity to do things differently and better. It's now up to Ukraine's leadership to make sure that happens.
Guest blog by Katya Bykova, Political Assistant, British Embassy Kyiv
Last week I had the privilege of visiting London for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office locally-engaged Staff Familiarisation Tour. It was my first ever trip to London – the heart of the UK government. I couldn’t have imagined how amazing and productive those two days in London would be.
The visit was a great opportunity to get acquainted with FCO work, structure, policies and strategies from inside and to meet my colleagues from other posts. There were 18 locally engaged staff from all over Europe. Some were newcomers, others had worked for the FCO for more than 10 years. We were a great mix of people and it was invaluable to meet, establish contacts, network, discuss how things work at various embassies in Europe and what our roles were.
Another essential part of the visit was meeting my FCO and Cabinet Office counterparts in London, people with whom, as a Political Assistant in the Kyiv embassy, I work on a day-to-day basis but have never had a chance to meet in person. Course participants also had a chance to listen to and communicate with senior guest speakers from the Europe Directorate of the FCO and from other government departments. This made me feel part of one big team working for the same goal and objectives. I understood that my work was not only important at post in Kyiv, but that the wider FCO was interested in my development, so that with new skills and experience I could become more and more efficient at my job.
And of course London - its neat streets, historical sights, the great red double-deckers and black cabs, cordial people, tour of the FCO main building and the Houses of Parliament – it all made me feel much closer to British people, culture and traditions and better understand the UK government system.
Such familiarisation tours are truly beneficial for local staff and are a great investment in people. I personally feel highly motivated and inspired to work, learn, develop and deliver better results as well as network with both locally engaged staff and UK based staff from other posts.
One of the most haunting sights in Kyiv is the monument to Ukrainians who fell in Afghanistan during the Soviet intervention from 1979-89. It shows three soldiers, one sat on the ground with his head bowed. Around it are the names of the fallen on bronze plaques. Similar in tone to a combination of the two Vietnam War memorials in Washington DC, it's a sombre contrast to the monumental triumphalism of the memorial to the Great Patriotic War, nearby.
Afghanistan memorial in Kyiv
Ukraine's experience of conflict in Afghanistan is a reminder of why "Afghanistan: The London Conference", due to take place on 28 January, is so important. The conference will be co-hosted by Gordon Brown, President Karzai and UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.
Its aim, as Paul Arkwright has blogged, is to focus on security, development and governance, and the international architecture to support the Afghan government to see the task through. The London Conference will include an announcement of the intention to establish an international fund for reintegration. This fund will help to support Afghan-led efforts to develop an effective and sustainable reintegration programme for those fighters who want a route out of violence and back into normal life.
Although Afghanistan is still a painful subject for many Ukrainians who lost family members during the Soviet intervention, Ukraine currently has ten peacekeepers playing a vital part in support of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, and has recently approved an increase in the ceiling of peacekeepers to 30. Ukraine has immense experience of peace support operations worldwide, and there are many different roles to be filled. We hope that, as the focus shifts increasingly to training and assisting the Afghan government, Ukraine will play an important role in international efforts to bring about stability and an end to conflict in Afghanistan.
You've got to admire the Dutch secret service, the AIVD, for their low profile. In fact when I see references to them in a show by US artist Jill Magid at the Tate Modern in London I log onto Google when I get home to check they exist. Even the Wikipedia entry notes that "there is very little known about the AIVD". This seems exemplary for an organisation which has "secret" in its title. The Jill Magid exhibition is called Authority to Remove. It charts how, when the AIVD were having a new HQ built, they approached her to produce some art for the new building. The artworks are based around her experience of contacts with the organisation (or, as she calls it, The Organisation) and its representatives. They include an unpublished, censored novel and neon signs called "I Can Burn Your Face" (which Jill Magid says refers to "a slang expression used among spies for the threat to expose another agent's identity"). The one-off show, running until 3 January, appears with the AIVD's agreement.
All this tells us something about how a democracy - in this case the Netherlands - manages the balance between the need for secrecy and freedom of speech. You can argue about where the boundaries should be. Plenty of people would argue that many democratic governments, including that of the UK, are too secretive; or that the restrictions they place on the media are excessive. That's one of the purposes of a democracy: to provide a mechanism to decide how far those freedoms should go. This is relevant to Ukraine too, and its forthcoming elections. As I've written before, two of the finest features of Ukrainian society, and those which make Ukraine so special to the UK and the EU, are its vibrant democracy and its free media. It will be important that whoever is elected president in the forthcoming elections is passionate about both.
The rest of the Tate Modern, meanwhile, is as good as ever. As well as old favourites like "The Pack" by Joseph Beuys (which I discover was inspired by the artist's plane crash in Crimea) and Anish Kapoor's "Ishi's Light", I see Robert Therrien's "Red Room" - a good antidote to Santa's Christmas-time attempt to monopolise red - and a visceral, violent video of 1960s Viennese "Actionism". No wonder the place pulls in around five million visitors a year. I like modern art, and look forward to seeing what galleries in Kyiv have to offer when I'm back. The fact there's so much cross-fertilisation between the two cities can only help the art scenes in both.
Part of Jill Magid's Exhibition
There's going to be a lot going on in 2012. The London Olympics. The Euro 2012 Football Championship in Ukraine and Poland. And, if the latest Hollywood blockbuster is to be believed, the End of the World As We Know It.
I enjoyed 2012 (for which I'd propose the strap-line "the disaster movie which makes other disaster movies look like sit-coms") at least as much as Letter to Brezhnev. The most implausible element, for a hardened diplomat, was not the natural cataclysms - which would undoubtedly have a serious impact on property prices - but the degree of cooperation, goodwill and information management exhibited by world governments over the three-year span of the narrative. Most bureaucrats I know, given a choice between conspiracy and cock-up as the explanation for any given turn of events, will always assume the latter, knowing how difficult the former is either to organise or keep secret.
For Ukraine, the next couple of weeks will be crucial as the country prepares its final evidence to UEFA to convince them that Ukraine can deliver its undertakings to provide the venues and associated infrastructure for their 2012 bid. UEFA is due to take its final decision at a meeting on 9-11 December. As I have written before Euro 2012 provides an unprecedented opportunity to showcase the best of Ukraine to a vast new audience of football fanatics. So I hope Ukraine is successful in ensuring that as many matches as possible are played here and with the final, as originally planned, in Kyiv. Anything less would not be quite on the scale of the catastrophes depicted in the movie. But it would be a major setback for the country at a time when it is seeking to show it is ready to make the next step towards integration with the EU and eventual membership.
PS: Euro 2012 does not, unfortunately, feature in "2012". But the London Olympics do get a mention. Their fate is somewhat worse than "rain stops play" or, as ultra-reliable FT film critic Nigel Andrews puts it, "a literal wash-out".