Oil, not democracy, will be the winner in the Ukraine

Pussain imagesSo democracy has won the day in the Ukraine, says Alex Downer. The Foreign Minister was commenting on the decision to re-run the country’s presidential election this Boxing Day.

You will know about the Ukraine by now. It sits between Russia and Eastern Europe, with about three times the population of Australia and a third of its GDP. And it has two presidential candidates, both called Viktor, both with Y-fronted surnames.

But you might know a little more about the place than you think. The Ukraine’s most famous export is radiation after the Chernobyl nuclear reactor melted down in the 1980s. If you follow European football you might have heard of Dynamo Kiev, a soccer team who hail from the Ukrainian capital. You might even have heard of a ravine to the north west of the city. It’s known as Babi Yar. Locals call it Babyn Yar “ Old Woman’s gully “ and that was where German soldiers shot around a hundred thousand people in neat batches of a dozen or so. They shot Jews, Gypsies, Ukrainians, Russians, the mentally ill. Anyone they could get their hands on. They even shot the then members of the Dynamo Kiev team. In the 1960s Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his Symphony No. 13 in B flat minor (Opus 113, subtitled Babi Yar).

Shostakovich put to music the words of Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Here’s some of his poem on Babi Yar:

Over Babi Yar the wild grasses rustle.
The trees look sternly as if in judgement.
Here everything screams silently and, taking off my hat
I feel I am slowly turning grey.

And I myself am one long soundless cry.
Above the thousand thousands buried here.
I am every old man here shot dead.
I am every child here shot dead.
Nothing in me will ever forget this.

Forgotten Babi Yar? Don’t worry, so have the Ukrainians. The wild grasses are now mown and teenagers play football where footballers were killed.

But there is something everyone’s heard of “ Chicken Kiev. Boneless chicken breast wrapped around herb butter, covered in breadcrumbs, and deep-fried. Who hasn’t heard of Chicken Kiev?

And speaking of the Ukraine, did you know how concerned America is about the re-run elections there “ that they are free and fair and untainted by the kind of ballot-box stuffing that gives democracy a bad name? Condoleezza Rice, the new US Secretary of State will probably have to sort it out. Who’d be a Secretary of State? Somewhere you’ve likely never heard of and suddenly have to have an opinion on, popping straight into your in-tray!

Well if she hasn’t heard of Dynamo Kiev, or Chernobyl, or Babi Yar at least she will have heard of Chicken Kiev. Not that she’s into deep-fried food. Chicken Kiev was the name given to a speech she wrote. Dr Rice, before she was George W Bush’s NSC adviser and State Department nominee, was Bush Snr’s top adviser on all things Soviet. She it was who wrote the speech that the first President Bush delivered to the Supreme Soviet of the Republic of the Ukraine sitting in Kiev on 1 August 1991. That’s twenty three days before the Ukrainians broke with the Soviet Union, and declared themselves an independent republic.

Why was it dubbed the Chicken Kiev speech? Well, Bush Snr argued against the break-up of the Soviet Union, urging Ukrainians to shut up, stay put, and continue to take orders from Moscow.

Dr Rice knows how important the Ukraine is to Moscow. Whilst she was a guest at his private villa, none other than Vladimir Putin introduced ‘Condie’ to Russia’s choice for Ukrainian president, the country’s Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovych.

Who knows if that meeting encouraged him to believe that he could fix the election (or at least, help it on its way)? But he must have thought the presence of 1,600 Ukrainian troops in Iraq was sufficient to buy off any criticism from Washington.

And Washington is interested in the Ukraine. George Bush Snr was back in Kiev in May for the first time since 1991. He met Mr Yanukovych, but he also said hello to rival presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko. Mr Yushchenko wants to pull Ukrainian troops from Iraq if he wins the presidency. Don’t do that, the former US President advised him.

The reason ex-Presidents and their former speechwriters take an interest in places is not because tens of thousands of people stand outside in the snow. Or want to get out of Vladimir Putin’s pocket.

No, the reason is more complicated, and infinitely more simple. It’s nearly a meter in diameter and travels 669 kilometres. It is the Odessa-Brody oil pipeline and it runs from the Black Sea to the Polish border. Being just a metal pipe the black stuff can flow down it, or up it. If it pumps oil north-south then it can pump Russia’s Siberian oil to the Black Sea for tankers to ship it out to overseas markets. If it runs south-north it can bring US-financed Caspian oil to Europe. The Ukrainians paid for it themselves because they thought they could get a chunk of oil money. But it has remained empty for nearly three years.

Hang on a minute. Surely every bloody political story doesn’t boil down to oil does it? Erm. Bear with us. Let’s get back to Condoleezza Rice (remember Chicken Kiev etc.). She sat on the board of Chevron through most of the 1990s. They liked her so much they afforded her the dubious honour of naming a 129,000 ton oil tanker after her. When she joined the Bush cabinet it was re-registered as the Altair Voyager. The folks at Chevron didn’t want anyone thinking they could swing favours with the White House.

Now Chevron happens to have had dealings with the Ukraine over the Odessa-Brody pipeline. Chevron are big in the Caspian. But getting oil out of a land-locked sea and into market has proved difficult. Late in 2003 they asked the Ukrainians if they could lease Odessa-Brody to pump nine million tons of Kazakh oil “ about the pipeline’s full capacity. Well, that would have put paid to Russian plans to ship their oil south. So Russian lobbyists set to work killing the idea and Ukrainian ‘uncertainty’ meant it never happened.

Then, this October, a month before the presidential elections, a Russo-British oil company secured approval for using the pipeline to take Siberian oil to the Black Sea.

So there it sits. A good old-fashioned oil row underlies America’s interest in the outcome of the Ukrainian elections.

And whilst our Foreign Minister’s only potential contribution to the future of the Ukraine is that he could eat his own weight in deep-fried chicken, the incoming US Secretary of State knows that securing energy for its allies and denying it to its rivals is the real game in town. And for all Alex Downer’s bluster, that’s not a game democracy even gets invited to play in.

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