WORLD AFFAIRS.  If you’d like to understand the wrenching changes Ukraine’s capital city is currently undergoing, watch for a forthcoming book by Professor Roman Cybriwsky, provisionally titled City of Domes and Demons: Kyiv, Ukraine in Difficult Transition after Socialism. Cybriwsky is an urbanist and former chair of Temple University’s Department of Geography and Urban Studies, former director of Asian Studies, and former associate dean at Temple’s Japan Campus. He has written extensively about New York, Tokyo, Jakarta, Philadelphia, and Phnom Penh and obviously knows his cities.

A tireless walker and fearless interrogator, Cybriwsky combines scholarship with journalism to produce a fascinating portrait of a rapidly changing city that few native Kyivites over 40 would recognize. Back in 1991, when Ukraine became independent, Kyiv was a clean, orderly, provincial, one-horse town. Twenty years later, it’s become a big, chaotic place that’s been fully integrated into the world and suffers from all the problems of large urban agglomerations. Some residents and nonresidents have become fabulously wealthy as a result, many have become impoverished, and all, or almost all, are confused and uncertain about what’s going on around them. The transformation of Kyiv’s Boryspil Airport nicely captures that transformation. Two decades ago, it was smaller, dirtier, and danker than that of some American backwater. Now, it resembles many of the airports in Europe.

One of Cybriwsky’s most interesting chapters concerns the “raiders” attacking Kyiv’s real estate and the new “monster” buildings that have spoiled the city’s traditional feel. Here’s Cybriwsky on the raiders:

In Kyiv and elsewhere in Ukraine, raiders use their muscle and political connections to seize land and buildings from private owners or the commons, as well as industrial establishments and entire industries, and shops, restaurants, hotels, nightclubs and any other kind of business where there is wealth to appropriate. Indeed, almost anyone who is making money at almost any kind of enterprise in Ukraine is a potential target of raiders, including raiders themselves who can find themselves on the losing end to those who are stronger and better connected…. In the first years after the Soviet fall, raiders often used guns or knives to eliminate their rivals, but that happens less now, and many of the raiders who won those duels are now in the government and use government tools to get what they want. For example, they can have their business rivals investigated for tax violations or harassed for violations of building codes, or they can simply have them arrested for something or other until they give up and leave the country.

Cybriwsky provides one example of such raider pressure on a successful “toothpaste” manufacturer (not his real profession) he calls “Ivan”:

It was not long before the raiders started showing up.  Hypothetically, one of them wanted to become the toothpaste king of Ukraine, while another wanted to sell everything that was not nailed down and even the land under the building for fast profit. Ivan and the workers were told to hand over the keys, in essence, and get lost, and were threatened. Some people did leave, but Ivan and his wife, who was partner in this venture, and many loyal workers stayed on. Threats worsened. Then, the raider-in-chief arranged for pressure to be put on the enterprise by tax officials, licensing bureaus, and even local fire inspectors on the grounds that there were violations. The local prosecutor investigated him for corruption and dragged his name through the mud in the community, but still Ivan and his loyal circle held on. Ivan’s rivals also threatened his suppliers and his customers, and even made it difficult to hire workers to replace those who had given up and left, as there were threats against any possible new workers. Police and other officials were in the pay of the raiders, so they were no help. In fact, for a period of nearly three years, Ivan and his wife lived in safe houses elsewhere in Ukraine because they felt that their lives were in peril. As a result of all this, the firm makes less toothpaste than it once did, and Ivan, now advanced in years would like to get out. He holds on because of principle and because the workers who had been through hell with him need work, and because there is no one to take over.

The important point is this: “many of the raiders … are now in the government and use government tools to get what they want.” Ruthless real-estate sharks can be found in every country and in every city. When the sharks are in or well connected to government, however, their nefarious influence obviously increases exponentially.

Unsurprisingly for such a lawless environment, the raiders, real-estate moguls, and government bureaucrats with a taste for big bucks can indulge in their wildest get-rich-quick urban fantasies. The result is “monsters,” about which Cybriwsky says the following:

They are mostly high-rises for rich people, and are changing the face of the city. Critics refer to them as monsters because they invade established urban spaces and bring disproportionate change without advance consultation with long-term stakeholders of those places, much less their agreement or approval, and because they often wreak havoc with urban history, historic cityscapes, and the natural environment. Monsters also impose themselves on existing infrastructure such as transportation or parking spaces, and wreak havoc there as well. They are built without reference to any overall city plan, in part because Kyiv does a very poor job of planning where to build, as well as without attention to zoning, in part because Kyiv zones so poorly, but simply appear wherever a developer has acquired access to a wanted site. Often, the construction is on public land: a park or playground, for instance, and proceeds simply because someone in the developer’s pocket has issued papers, however dubious, that authorize construction. It’s all very murky and secretive—a function of collapsed centralized decision-making and document issuance in the Soviet state followed by too long a period of free-for-all chaos ahead of any new order. Corruption calls the shots about land use and construction projects, and monsters rise up wherever they wish.

As Cybriwsky demonstrates, these destructive processes have their roots in Soviet practices, took hold in the crazy 1990s, when all of Ukraine was up for grabs, and continue into the 21st century, under both local and national misrule. It may be some consolation for Kyivites that, as any resident of a large American city knows, greed, shortsightedness, and preference for ugly architecture also characterize non-Ukrainian developers.

Unfortunately, Kyivites bear some of the blame for their city’s woes inasmuch as they elected, twice, as mayor the loony do-nothing millionaire Leonid Chernovetsky, who ignored their needs from 2006 to 2012 and allegedly distributed choice real estate to his family and friends. The Yanukovych regime removed Chernovetsky in the equivalent of a putsch and replaced him with its point man, Oleksandr Popov. Although he’s proven not to be incompetent, the unelected Popov remains highly unpopular with Kyivites, who resent the fact that President Yanukovych’s minions rule the city illegally, having refused to hold elections and calling all the shots.

Fixing Kyiv will probably take decades, but the first step has to be an accountable city government that represents the citizenry and its interests, and not just the fat cats, Regionnaires, and oligarchs. Unsurprisingly, the regime is in no hurry to hold elections. Having violated the law, it knows full well that they could serve to mobilize an outraged population in advance of the presidential ballot of 2015 and possibly doom Yanukovych.

In thinking that Kyiv is just a bigger Donetsk or Luhansk, the Regionnaires made a strategic mistake. It’s anything but. Like Paris, Berlin, Warsaw, and Vienna, Ukraine’s capital is modern and globally savvy. Sooner rather than later, it’ll send the Regionnaire misfits packing.  

Alexander J. Motyl's blog

Ukrayinska Dumka


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