Ukrainians see no cheer as election approaches

Ukrainians struggling to make ends meet in a deep economic crisis feel abandoned by a squabbling political elite.

Ukrainians see no cheer as election approaches

Ukrainians struggling to make ends meet in a deep economic crisis feel abandoned by a squabbling political elite and fear Sunday's presidential election promises little to improve their lot.

The former Soviet state of 46 million people, on the doorstep of the European Union, has been called the region's breadbasket and is one of the world's largest suppliers of grains, steel and fertilisers through its busy Black Sea ports.

But its creaking industries have been hard hit by the global economic crisis as buyers from China, the Middle East to the United States have cut their purchases.

And Ukrainians such as unemployed steel worker Aleksander Abramenko are suffering.

"Practically all the unemployment benefits that my wife and I receive go on paying debts and bills. We are saving on everything -- we haven't bought new clothes or shoes. We buy cheaper food -- we don't cook meat," he said.

"Sometimes, our pensioned parents help us. It's shameful, but what can you do? We'll get by as best we can."

Abramenko comes from Makiyivka, a small town in the eastern industrial heartland of sprawling steel plants still adorned with busts of Soviet state founder Lenin, and coal mines, some dug a century ago and prone to fatal accidents.

He and his wife lost their jobs at a steel plant at the end of 2008 when metal production began to plummet.

Steel exports had typically contributed a fifth to the gross domestic product (GDP). Analysts think the economy contracted by up to 15 percent in 2009, one of the worst results in Europe.

Abramenko has been looking for a job for a year and feels the government has done nothing to help him. He says his family has seriously considered moving to Russia.

"The presidential election won't change anything. It's all nonsense. It doesn't matter who comes to power, it will all be the same," he said.

Manage by yourself

Ukraine's economy grew by about 7 percent on average every year from 2000 until the crisis hit in 2008. But it has been plagued by political turmoil since the 2004 "Orange Revolution" that brought pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko to power.

Ukrainians are disillusioned with the "Orange" camp's promises to stamp out corruption and party cronyism and bring European-style wealth, comfort and security to ordinary people.

They are also distrustful as recrimination and point-scoring amongst the political elite makes them feel that their interests are far from the government's priorities.

Rows between Yushchenko and his former ally Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko have already derailed a vital $16.4 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

"I don't expect anything good from this year," said Yuri, a 39-year-old self-employed goods trader based in Simferopol, the capital of the Crimean peninsula and a stronghold of former premier Viktor Yanukovich, the presidential frontrunner.

"If the election has any influence at all, it will be only negative as is always the case in Ukraine. As always, you will have to manage by yourself," he said.

Although he is still working, Yuri's earnings have been significantly reduced. His family of four now spends money only on food and essentials and had to borrow cash to celebrate the new year, he said.

Although inflation has slowed dramatically from a peak of over 30 percent, price rises are still frequent as a weak hryvnia currency has made imported goods much more expensive.

Dollarised economy

The hryvnia's spectacular fall against the dollar at the end of 2008 was more than a symptom of financial woes. Ukraine's economy is highly dollarised. Bank loans to buy anything from a mobile phone to a house or company are mainly fixed in dollars.

When the hryvnia lost half its value against the dollar, Ukrainians' monthly payments suddenly doubled, triggering defaults and loan renegotiations that shook the banking sector.

It has also caused stress for Serhiy Gorbach, a 26-year-old in Kiev hoping to start a family soon with his girlfriend. He works for an Internet service provider and depends on his black Mitsubishi car, bought with a $26,000 loan, to visit clients.

"When I took the loan, I never thought I would have problems paying it back ... I figured I would be able to pay it back in five years," he said.

Unable to keep up payments swollen by currency depreciation and higher interest rates, he tried to renegotiate the loan but has received papers for repossession of the car.

"If the bank takes my car away, I don't know at all how I could continue to earn a wage," he said.

Gorbach joined "Protection", a group that seeks to help millions of angry Ukrainians who have problems with their banks and last year blockaded the central bank in protest.

Whoever wins the election will have to deal with that anger and frustration of Ukrainians who feel that the authorities have done nothing to save them from economic woes.

Reuters
Last Mod: 14 Ocak 2010, 21:13
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