Local envoys visit Ukraine
  • Teachers, farmers, officials meet counterparts in L'viv
  • September 27, 1998
    Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us
    Special to the Enterprise

    In an effort to promote peace and democracy in the Ukraine, the California National Guard last week took a contingent of educators, agri-businessmen and government officials on a fast swing through L'viv.

    L'viv is a misty, cobblestoned city of nearly 1 million people in far western Ukraine less than 50 miles from the Polish border. Eastern Ukraine borders Russia. Ukraine regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and is a country struggling to survive economically.

    Civic leaders and retired military personnel from throughout California were invited to take the trip in part to observe opening ceremonies of Peace Shield '98 at the L'viv Military Training Center on the morning of Sept. 19, 1998. This, the third annual Peace Shield exercise, brought together military units from 16 countries in the region to work cooperatively to resolve a simulated crisis in support of a United Nations-negotiated peace initiative.

    "Several years ago it was hard to envision that these kinds of exercises would take place," said the minister of defense for the Ukraine, speaking through an interpreter, at a Peace Shield press conference.

    About 40 National Guard soldiers, men and women from throughout California, joined the Peace Shield exercise.

    Lt. Col. Warren Alberts of the National Guard said it cost roughly $46,000 to plan and execute the trip and fly the group to L'viv, with the civilian travelers paying their own room and board. The same amount of money could have been used, for instance, to purchase one Humvee, an all-terrain military jeep.

    But in this case the military emphasis was on providing goodwill by giving civilians the opportunity to meet Ukrainian counterparts and make connections leading to a lasting and profitable peace.

    The visit comes at a time of crisis in the Ukraine. As the American ambassador to the Ukraine put it, the country is facing three revolutions at once: economic, cultural and political. It has been struggling for the past seven years of independence from the former Soviet Union to provide answers for everyone.

    "The Soviets have ruined this country," a Ukrainian student said bitterly as he stood outside the University of L'viv.

    With the economy in decline, other social problems flourish. Teachers are bribed to hand out good grades. The municipal police departments are regarded as corrupt. Organized crime is said to be the only segment of society putting capitalism to work.

    Local connections

    Those traveling to L'viv included Andre von Oettingen of Davis, a member of the Uman-Davis Sister City board of directors. (It was impossible to visit Uman on this trip since visas issued for the group specified L'viv as the only destination.) Others in the group included Mike Campbell, assistant dean of the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, UC Davis; Brad Pollock and Casey Stone of the Yolo County Farm Bureau, and Jeff Huckins of Woodland Tractor.

    Von Oettingen visited relatives in L'viv. His cousin, Ella Babinsky, and her husband, Gennadiy, live with their two grown children and their young granddaughter in an apartment in the city. Ella, who works as an information specialist for the railroad, was paid in September for wages earned in May. Her husband and son work together transporting goods and equipment wherever the need takes them. They are fortunate to have an aging Mercedes van and in fact are doing well enough to have a new color TV in their living room and a satellite dish to bring in myriad channels from all over Europe.

    Ella visited her relatives in Davis in 1989 and her face breaks into a huge smile as she recalls that vacation, which included trips to Yosemite and Disneyland. She also took trips to China and Vietnam but now says that her days of traveling are over. Times are just too tough. She agrees that tourism in L'viv is increasing, but says the city will have to upgrade considerably to bring in more dollars.

    Her son, Anton, 23, said workers who aren't getting paid "just exist." They sell their personal possessions and raise food in small gardens. Ella said they don't stop going to work, however, for fear of losing jobs that one day might pay wages again.

    Parts of the ancient city don't have water, she added, and no one is taking the responsibility to fix leaking roofs in municipal buildings.

    Rachel Benton, a Peace Corps volunteer assigned to L'viv, used her contacts to gather more than a dozen bilingual L'viv university students to act as interpreters and guides for the American group. Many of the students had never eaten in the restaurants they took the Americans to, nor ridden in taxis.

    The students spoke eagerly of getting jobs as translators and interpreters but Ella was dubious about their job prospects.

    "Who will pay?" she asked.

    The popularly elected mayor of L'viv, Vasyl Kuybida, met with the American visitors. The budget, he said, is his biggest problem. OK, mayors worldwide say the same thing, but this is an extreme case.

    The government has no money and the infrastructure is crumbling. Workers are not getting paid at a time when their expectations and ambitions have never been higher. And without at least a small amount of capital, small businesses will never get off the ground.


    Agribusinessman Stone, with Campbell, Pollock and Huckins, visited a farm on the outskirts of town.

    "I was very moved by (the farmer's) spirit," said Stone. He leases about 200 acres of land from his neighbors, raises dairy cattle, pigs, sugar beets and wheat. He sells to the government but doesn't get paid full value for his goods.

    "They are very inefficient in the ways they utilize land," said Stone. "But he knows the right concepts. He visited farms in the United States and owns three used tractors and a harvester. He takes all his money and puts it back into the operation.

    "His biggest problem is the government, which doesn't help business. It's hard to get loans and the very high interest rates will just kill you and since they don't own land they can't use it for collateral," Stone said.

    "They don't have any money to buy equipment, that's the chicken and the egg of it," added Campbell of UCD. "This farmer spends his money as fast as he gets it. He doesn't trust the banks, and there is no trustworthy economic infrastructure."


    Fourteen teachers made up part of the American group, including five educators from American River College and three from Teachers Reaching Out, a Sacramento group that also made a trip to Panama in 1996 hosted by the National Guard.

    Bill Wrightson teaches Russian history at ARC and notes wryly that few Ukrainian students are interested in taking his class.

    "The Ukraine is in the process of defining itself and they tend to overstate their differences by saying 'We're not Russian' but with all due credit and sensitivity there is, in fact, a common cultural heritage," he says.

    As a former peacenik from the protest years of the late '60s, Wrightson says he was most impressed with the National Guard's emphasis on citizen democracy.

    "I was pleased and impressed with the whole trip," he said.

    Jana Fields, principal of Sierra View School in North Highlands, was particularly interested in making the trip since 25 percent of her students are Ukrainian or Russian.

    "Visiting a school in L'viv gave me a real insight into our foreign students," she said. "The school we visited was stark and dirty and in very poor condition. This was a special school that taught language but used outdated textbooks. The teachers were very strict and controlling unlike in our touchy-feely American schools," she said.

    "I loved the experience but felt very bad about the school and it makes me want to do something to help," she added in an interview on the plane heading back to McClellan.

    "We are going to send them textbooks, maps and posters of Sacramento," Fields said.

    Elizabeth Joy and Bill and Sue Hoffman of Teachers Reaching Out were also among those visiting L'viv.

    "There are hundreds of Ukrainians and Russians in the Rio Linda School District," said Bill Hoffman. "Meeting and dealing directly with the students in L'viv was fabulous." They also took a quilt made by American students for the students in L'viv and have set up letter and e-mail exchanges and hope soon to exchange videotapes of students' homes and tours of Sacramento with tapes from students in L'viv.

    The American group had dinner in a modern downtown hotel with the U.S. ambassador to the Ukraine, Steven Pifer, who admitted the problems facing the Ukraine can appear overwhelming. Pifer is graduate of Stanford who was born in San Francisco and appreciates the close relationship between California and the Ukraine.

    But there are some things the U.S. doesn't have to worry about and among those are nuclear weapons.

    "The Ukraine could have been the third-largest nuclear power in the world but instead is voluntarily dismantling nuclear weapons," he said. The Ukrainian government is doing this in order to have access and good relations with the West, he added.

    "But we don't want to push an exclusive relationship with the Ukraine," he warned. "We don't have all the answers. We want them to have a good relationship with Russia, too."

    Pifer spoke highly of the sister city relationships being formed between towns in California and the Ukraine.

    "It's people-to-people diplomacy at its best," he said.

    As to the future of the Ukraine, no one is making big-money bets. The most enthusiastic people are describing themselves as "cautiously optimistic."

    (For more on the Ukraine, see Elisabeth Sherwin's Sept. 27, 1998, Printed Matter column, "Thoughts on L'viv, Ukraine, and a very long flight home")

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