Friday, March 31, 2017

Paul Manafort and Me in Ukraine

Paul Manafort had been in Ukraine for five years when I arrived in 2009 as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV). Our experiences could not have been more different.

Manafort spent most of his time in Kyiv (Киев) or running back and forth between Kyiv and Moscow and Cyprus, where there are big money-laundering banks.
With master embroiderer Marta.

I spent most of my time in Starobelsk, a rural town in far-eastern Lugansk oblast near the Russian border. This is part of the industrial region of Ukraine called the Donbas, and it covers Lugansk and Donetsk oblasts, my old stomping grounds. Friends joked that I could see Russia from where I lived. They weren't far off.  Large swaths of the Donbas have been invaded, occupied and destroyed by Russia since 2014.

AP photo. 
Manafort worked for the pro-Russian Party of Regions and its candidate Viktor Yanukovych. He helped him revise his image in order to become the president of Ukraine in 2010. During the election, I accompanied friends to polling places in Starobelsk. They were not for Yanukovych, who was never popular and ended up fleeing to Moscow with his billions after the 2014 Euromaiden revolts. That's when Putin made plans to invade Crimea and destabilize eastern Ukraine. I'm sorry that Yulia Tymoshenko didn't win that election in 2010.

Manafort worked for Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs, like the mineral magnate Oleg Deripaska, who paid him lots of money to promote Russian interests and curry favors with the USA. Manafort arranged special meetings, like the one between Yanukovych and Obama in 2012. During the Trump campaign, he flew Russian colleague Konstantin Kilimnik to the USA to meet with Trump and his advisers, and he arranged the secret and now-suspect Mayflower Hotel meeting between Russian Ambassador Sergay Kislyak, Jeff Sessions, and Jared Kushner.

The closest I came to any oligarch was knowing of Rinat Akhmetov, one of the richest men in the Donbas, who built a fabulous soccer stadium in his hometown of Donetsk. Football in Ukraine is as big as it is in any European city. Turns out Manafort worked for Akhmetov, too. Russian troops and Russian-armed proxies have decimated the city of Donetsk. I think Akhmetov regrets his pro-Russian dealings. Manafort might, too.

While Manafort worked with the rich and powerful, I worked with the ordinary and the powerless. It was my great privilege to become part of the community of Starobelsk, and to find out the best way I, an American stranger in Ukraine, could help them achieve their dreams. What were their stories? What did they want? What did they need? I was there to help. This is what PCVs do.

After many cups of tea, listening, and gaining trust, I began to make lists. I loved the people. I saw the faint hope. I saw the doubt and suspicions. "Why is she here?" I was the first American most of them had ever met. I made myself accessible. I never turned down an invitation, even if I didn't understand where I was going, which was half the time. I created my own well-worn path between Panfelova Street, where I lived with my host mom Luba, to the Market (where you could get everything you ever needed), and to the center of town, St. Nikolas Church, and Schools #2 and #3. The Monastery on Kyrova was also nearby. I learned from my friend Olga, a font of Ukrainian history, that this beautiful oasis had once been a site of the execution and burial of Polish army officers, soldiers and civilians captured when Stalin invaded Poland in September 1939. It's part of what's known as the brutal "Katyn Massacre," its history shrouded in mystery until recently.

That's how I learned first hand the history, culture, traditions and folkways of the people. I learned about Starobelsk poets and writers, artists, embroiderers, jewelry makers and dressmakers. I learned about Ukrainian national culture, sometimes strained, but I focused on the things that united Ukraine east to west of the Dneiper River. It's hard to accept that Manafort, on the contrary, exploited divisions on behalf of Putin and against the interests of Ukraine and its people.
A collage of English Club photos: club meetings, getting books, sharing.

In Starobelsk, I discovered that there was great interest in learning English and practicing with a native English speaker. That led to the English Club at the Public Library (Biblioteca). I learned the Library had no English-language books. That led to a successful book drive, with friends from America joining in.  I learned the Library needed computers and the community wanted free public access to the internet. That led to an application to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which led to getting ten computers and WiFi for public access. I learned through my work with the human and women's rights NGO Victoria that many people were victims of violence or falsely detained for crimes they did not commit. That led to a "Know Your Rights" project that reached 10 rural villages around Starobelsk.

With friends after an English Club meeting
While I tilled the fields, as it were, Manafort milked the oligarchs. He was busy in Kyiv with his projects for undermining Ukrainian nationalism and making Putin look good in the USA.  He sure made more money than a Peace Corps Volunteer, who got a monthly stipend closer to what the average Ukrainian lived on, about $300 a month. If I had known then what I know now, I might have hit Manafort up for donations for the Starobelsk Library when I was visiting Peace Corps headquarters in Kyiv, which was often. Heck, I probably could have walked from the Voksal (the train station) to his office and done some good.

Manafort flew all over the place, while I took trains and buses. At first, the 20+ hours overnight train ride between Lugansk and Kyiv was a killer, and on top of that it took almost 2 hours to get to and from Starobelsk to Lugansk. I got used to it, grew to like it. I was a traveller meeting all kinds of interesting people: students, workers, teachers, nurses, a trucker, a psychologist, farmers, computer specialists, small business people. I made friends of strangers. As soon as they learned I was American, and that didn't take long, they wanted to talk. My Russian was basic but we managed to get around it. I doubt Manafort ever had these experiences.

He worked from the top down. I worked from the bottom up.

Manafort hung out with the super rich and dined in mansions or ate at fancy restaurants. He was often spotted at the InterContinental hotel in Kyiv, a place I could only pass in wonder, like a kid looking in the window of a candy store.
Luba's New Year's Eve meal,
12 delicious salads

Luba's Paska bread at Easter, a Ukrainian.
I ate delicious home-cooked meals with Luba, sometimes with her grown son Sergei or her grandson Nikita, often with her many friends. She was an extrovert, witty, brilliant, funny. She was a fantastic cook, using fresh vegetables, herbs and fruits in season from her garden to make borscht, vereneky, and holubtsi. Luba prided herself on using "all natural" foods, no pesticides (Все натуральные продукты, без химических веществ). I also remember memorable meals with Natalya on Kyrova Street and with dear friends Olga, Tonya and Natalia the English teacher. I doubt Manafort could say the same.
Lunch at Olga's. I fell off my bike. and broke
my arm.  Home healing helped.

Not only did I savor the food but I savored the culture. I took the train all over Ukraine, to Lviv, Uzegorod,the Carpathians, Slavsky in the far west, down to beautiful Odessa and Crimea to the south. What a great country. I spent as much time in Crimea as I could because a PCV friend worked with the Crimean Tatar library (forced to shut down). We visited fabulous places: Simferopol, Bachysaray, Yalta, Yevpretoria.

At Stefa's in Lviv with Olga on our trip
.to  the Carpathians. East and West together. 
Manafort doesn't care that Crimea has since been illegally occupied, Stalinized and militarized, its social fabric destroyed, its tourism economy in ruins, and the Tatars, the indigenous people, once again victims of Russian human rights abuses. He helped Putin's propaganda machine, which was incessant and brutal, full of fake news and "alternative facts" before most western reporters knew what hit them. Manafort even "echoed Putin's justification for the annexation" just recently saying the majority of its people wanted to be part of Russia. Wrong. I weep for Crimea.

Perhaps Manafort weeps for his lost millions. Or for his egregious mistake in thinking that working for the amateur-hour Trump campaign was furthering his business interests. His "extreme makeover" of Yanukovych had worked, afterall, Why not try it on Trump? It didn't work out, too many questions got in the way, and remain.

Manafort and I had different priorities. His was to help the rich; mine was to get to know the people. He has little to no idea about their stories or their daily lives, about their suffering and their courage. I'm sure it bothers him not a whit that Putin violated a sovereign country's borders, that he has turned Crimea and large parts of Lugansk and Donetsk into wastelands. The war goes on, a "hybrid war." Thank god Starobelsk, so far, has been spared, due in part to the people's determined opposition. Still, Starobelsk has been inundated with refugees and the people live in fear. It haunts me.

With Natalia, the fabulous English teacher and
interpreter, & her husband Vasyl, at
the Lugansk Train station. 
Manafort doesn't care.  He doesn't care that the train station so many of us relied on in Lugansk or the beautiful airport in Donetsk have both been destroyed. He didn't travel by train across Ukraine's sunflower fields, where a Russian BUK missile blew MH-17 out of the sky killing 298 people. He wouldn't know about those fabulous English bookstores in Lugansk either, where we bought books for the Starobelsk Library. They are gone. The great Taras Schevchenko National University is shut down.
Vera Flyat, head of NGO Victoria, at a seminar 
on women's rights in Lugansk. The women leaders 
learned from each other. I had the chance to
to tour the city & meet up with Lugansk PCVs..
Nor would Manafort know much about the dedicated non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that work on a shoestring to promote civil society and transparency in government, defend the poor, the disabled, the victimized. PCVs work with lots of NGOs. Sadly, their leaders had to flee the Donbas, along with thousands of other "internally displaced persons." When I hadn't heard from Vovo, director of an eastern Ukraine civil society NGO, I got worried. He finally emailed that he was living in Kyiv, that his name was on a target list and he had to leave his beloved Lugansk. My friend Serdar, whose family still lives in Crimea, fled to Lviv to finish dental school; he now volunteers his services on the front lines of war-torn Ukraine.

When I left Ukraine in 2011, unrest was growing, young people couldn't find jobs, taxes were rising and wages were going down.  The Party of Regions was viewed as a den of thieves, and Yanukovych's approval rating was lower than tRump's is now.  My friends in Starobelsk worried about their jobs and railed against the rampant, outrageous corruption. "What can you do?" I'd ask them. They'd smile at my American "can do" attitude. I was accused of being always positive! They would shrug their shoulders and say "That's the way it is" (Так оно и есть).

I didn't know when I left Ukraine in 2011 how bad it would get, how unsettled, how vicious and violent. Then all hell broke loose.

Manafort views Ukraine as belonging to Russia. He thinks Crimea belongs there, too, recently saying "the people voted for it." That's a lie. It was totally rigged election. People voted at the point of a bayonet, with only one choice on the fake ballots. Manafort was simply repeating the propaganda he had a hand in creating to whip up a hysterical nationalism in preparation for Putin's takeover. It infuriates me.

I view Ukraine as an autonomous sovereign nation with clearly defined, internationally recognized borders, with its own distinctive history and culture. Russia invaded the territorial integrity of a foreign country, and has gotten away with it. Russian-speakers had close ties to Russia, yes, but no more. They feel betrayed. Putin turned on them, like Stalin had done during and after World War II. It's a story told by historian Timothy Snyder in "The Bloodlands."  Today, in the Donbas, a renewed Ukrainian identity has been forged and it is stronger than ever. If nothing else Putin's aggression has solidified a sense of Ukrainian unity. Russia is a common enemy.

What I didn't know then, what no PCV knew then, was that while we worked with dedication and enthusiasm to strengthen and support Ukraine, there were Americans like Manafort working to undermine it. While we worked on behalf of the people to help them build their communities, Manafort worked with Yanukovych on behalf of Putin to undermine loyalty to Ukraine. That remains one of the greatest shocks to absorb.


Natalia Artelava, "How (Not To) Cover Lies," Coda, 3/28/2017.  Excellent article on how Putin went into Crimea and how his "alternative facts" propaganda campaign fooled western journalists.

*Steven Lee Myers and Andrew E. Kramer, "How Paul Manafort Wielded Power in Ukraine Before Advising Donald Trump," New York Times, July 31, 2016.  This is one of the best articles on Manafort's work in Ukraine.

This just out on Mariupol, as I was finishing up this blog:  Reprinted in the Kyiv Post, an excellent source for Ukraine news.

Natalya's beautiful beaded artwork, a special gift.
This photo doesn't do it justice.

Natalya and son Ivan visited me and my family
in Sylvania,  December 2016. We were amazed 
it really happened! She was visiting
 Ivan and his wife, who live and work in NYC.

The people of Mariupol protest Putin's aggression. "Putin out."
I think Putin still has his sights on this strategic  port town on the Sea of Asov.
(AP photo/Sergei Grits) 
My three host moms: Vera in Chernigov, where I had 3 months of culture and language training;
Olga (we're sledding down Panfelova Street; and for my last few months,
Natalya on Kyrova Street. All great cooks and fabulous women. 

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