Contact: Bob Boehm, 517-679-5334
LANSING — In just the past 20 years, Ukraine's transformation from former Soviet republic to independent European state has charted a twisty but effective path toward the kind of free-market entrepreneurialism characteristic of The Western World. Central to that notion is the necessary evolution of what's known generically as the "middle class"—a demographic stratum comprised of everyday people with an interest in bettering their lot by working toward always improving their position on the socioeconomic ladder.
The country's younger generation seems to most readily embrace the potential of Ukraine's ongoing development, while sentiments seem more mixed among the older population. As a rule, that younger generation works hard to continue moving forward, helping retain and enrich the country's long-awaited independence.
For now, though, Ukraine is still a country where the vast gulf between tiny and huge—where Westerners expect to find a 'middle'—is still a sparsely populated no-man's land. It was among the most confounding realities to strike participants in the Sept. 7-16 Ukraine Agricultural Study Mission. Cosponsored by Michigan Farm Bureau and GreenStone Farm Credit Services, the mission gave 27 members of Michigan's agricultural community a first-hand look at how Ukraine is executing its transition from socialist oppression to western-style self-determination.
The class landscape
Considerable obstacles impede those bent on upward mobility in 21st century Ukraine. The average national salary is less than $500 per month, taxes hover between 30 and 40 percent and sky-high interest rates make borrowing money or establishing lines of credit nearly suicidal. Definitive statistics are hard to come by, but unemployment is estimated to exceed 30 percent, perhaps reaching 40 percent in rural areas.
Half to three-quarters of Ukraine's total agricultural output still comes from the lowest end of the farm-size spectrum: the "household" farms of rural villages. These ventures strike American eyes as little more than ambitious gardens, consisting of however many rows of potatoes, cabbages, onions and peppers a village family can shoehorn into the earth between their homes and sheds and walls and fences that, literally and figuratively, define their lot.
Surplus production beyond the family's own needs is sold at the nearest roadside or village market, thousands of which line the rugged roadways of rural Ukraine. Few rural Ukrainians strive for more, and those who do face some daunting barriers to progress.
You need to pay some guy
Once upon a time, an ambitious local girl from Myronivka got an entry-level job at the local feed mill. Now, only six years later, Irina Bulavka dresses up for work, doesn't go home with grain dust in her hair, and has business cards bearing her title: support operations director. It means she practically runs the place now—the main feed mill of Kiev-Atlantic Ukraine, a multinational venture that flies Ukrainian, Dutch and American flags above its gated entrance adjacent to the railroad tracks.
This time of year, those tracks and a constant stream of inbound trucks from 200 area farms deliver corn, wheat, barley, soybeans, sunflowers and alfalfa hay to the plant, where they're processed into a wide variety of animal feeds, packaged and redistributed to retail stores across the Ukrainian countryside. The packages are small—just 2 to 25 kilograms—because the company's primary customer base are those tens of thousands of village-based household farmers who still comprise the bulk of Ukrainian agricultural production.
It is Kiev-Atlantic's clearly stated mission to replicate the agriculture of the American Midwest in central Ukraine. And in more ways than one, Bulavka seems perfect in her role, and was arguably the most American Ukrainian the tour group encountered all week—particularly in her straightforward descriptions of the old-school challenges to getting ahead in a country where self-serving bureaucrats look to line their pockets first before actually doing their job.
In Ukraine feed production is a competitive business, Bulavka explained, but rampant corruption is the bigger threat to prosperity.
"It's nonsense," she said about having to deal with government crooks who often look for up-front personal gain before executing their prescribed obligations as civil servants. "The government tries milking us like a cow, and we just say no. So they fine us all the time, for reasons like 'well, we need new windows for our office' or the police car needs new tires."
Railroad agencies are particularly troublesome, Bulavka said. Kiev-Atlantic maintains six kilometers of its own railroad track to connect its feed mill with the main state-run line that connects northern Kiev with southern Odessa, the major Black Sea port city.
"It's a disaster" working with the railroads, she said, and getting permission to acquire rail cars almost always involves bribing a government agent. "To get them you need to pay some guy," Bulavka said with a dismissive wave of her hand, indicating the frustration and futility of trying to do 21st-century business through crooked officials' Soviet-era ways.
While describing Ukraine as "the most corrupt country in the world," Bulavka is surprisingly blunt in levying responsibility: "It's our own fault," she said. "Like on the road, we get stopped for driving too fast, but would rather pay the officer 10 or 20 not to write a ticket—and the officer would rather have the 10 or 20 than write the ticket, which would get him nothing but his wage."
Her company's priority on giving back to the Myronivka community, donating money and supplies to local schools, makes it a target for government workers looking to line their pockets.
"We don't mind helping children," she said, "but those officials who are really greasy and malicious? We don't help."