Long Odds: Visa-Free Travel and the Winter Olypmics

Long Odds: Visa-Free Travel and the Winter Olypmics

June 9, 2010

Anyone visiting Paris from the United Kingdom will immediately notice the absence of chippies (the colloquial name by which the fast-food outlet, the fish and chip shop, is known in the UK). A visitor to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia will not find the Queen Victoria Arms public house on the city’s main thoroughfare King Fahd Road. For people visiting or relocating to a new country these things are more or less immediately obvious.

But some differences are less obvious. It took me quite a while to notice that there are no funeral parlours in Ukraine. Nor, incidently are there funeral cars. (For more on this intriguing absence you should read the chapter “Religious Wars” in Among the Ukrainians.) It would be a strange fellow, indeed, who on arriving in a new country asks his new friends, “I’m new here, where is your nearest funeral parlour.” And more recently I was struck by the absence of bookies, or betting shops. I’m not a gambling man, but perhaps I should have noticed sooner.  One might have expected such shops to exist given that Ukraine is so keen on football and that lotteries are common. Even horse racing has a history; most cities have a racing track, though most were abandoned a couple of decades ago.

Where is all this leading, you might be thinking. Well this week, President Yanukovych made two statements which immediately had wanting to place a bet against them happening. Don’t get me wrong, I would love them to happen; it’s just it doesn’t seem at all likely.

First, he announced that the paperwork making way for visa-free travel for Ukrainians to Schengen countries would be signed before the end of 2010. Secondly, he suggested that the Carpathian region could be a suitable venue to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. Both events would be good news for Ukraine, in general, and nothing less than transformational for western Ukraine.

Visa-free travel would allow all Ukrainians freer access to western European countries, and the experience of seeing those democracies and systems would be a good thing. For western Ukraine, in particular, the freer movement of people across the western border—even if employment was prohibited—would open up many opportunities.

As for hosting the Winter Olympics in the poorest region of Ukraine, well, one only has to think of the inward investment required for the development of regional transport and tourist infrastructure to recognise it would have a huge impact.

So, why do I think both are unlikely?

Well, visa-free travel has been much talked about, but it proved impossible to achieve even under the presidency of the pro-European President Yushchenko. To say again, I hope to be proved wrong, but this sounds to me like a sop, and at some later stage we’ll hear that, “the conditions laid down by the Shengen countries were so onerous that no one could meet them” (or some such phrase). Let’s not overlook the reality that Russia wants Ukraine to be a barrier against the eastward movement of people, and it would object to the reciprocity of visa-free travel (people from Schengen countries visiting Ukraine). Ukraine was a barrier for the advancing armies of Napolean and Hitler, and Russia was resolute in its objection to Ukraine becoming a NATO country.  Russia “insists” on Ukraine being a buffer. (For more discussion on this idea read the chapter “Vikings and Cossacks” in Among the Ukrainians.)

As to the idea of the Carpathian region hosting the Winter Olympics, frankly, the idea is laughable to many Ukrainians. Somewhat akin to Bangladesh landing a man on the moon (and having visited that country half a dozen times, I feel I at least have a rudimentary understanding to their potential). Yes, Carpathia has some mountains and snow (and its beauty is outstanding), but it has little else. With limited tax receipts and no local oligarchs to fund the venture or to promote the concept in Kyiv, one wonders where the money and influence will come from. I doubt that anyone will invest until the venue is secured, and the Olympic Committee are unlikely to offer the carrot of hosting without some commitment to develop the region.  So, it appears a non-starter.

Finally, there is the intriguing link to UEFA 2012, the football championship to be hosted jointly by Ukraine and Poland. In an earlier blog, I commented on some of the uncertainties surrounding the success of UEFA 2012. For President Yanukovych to consider hosting the Winter Olympics before the success of UEFA 2012 is “in the bag” suggests either a supreme confidence about the football championship or he knows that talk of the Winter Olympics is, just that, talk.

In neighbouring Russia, the entire Sochi 2014 Olympic project is under threat even though it has received enormous support from Prime Minister Putin, who sees it as a reflection of his legacy. As I write it appears he might be about to appoint a well-known businessman (rumoured to be Vladimir Potanin) as head of the Olympic construction agency. So, if Russia struggles to meet the challenge, supported by the strong guidance of it leaders and the “guided investment” of its oligarchs, what chance Carpathia?


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