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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 April 2007, 05:43 GMT 06:43 UK
Moscow Diary: Troubled neighbour
With Ukraine in the throes of a political crisis the BBC's James Rodgers returns to the capital Kiev and considers how far the country has come since the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991. His diary is published fortnightly.

SOVIET MELTDOWN

Demonstrator at pro-Yanukovych rally in Kiev
Supporters of Ukraine's prime minister want closer ties with Russia
It's a changed country in a different world.

It is true that then, as now, the President of the United States was called George Bush. American troops had been fighting in Iraq. And Ukraine was trying to decide on its future.

But that was August 1991. Last week, I returned to Kiev for the first time.

Ukraine still seems to be looking for final answers to the questions it was asking then.

Some things are no longer recognisable. That summer, the Soviet Union was in its death throes. Parts of the economy had ceased to function. In some places, even basic foodstuffs were hard to get.

I first arrived in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic on the same day as President Bush. That morning, the newspapers in Kiev announced the introduction of limited rationing. It was an embarrassing coincidence.

The picture now could not be more different. A couple of weeks after President Bush's visit, Ukraine split from the USSR.

Expensive ice cream

I remember running around Kiev on a monumental day in its history. There was no time to eat. The only snack I could find was an ice cream.

I shocked my fellow customers by paying a whole rouble - then worth about two pence ($0.04) - because I didn't have the right money (27 kopecks, as I recall), and the kiosk had no change.

There was still a lot of running around last week, but now bright lights and invitations to consume fill the city centre. These have been gradual changes, but my long time away made them really stand out.

One of the most striking absences in the Soviet Union was advertising. Now all the international brands are here.

That is not to say that Kiev is simply an identikit, globalised, city.

Just a short distance from the shoppers, protesters were preparing to spend the night in tents.

MOBILISING THE MASSES

Street demonstrations have shaped the public face of Ukrainian politics since the liberal Orange Revolution of 2004.

Pro-Yanukovych rally in Kiev
Ukrainians are deeply split over the country's future course

Last week, the centre of Kiev had become the territory of that revolution's rivals - supporters of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. Their decision to gather on Independence Square was a deliberate attempt to steal their opponents' symbols.

"I'm here for my rights and ideas, and not for money," one young man proudly told me as he clambered out of his tent.

I misheard at first, and asked "You're here for the money?"

There were persistent rumours that the demonstrators were getting cash to turn out. He had raised the subject, not I. It's hard to know where the line lies between organisers meeting expenses, and simply paying people to make up the numbers.

"Definitely not for the money!" he insisted.

BACK IN THE USSR?

Whether or not they were getting money, the demonstrators did get entertainment. The groups behind the protest appeared to have accepted that political speeches alone wouldn't keep people happy.

There was a succession of musical acts. Their interaction with the audience was hampered when rush-hour approached. The police decided to reopen the road. That left four lanes of traffic between the stage and the part of the square where the crowd was standing.

Still, one band's version of the Beatles' Back In The USSR got a loud cheer. The line "The Ukraine girls really knock me out" went down especially well.

Supporters of the Orange Revolution would argue that their opponents do want to be back in the USSR - not the European Union, and certainly not Nato.

In August 1991, I stood on the square in front of the Ukrainian Parliament as the azure and yellow national flag was raised. Last week, I stood there again among demonstrators favouring closer ties with Moscow.

Sixteen years after it left the Soviet Union, Ukraine has not decided which way it will go. But there does seem to be a sense of urgency and frustration - an understanding that the choice cannot be put off forever.

In another decade-and-a-half, the question may have long been answered.

MARKET FORCE

Back in Moscow, I went to my local market. The new law banning foreigners from working on stalls or in shops came into force on 1 April.

Traders in a Moscow market
The government's decision means foreign traders have to leave

Since the beginning of the year, there have been fewer non-Russians working there. Now there are none. The idea was that Russians would move in to take the places left vacant.

There were some new (white, Slavic) faces - but there were also far more empty stalls than before.

"Esteemed foreign citizens!" read the notices posted around the market. "From 1 April you will be forbidden from trading," the text continued, before telling people they had to move all their things out by the end of March.

The respectful tone of "esteemed foreign citizens" was probably little comfort for those losing their livelihood.

The law's critics say it's unjust, and unworkable. The Kremlin said it would defend the interests of "the native population". Unless the markets fill up again, it's hard to see whose interests are being protected.

JAMES RODGERS IN MOSCOW

James Rodgers Leaving for good
Our correspondent's valedictory entry before departing Moscow


MAY - OCT 2008
 

SEPT 2007 - APRIL 2008
 

FEBRUARY - AUGUST 2007
 

IN DEPTH


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