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You're reading: After travels abroad, home is not so sweet

It is not only because of the end of vacation and the need to return to work. It is about the country. 

The sad feeling starts as you travel the broken road from the airport (yes, not all of us live in the city centre) and the talkative taxi driver asks you how things are “there.” Then, he tells how he has to work extra hours and how his girlfriend juggles two jobs to pay for her apartment while raising her daughter. “The prices just go up and the salaries do not move,” he says. 

If you live in the country without going abroad for awhile, you stop noticing all that is wrong with it. But when you go out and see how people live, you see things in Ukraine with a broader perspective. 

“So, you are back. Condolences…” a Facebook friend posts on my wall. Another one adds that being abroad “mellows our people for some time.” They are more smiling, polite and relaxed. “But that changes very soon upon their return home.”  

In most places where I go abroad I cannot help but notice that, unlike in Ukraine, things are actually happening quickly. Progress is being made, but not here, it seems.

Subway lines are expanding rapidly, public transport is going green, living conditions are improving. Even in China, definitely not the most democratic country in the world, there are boards in living districts with restoration schemes and calls for citizens to contribute their suggestions and criticism. I have never seen anything like that at home where construction is one of the most corrupt industries and citizens fight for years, often in vain, for their parks and squares. 

If you went to provincial places like Gaya and Patna in India three years ago and recently, like I did, you see  how much they have changed – streets are cleaner, roads are mended and housing is improving. Solar batteries are set up on the roofs of even modest village huts. But when I go to towns in Ukraine, year after year, I only see things in decay, old Soviet-built infrastructure falling apart and nothing to replace it.

When newspapers in India expose corruption, public pressure often forces the government to take action. Food safety is taken very seriously, with strict checks of the quality of products, and the government, especially in China, is severely punishing manufacturers who add harmful ingredients. This is a far cry from Ukraine where there is virtually no control over what people eat and quality certificates from the government bodies are easily bought. 

Even in poor countries like the Philippines one sees that small business is everywhere, with dozens of small shops — cafes, repair shops, laundries, barbers, small hotels — on every step of every street. Because there is a lot of competition, the quality of food and services is much higher than in Ukraine.  All businesses have a plate on the wall which displays their taxpayer number. 

In Ukraine, the only way to run a successful small business is to avoid registering and paying taxes for as long as you can. Because the moment you register you will have to become an accountant or hire one to manage very complicated taxes, not to mention getting licenses, and paying bribes to fire or health and safety department officials, and so on. 

Or, like in my close relative’s case, the tax officer will show up at the door and say: “You have to pay me something, because I cannot leave empty-handed. If you don’t – I will examine all your paperwork and I will find something wrong, only this will take longer.” 

Instead of dealing with the elephant in the room, high-ranking government officials in Ukraine indulge in ridiculous activities like opening playgrounds in downtown Kyiv with “happy animals” who pay taxes and unhappy ones who do not, trying to teach kids to pay up. While kids might be fooled, their parents certainly know how the system works.

Again, in the Philippines, every taxi has a meter. In Ukraine, 21 years after independence, the government has not managed to even do that. What they take pride in – launching Sky Taxi from Boryspil where sky stands for the sky-high prices it charges. While my ride home with normal taxi services cost about Hr 170 ($21), the Sky Taxi would cost Hr 330. 

It seems that all the decent, smart and honest people in Ukraine have retreated to their own inner exile – trying to live their lives as isolated from any contacts with officials and the government. Most of them also do not participate in any form of civic activity. In most cases, this is a defense mechanism required for staying sane.

One Soviet dissident writer said that before the fall of Soviet Union many hoped that, when the oppressive regime falls, all sorts of intellectuals, new leaders and enthusiasts will emerge into the sunshine and take charge. Turned out, there were none. This reminds me so much of Ukraine now. 

As many countries progress it seems that Ukraine is left behind like a broken old van. Will we ever be able to catch up or are we destined to keep falling behind?  

Kyiv Post stuff writer Svitlana Tuchynska can be reached at tuchynska@kyivpost.com

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