Monday, March 31, 2014

Tragedy and Devastation in the Maidon: Kiev's Independence Square

The crisis in Ukraine is extremely complex. I do not pretend to understand the various internal and external battles taking place. However over the past few days I have come across a number of fascinating articles , this from the Daily Beast and of course Wikipedia which explain in part the chain of events that led to (at latest count) 103 deaths and over 1500 injuries in Independence Square in the heart of Kiev.  
I suspect that Sberbank, the largest bank in Russia that is sponsoring the competition for which I am a judge, cannot be happy with the situation outside this branch office
It is tempting to assume that what is happening in Ukraine, while tragic, is not really going to affect the rest of us. However, this Reuters article suggests otherwise. It outlines 10 ways the conflict over Ukraine could change the world
What is hard to fully understand is what's happening right now in Independence Square, or the Maidan as it is locally known.
This is the most treasured and significant public street and space in a city that has a lot of public spaces. However, as I hope these photos illustrate, it now feels surreal, with soldiers and former anti-government protestors literally camped out throughout the area.
They have created barricades with old (and sometimes new) tires, paving stones, all kinds of debris and garbage, destroyed bus shelters, advertising signs and almost anything else they can get their hands on.
They have brought in logs and other wood debris to make fires to cook and keep warm, as well as a variety of structures.
Interspersed are piles of flowers, candles, makeshift alters and memorial displays to those who have died; as well as vendors selling T-shirts, flowers, refrigerator magnets, scarves and other goods to the Kiev residents who now walk freely through the space everyday.
Not to mention small vehicles that dispense coffee and tea. When I asked locals why the protestors are still there I hear various explanations. Some say they are trying to stay prepared in the event of an invasion by Putin. Others tell me they are staying until the May Presidential Election, If they don't like the outcome, more active protests could start again. Others say it is a bit of both while still others, like me are confused by what is happening.
There is no doubt that many of those camped out are there because they are still in mourning, and shock, over the events of the past few months. Many have lost good friends, or are worried about others still in hospital. They are raising money for their medical needs.
However others have no job to go to, and like many of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protestors, are enjoying the camaraderie and excitement of the situation.  This is not to demean in any way the seriousness of the situation; but judging from the music, the newly created living and sleeping spaces, and number of bottles littered about, for many this is now starting to take on a bit of a party atmosphere while waiting for future events.
For many residents it is a very unsettling and chaotic situation with a lack of security and proper enforcement. Nonetheless, most of the people I spoke to say much of the encampment could remain until the Presidential election on May 25th.  Here are a few more photos.u

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Greetings from Kyiv & the Ukrainian Presidential race

On April 7 & 8 my final jury session for the Moscow International Financial Centre competition is scheduled. Initially I thought I would return to Sochi before the meetings and possibly explore nearby Georgia and Azerbaijan. However, I was unable to arrange my Azerbaijan visa before leaving Canada, and there was some question whether a foreigner could travel by boat from Sochi to Georgia at the present time.

Seeing pictures of Kiev on The National Tuesday evening, and since Ukraine has been so prominent in the news lately, I decided to book a last minute flight to Kiev. Although Sally and I flew through Kiev en route to Moscow in 2007, I had not been to the Ukraine since 1994 when I visited Odessa and Yalta with my father. We went there together since his father and many other relatives were born in the Ukraine.

I must admit I had second thoughts about the idea when the lady seated near me on the flight from Frankfurt to Moscow questioned the wisdom of visiting Ukraine at this time. She was from Kiev and worried whether it would be safe. Then the ticket agent in Moscow cautioned me. When I asked her why I shouldn't go, she said because there was a war!
11 Mirrors Design Hotel, the glassy building above, is a boutique hotel in the centre of Kiev. Next door is Paul & Shark and nearby is an Aston Martin/Rolls dealership. It's a nice neighbourhood!
Not having been to Kiev before I did what I often do....I went on Tripadvisor and chose the #1 rated hotel despite its somewhat unusual name 11 Mirrors Design Hotel. Upon arriving at the hotel, I was very pleased I had chosen it.
My first impressions of Kiev were mixed. On one hand, the road in from the airport was impressive. However, as we drove through the city centre, I was disturbed to see a portion of the city blocked off by piles of tires and barbed wire.

The hotel reception staff were exceptionally warm and friendly. While I was checking in I met another guest, a German fellow who told me he was staying in the hotel since he had recently been appointed to a position in the nearby German embassy. That evening we went for a drink and so began my education about political life in Kiev these days.

The next day my education continued when over breakfast he invited me to join him at an event in a nearby square where Yulia Tymoshenko was to be acclaimed as her party's Presidential candidate for the forthcoming election. Apparently she will not be the front runner; that will be Ukraine's so-called 'chocolate king' Petro Poroshenko. Coincidentally, at the time another front runner was boxer-turned-politician Vitali Klitschko, who was having breakfast next to us in the hotel. However later that day he announced he will not be running for President. Instead he has put his support behind Poroshenko and will instead run for mayor of Kiev!
In the square, near the stage, is a memorial to the now estimated 85 protestors who were killed in the confrontation with government forces.
As a representative of the German embassy my new acquaintance had delegate status which allowed him special access. Wanting to stay with him, I managed to arrange media accreditation, and we both were escorted into a roped-off area close to the stage.
Seated directly in front were members of the Ukraine paralympic team. I wondered whether this was somehow connected to the fact that when Yulia was released from prison she was in a wheelchair.
Behind us was a large crowd and the largest phalanx of photographers I had ever seen. I must confess that having arrived in the country only 18  hours earlier, I was astonished to find myself so immersed in the Ukrainian Presidential campaign!
The Prime Minister of Ukraine
The introductory speeches lasted an hour and a half. I could only understand two in English; one by the vice-president of Slovenia who, like Yulia, had been imprisoned for political reasons, and one by a representative of a democracy organization founded by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. I was surprised to see another of the speakers, the former President of Georgia, who was also staying in our hotel! (When I next see him in the elevator I'll have to ask whether I can in fact travel from Sochi to Batumi!)

The country's Prime Minister also spoke. Even though I didn't understand a word he said, he struck me as a very thoughtful, reasonable man, with a very tough job ahead!

I was fascinated by Yulia Tymoshenko.
While her Ukrainian peasant braid was gone, as I posted on Twitter much to the derision of many, (including some prominent Vancouver Visionistas), she initially came across like a sweet young woman. While I knew a bit about her....that she had led the Orange Revolution and had been imprisoned by the opposition Prime Minister and had been recently released, what I didn't know was that this 'sweet young woman' is in fact 54 and before entering politics was known as the 'gas princess' and one of the country's wealthiest people! She is indeed a very controversial figure in Ukraine.
Unfortunately, given the circumstances, she spoke for what I thought was much too long...well over an hour; and as the sun set behind the nearby church it became very cold and uncomfortable. We had all been standing for 2 1/2 hours, and as others slowly left the area, I too set off to explore the city.
That evening I came across a copy of the Kyiv Post, a local English language newspaper. While I knew the news about the candidates was already out of date, I was not so sure about the headline. However, I showed it to the hotel staff who assured me that it too was out of date. They had heard the Russian troops were no longer mobilizing as reported.

At least, let's hope that's the case. You probably know more than I do! While I did not like the newspaper headline, I did like these cartoons!


One of the many things that differentiates Tesla is the way it is marketed and presented. None of my previous car purchases were wrapped like this!
I have been interested in electric cars since I started work at SFU in 1999. I wrote about them ten years later when the City was proposing new requirements for charging facilities in parking garages and I found myself in disagreement with the UDI position.  The next year I visited EXPO2010 in Shanghai and subsequently wrote about electric cars and my lifetime fascination with an odd assortment of cars.

Last year I read that Tesla was arranging test drives in Vancouver. I booked an appointment one Saturday afternoon and was very impressed with the car. However, it was expensive and I worried whether the company would stay in business. Well it has.

Over the Christmas break we went to Los Angeles and saw a number of Teslas on the road. This reignited my interest and we visited a Tesla showroom in the Newport Beach Fashion Mall. I was sold, and as soon as we returned to Vancouver we visited the interim Tesla showroom/garage at 1712 Powell and ordered a car. I was advised I would take delivery on March 24 at 2pm.

So on Monday Sally and I drove to shop and picked up my new car. While I admit it's an indulgence, unlike many people, I tend to keep my cars a long time. This will only be my fourth car in the last 25 years!  
When we went to pick up the car there were quite a few on the lot waiting to be picked up. But there were none on display at the Vancouver Auto Show. Tesla doesn't do auto shows!