AMBASSADOR'S BLOG - TRANSCARPATHIA: CASTLES, SKIS AND THE MAYOR'S CAR

02.12.10




The walls of the castle rise sheer from the base of a deep, dry moat.  Three different batteries of cannon face the west.  To the east rise the Carpathians, dusted with snow.  Welcome to Mukachevo, scenic setting of the world's largest ski factory and as dense a melting pot of European cultures as one could wish for.

I've written before about how the castles of western Ukraine reflect the country's tumultuous history; and how this region has been fought over for centuries by Tatars, Turks, Poles, Russians, Austrians, Hungarians, Swedes, Lithuanians and others.  The magnificent Palanok Castle which looms above Mukachevo, the heart of Ukraine's westernmost region of Transcarpathia, provides further evidence of the region's strategic importance.  Transcarpathia is unusual in comprising territory which until WW2 belonged to Czechoslovakia and Hungary.  The region, which borders on Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, lies the other side of the Carpathian mountains from the rest of Ukraine.  Many minorities call Transcarpathia their home: the Mayor of Mukachevo, Zoltan Lendyel, shows me the town's Hungarian- and Russian-language schools, in the second of which an enthusiastic class of 9 year-olds display an impressive and spontaneous grasp of English.  He also takes me to see the Fischer ski factory, the largest in the world, where 1,300 Ukrainian staff each year turn out 1.3m skis, 1m ice-hockey sticks and a secret number of carbon composite car doors, spoilers and other aerodynamic and shiny bits for some of the world's most exclusive car brands.  Back in the regional capital, Uzhgorod (on the river Uzh) the regional Governor and Mayor tell me more about the rich ethnic tapestry of Transcarpathia and its economic prospects. I also admire the 1930s Czech-built Oblast State Administration building - slightly Jugendstil-flavoured and reminiscent of the magnificent Österreichische Postsparkasse building in Vienna.

The Fischer ski factory is one of the most impressive manufacturing units I've seen in Ukraine.  I also note, perhaps not coincidentally, that this is one of the few Ukrainian cities I've visited where the mayor (and deputy mayor) hitch a ride in our car, and are then picked up after the visit in a modest Daewoo Lanos saloon.  That strikes me as nearly as encouraging a sign for potential inward investors as the ski factory; and contrasts favourably with the many cities I've visited where the senior officials are driven around in magnificent limousines.  The latter are a discouraging sign for investors, who worry where the money for such vehicles came from, and thus risk fuelling allegations of corruption.  The extreme ostentatiousness of many official vehicles is a live political issue in Ukraine (see eg the comment on another recent blog).  Indeed, stricter rules on who drives what might be a good way for other elected leaders in Ukraine to ease investor nerves about corruption and demonstrate to voters that they genuinely care how tax-payers' money is spent.    

 

Leigh Turner
British Ambassador to Ukraine

NOTE:  You can read all of Ambassador Turner's blogs by visiting: http://blogs.fco.gov/roller/turner 



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