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Ukraine

When Ukrainians celebrated New Year 2005 in Kiev in a delirious sea of orange and anthems of the revolution, the future looked bright. A peaceful popular uprising had finally forced the corrupt old guard out of the presidency. In their place, a personable former banker with a team of young, bright-eyed liberals, nationalists and idealists promised that finally Ukrainians would get their chance to earn a good living legally, be proud of being Ukrainian, and join Europe.

In fact the Orange Revolution – sparked by gross state-sponsored fraud in the November 2004 presidential elections between then-President Kuchma’s chosen successor Viktor Yanukovich and former National Bank head Viktor Yushchenko – split the country in two, with western, Ukrainian-speaking citizens backing Yushchenko, and Russian-speakers from the industrial east supporting Yanukovich. Threats of secession from the disgruntled east have since quietened down, but the rift refuses to close, a reminder of Ukraine’s complicated, bloody history in which parts of its territory have been variously part of Russia, Poland and Romania.

Apart from a brief period in 1917, Ukraine was never an independent state until 1991. Domination by Russia has shaped the country, displacing Ukrainian language and culture through colonization, neglect and repression. In Soviet times, an engineered famine killed millions, but it was a second disaster, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986, and the subsequent state cover-up, that contributed to the break-up of the Soviet Union and strengthened demands for independence.

The following decade was a third disaster for the majority of Ukrainians. Chronic cronyism marked a succession of governments dominated by former communist apparatchiks. A few got extremely rich disposing of the country’s natural assets while wages in the public sector were barely above the poverty line and welfare services collapsed. Thanks largely to its geopolitical position between Russia and Europe, Ukraine was receiving one of the highest amounts of US government aid in the world, as well as IMF loans, yet Ukraine’s once-proud title of ‘the bread basket of Europe’ was soon replaced by ‘Europe’s basket case’.

Today Kiev is a flurry of building, as monuments to Ukrainian heroes grace gleaming new housing estates and shopping malls. Even before Yushchenko’s election affirmed Ukraine’s new Western democratic and free-market credentials, the economy was looking up enough to be one of the fastest growing in Europe in 2004. But the benefits are taking a long time to trickle down; outside the capital, small towns are collapsing quietly into hopelessness. Most of the population is still living on less than $100 a month.

Ukraine is still treading a fine line between Russia and Europe, between wild capitalism and older Socialist values. The signals from the new Government so far are decidedly mixed. At the same time as state pensions and wages were increased by up to 50 per cent, imposition of price controls provoked some Russian-owned petrol stations to ration fuel. The national bank meanwhile devalued the hryvna against the dollar, dismaying thousands with savings in US currency. Foreign investors are alarmed by promises to investigate the murky privatization sales under the former regime, of which not only relatives and supporters of the former Government but also some foreign companies took advantage. Members of Yushchenko’s team have even dared to suggest that renationalization may not be such a bad idea, provoking outraged cries of ‘state capitalism’.

Alongside tackling corruption, integration into Europe (and therefore weaker links with Russia) was Yushchenko’s key campaign platform, but the West seems unenthusiastic about that one, snubbing any suggestion of easing EU visa restrictions. Meanwhile an estimated five million Ukrainians are working abroad, the vast majority illegally in the EU. Whether that’s testimony to a desire to join ‘civilized Europe’, or simply desperation to escape what are still impossibly hard conditions at home, is moot.

Green light, red light

The advertisement for cash transfers shows a smiling woman cleaning an expensive house. The picture next to her shows a young boy with a new CD player. The caption reads: ‘She is transferring something more valuable than money.’ By contrast, the leaflet against trafficking features a shadowy man holding a handful of dollars and a cage with a young woman inside. The caption reads: ‘Do you want to exchange your dignity, freedom and health for life in a cage?’ These are the two faces of trafficking in human beings in Ukraine – opportunity and menace. One implies that working abroad allows women to provide their children with much more than expensive toys. The other warns that the only work awaiting women who emigrate is slavery and prostitution. Both messages reappear over and over again in the media, in advertising, in popular culture. Even governments use them. But which is the true picture? Trafficking of people does not just mean transport; it also implies ownership. The UN defines trafficking as ‘the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion... for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of prostitution or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.’ Trafficking is not the same as people-smuggling, although it is difficult to separate the two. ‘The mere facilitation of illegal entry into or through a country is not, on its own, trafficking in persons, although such migrant-smuggling may be part of a trafficking operation or turn into a trafficking situation.’ In countries like Ukraine and Moldova many people are not aware of the finer distinctions. A combination of trafficking and people-smuggling affects an enormous percentage of the working population; in Moldova an estimated third of the workforce is working illegally abroad. In countries like Britain or Italy it’s highly likely that illegal and trafficked labour has picked the vegetables you eat or is looking after your old sick grandmother. And East European women have come to dominate the most sensational and troubling aspect of trafficking – prostitution. Despite its illegal or underground status in most countries, the sex trade is the most visible side of human trafficking. It grabs the headlines and has become a journalistic obsession. It still seems to be impossible to talk about sex without getting moralistic. By extension, the trafficked women – the ‘Natashas’, as all east European sex workers and, by implication, all east European women abroad have come to be called – are easily categorized as helpless victims. They have either been duped into sex work, or else are knowing prostitutes. Unfortunately it isn’t just the media peddling these stereotypes. Governments too confuse trafficking and prostitution in their visa regimes, their policy papers and their anti-trafficking declarations. One Ukrainian young woman I know – who really is called Natasha – when applying for an Italian visa was told she must first bring a declaration from the police stating that she had never engaged in prostitution. Any legitimate travel agency in Kiev will tell you how hard it is now for a young single Ukrainian woman to get a tourist visa to any West European country. In 1992 the US State Department report Trafficking in Persons (TIP) was criticized for letting wealthy countries off the hook. But the biggest furore was over morals. A subsequent critical review of the report ignored the labour aspect of trafficking entirely, choosing instead to treat it as simply a matter of prostitution. Indeed, it conflated the two. According to one US advisor: ‘[Trafficking] is inherently evil and we need to abolish it. That’s the approach that we want to take – that this whole commercial sex industry is a human rights abuse.’ The review went on to accuse a number of individuals and organizations supported with US Government funds of promoting prostitution and its legalization. A 2004 report by USAID, _Trafficking in Persons_, includes the proviso: ‘Organizations advocating prostitution as an employment choice or which advocate or support the legalization of prostitution are not appropriate partners for anti-trafficking grants or contracts.’ This has moved a long way from the UN’s original definition of trafficking. Anti-trafficking measures, which are aimed at protecting people from violence and exploitation in any labour sphere, have become enmeshed in the moral minefield of whether sex work is a valid form of employment and should be legalized. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) now have to show they offer help only to those who are classified as ‘victims’ and did not know they would be involved in prostitution. NGOs try not to make that distinction. But Winrock International – an American NGO which runs a USAID-funded anti-trafficking project in Ukraine (in partnership with the International Organization for Migration [IOM]) – asks any returned woman who appeals to the organization: ‘Were you aware you would be involved in the sex industry?’ ‘We are not helping prostitutes, we are helping the victims of trafficking,’ says Oksana Horbunova, from IOM Ukraine. ‘That means any person who was kept by an owner without money and forced into labour; it doesn’t matter whether it’s sex work or in agriculture or the domestic sector.’ Of the 1,386 victims of trafficking that IOM has assisted since 2002 only three are known to be working in the Ukrainian sex industry. The vast majority are now employed by the state or private business. However, I personally know three women sex workers in Ukraine who have been trafficked abroad in quite brutal circumstances. So I can’t help but wonder if many trafficked women never approach IOM or other agencies because they fear being classified as prostitutes. Olga from Nikolaiv, south Ukraine, has been trafficked twice. The first time, in Germany, she honestly thought she’d be dancing in a bar. The second time, in Greece, she knew she’d be doing sex work. She was kept locked in a room with no pay and not even enough food. She doesn’t usually talk about the Greece trip because she knows that if a woman is aware of the work she’ll be doing she is automatically disqualified from sympathy and ‘victim’ status. Winrock International’s main aim is not to support the women who return but to prevent them from going in the first place – to discourage them from finding jobs abroad in any sector, not just the sex industry. Winrock provides vocational training for women in Ukraine to help them find employment at home. According to their own research, 20,000 women said that the training persuaded them not to seek work abroad, but just 5,000 of those found a job and 400 set up their own businesses. Anti-trafficking programmes have also made films depicting the horrific situation and shown them in schools to warn young women of the dangers. One NGO staff member told me that at one school a girl ran out of the class crying. Her mother was working abroad. After seeing the film, the girl was convinced her mother was a prostitute and in great danger. Inna Shvab of the NGO La Strada Ukraine disapproves of this policy of deterrence. ‘I think it’s not entirely correct, because you can’t deny someone the chance for a better life. It may be their opportunity; it isn’t always bad abroad and we can’t offer them any alternatives in Ukraine.’ The governments funding these programmes are the same ones receiving illegal migrants. By making visas so prohibitively difficult, Western governments ensure that Ukrainians, along with migrants from most of the rest of the world, must turn to people-smugglers or traffickers. Everyone knows that work is available and potentially profitable. ‘As long as there is a demand, Ukrainian women will always go because they can be paid more than here,’ says Tetyana Rudenko, Crisis Prevention Programme Co-ordinator at Winrock. Some governments admit as much. At a conference in Kiev organized by the Catholic NGO Caritas, a representative from the Interior Ministry in Italy stated that the care system for the elderly there is now entirely propped up by Ukrainian women. Yet Italy is a staunch anti-trafficking ally of the US TIP report criteria. The contradiction is glaring. One of the top destination countries for smuggled and trafficked Ukrainians recognizes that its care system would collapse without them – but it will allow no legal possibilities for Ukrainians to work there.

The ‘Natashas’ – as all east European sex workers and, by implication, all east European women abroad have come to be called – are easily categorized as helpless victims

While shirking any responsibility, these same governments pour money into programmes explaining the horrors of trafficking. Stay at home, is the message – and don’t expect too much. Tania didn’t want to listen to that advice. Trafficked to Turkey by a boyfriend, she later set herself up as an independent sex worker but lost most of the profits to thieves. When I met her on the highway outside Nikolaiv, where sex workers line the roadside, she was trying to organize a second trip to Italy. Tania knew she would have to get into debt to a trafficker who would pay her transport and set her up in work. She wasn’t deterred. ‘Working for $30 a month here is no way out; I’ve got to pay for my flat, and my son’s schooling. It’s up to me to do something. I’m not going to give in to this life, and I’m not doing anything criminal. I’m not risking anything but myself.’ IOM staff, who see the terrified, browbeaten women returning from nightmares abroad, would probably say that risk is too high. Tania died in Ukraine just a few months after I spoke to her. Many of the women I’ve met over the years working the streets of Ukraine have also died here. The advice to stay at home rings hollow. ‘Why can’t we go abroad as tourists? Why can’t we go and do legal work?’ Olena asks. She is from a dead-end town in Moldova and ran away as a teenager, emulating the girls she saw returning with fur coats and gold jewellery. Deported from Turkey, she took off again for the Balkans. This time she came back with nightmares about the abuse and murder of Moldovan women. Were it not for her baby, born soon after her return, and the help of a local NGO, she’d probably have gone abroad again. There are simply no opportunities at home. ‘This selling of us girls – I can’t understand why it works out like this. Why do our girls have to suffer?’ It’s a question that the anti-trafficking films and the government reports never get around to answering. The US TIP report recommends low-cost trafficking deterrents (‘Listening to Exploited Children’, ‘Rewarding Law Enforcement’) while not once mentioning how immigration policy might influence the situation. An anti-trafficking leaflet counters the ‘myth’ that ‘working abroad, though illegally, will enable me to see the world...’ with the ‘reality’ that ‘travelling as a tourist is a splendid way to do this too. As an illegal migrant your chances of being exploited are greater...’ The idea that a girl like Olena could ever get to visit the West as a tourist is as much of a myth as any of those the anti-traffickers seek to debunk. Ukrainian women are betrayed just as much by the anti-trafficking poster as by the cash-transfer ad. Until rich countries change their immigration policies, the ‘necessary evil’ of people-smuggling will continue, with trafficking its uglier underside. And as long as the moralistic stereotypes of ‘victim’ and ‘prostitute’ endure, women like Olena, Tania and Olga will be condemned for trying to take their fate into their own hands.

*Lily Hyde* is a freelance journalist based in Ukraine.

Endless journey

Ukrainian border guards are used to repeatedly seeing the same faces on the country’s western borders. But they remember the baby: Afghan by blood, but citizen of no country. He was born in a detention camp for illegal migrants after his mother was stopped crossing the border into Slovakia. Two months later, the border guards again saw him; this time carried in a cradle. At five months, he was back in the same detention camp.

He is one of an estimated three million migrants on the soil of the former Soviet Union. Citizens of Afghanistan, China, Vietnam, Iran and Bangladesh all make the epic trek to get here. Ukraine borders six countries, including four which are candidates for membership of the European Union (EU). It is one of the hubs of the overland migration route to Western Europe.

The newly emerged ex-Soviet states have been coined ‘transition’ countries by wealthy governments. It is a glib term for a clutch of countries which are not ‘developed’ yet not ‘developing’. Transitional economies, transitional politics. And in recent years physical transitions as well – the channels through which migrants from most of the rest of the world try to reach Western Europe. The ‘transition’ period of these courageous travellers fleeing political upheavals or deadly poverty can last for years. They cool their heels in Russia or Ukraine or Moldova, making repeated attempts to cross the western borders, are detained by border guards, and are then turned loose to try once again.

Some have been trapped so long in the endless circle of migration that they now have several children born on the road

With an economy already devastated by the attempted adoption of capitalism, Ukraine has little to offer and less to gain from the influx of thousands of citizens of yet poorer countries. Yet Western Europe, with its vastly larger resources, would rather those migrants stayed here, in a ‘permanent’ transition. In an attempt to please the EU, which it hopes one day to join, Ukraine is doing its best to stop migrants crossing its western borders. But it simply does not know what to do with the people it detains.

Find your own way home

There are no resources to deport them, no facilities to house them, no translators to help talk to them. Most are kept for a few days in dismally inadequate conditions and then put on a train to the capital city. They are told ‘find your own way home’. And so the round begins again, with the same faces appearing repeatedly at border crossings. Finally, after perhaps years of surviving in a country where they are not welcome and are offered no opportunities, they might overcome this hurdle and take another step on the way to the West.

Once they came in twos or threes, but now the guards find groups of a hundred, packed into hidden compartments in trucks and buses, or armed with fake documents and passports. The underpaid, under-equipped border guards stopped their first third-country migrant back in 1991, the year Ukraine became independent. By 2000, they were stopping up to 15,000 a year. There have been several tragedies: 27 Afghans were killed when the truck that was carrying them drove into a lake just three kilometres short of the Hungarian border; 21 Bangladeshis were found half-suffocated in a tiny hidden compartment in a refrigerator truck.

Dazed, lost, alien faces

The EU has poured money into border control within its candidate countries: Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. All have licence to send the people they detain back to Ukraine, regardless of whether or not they originate from there. Ukraine itself receives minimal financial support.

In a former army hostel in the west Ukrainian border town of Mukacheve, detained migrants are housed for a few days courtesy of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). A local aid organization brings food, basic medicine and toiletries. There are frequently whole families here, especially from Afghanistan. Some have been trapped so long in the endless circle of migration that they now have several children born on the road; children who know no home.

May Lin, a young Chinese woman in the hostel, holds up fingers – 15 – to show how many people travelled in her group. ‘I’m very unhappy here and I miss my boyfriend,’ she bursts out in broken English the moment she sees a new face; it is the only complete sentence she knows. There is no-one here who can speak Chinese. She can’t or won’t explain how she came to Ukraine; her original destination was England.

May Lin believes the men in her group, including her boyfriend, are in a nearby camp for male migrants. In fact they have already been sent away for further investigations by the state security services. It is unlikely she will ever see them again. When she is released from detention no-one knows or cares what will happen to her. Perhaps she will become one of those dazed, lost, alien faces of which the railway and bus stations are full. She is unable to understand a word of what is being said around her. Perhaps she will be picked up by the original people who brought her. Perhaps she will find someone new who is prepared to help her across the border for a fee. But the border guards have already taken any money she might have had left.

Many migrants arriving in Ukraine, especially from Afghanistan, should qualify for refugee status. Very few are accepted as such by Ukraine. The UNHCR is lobbying Ukraine to sign the 51st convention regulating asylum law worldwide, which will have the effect of keeping asylum seekers out of Western Europe. The Ukrainian authorities point out impatiently that they lack the means to pay even below-poverty-line wages on time or deliver meagre pensions to their own citizens. Why should they support impoverished hordes who don’t even want to stay?

Ukraine does not treat its existing refugees well. They are subjected to constant police harassment. Many are afraid to step out of doors. Nearly 1,000 registered refugees, tired of an impossible life in Ukraine, disappeared in 1999 – presumably having crossed the border into Western Europe. Plans by the UNHCR to build a proper refugee camp have been rejected by the local authorities. ‘They want refugees to live badly so they’ll go home,’ is the blunt explanation offered by Ilya Pirchak, an Adventist pastor who organizes aid for migrants in Mukacheve.

But they can’t go home. Ukraine does not give even temporary residence permits to refused asylum seekers. But they also lack the means to send them back to their home country or even to the country they immediately came from. They are simply abandoned to the mercy of venal police and petty social prejudice.

Although EU countries do cautiously admit that immigration may be needed to support their ageing populations, they continue to block migration routes and demonize the traffickers who provide migrants with their only option. The realities of Fortress Europe are in stark contrast to the EU’s portrayal of itself as the home of opportunity and tolerance. This has left not only poor migrants but Ukraine itself in limbo – in the bizarre position of being chivvied along to support Western European exclusiveness, yet given no practical help for its pains.

Sense of grievance

The much-vilified Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko thumbed his nose at the EU when he announced that Belarus would not try to stop any illegal migrants that cross its territory on their way west. Ukraine has not dared take such a step but its sense of grievance over the thankless work grows ever stronger. ‘As time goes on more and more illegal migrants who won’t be able to get to the West will stay in Ukraine, and it will be our problem – it is already,’ complains Vasyl Gubko, head of the border guards department for illegal migration. ‘But the only reason we meet these migrants is because they are trying to go to Germany or France or England. Here we are taking on the problems of these countries. Very often we stop people who even don’t know what country they are in. They don’t even know such a country as Ukraine exists.’

The realities of Fortress Europe are in stark contrast to the EU’s portrayal of itself as the home of opportunity and tolerance

Ukrainians can sympathize with people who have left killing poverty and sold everything to come so far. Many Ukrainians who have to scrape out an existence in their own devastated economy also dream of building a new life in the West. Like the Afghanis, the Bangladeshis and the Sri Lankans, their own passports condemn them to illegal border-crossings – and to illegal work if they ever get into the European Union. But fellow-feeling doesn’t stop locals from exploiting a lucrative new source of income, acting as guides for the often helpless foreigners who end up in their villages. Border guards have many stories about veteran Afghan generals duped as easily as children by local youths who take their money and abandon them in fields at night. But of course the guards have no knowledge of the ones who successfully guide their charges across the border – unless the guards are in on the deal themselves.

Exclusive Western club

Ukraine has already strengthened its eastern border controls and is thus dramatically decreasing the number of migrants detained in the West. This should ease the pressure on Ukraine but will only push the whole issue a step further eastwards – and Russia is no friendlier a place for migrants.

It is easy to criticize the casual callousness with which Russia and Ukraine treat migrants stranded on their territory. But these countries are also victims of the West’s decision to preserve its riches only for those lucky enough to have the right passport. These impoverished former Soviet nations are completely unable to cope with newcomers who bring nothing but the honest desire to work – for in Ukraine and Russia there is no work.

Migrants in Ukraine are treated with barbarity but how much choice is there? Ukrainians too are struggling to survive in a modern and ruthless capitalist world. They too would like a share in the riches of the West. Unfortunately they improve their chances of gaining membership of that exclusive Western club by preventing migrants from other countries getting there first – in the process condemning those migrants to months or even years of misery.

*Lily Hyde* is a freelance journalist based in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.

Back from the grave

'It's *basically* the same *imperfect design* and we'd wind up with the same dangers as *Chernobyl*'

At the Chernobyl Museum in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, solemn-faced schoolchildren examine the documented source of their own ill-health. Evacuees from one of the world’s worst nuclear-power accidents weep over photos of their lost homes.

Streets away, a group of Western nuclear experts are working with the Ukrainian energy company Energoatom to complete two sub-standard nuclear power plants – with the encouragement of major Western governments and the European nuclear industry. The reactors are planned for Khmelnytsky and Rivne, two small industrial cities 250 kilometres west of Kiev. They are Soviet-designed, 1,000 megawatt, light-water-cooled nuclear plants, generally deemed safer than those at Chernobyl but still far from Western safety standards. ‘It’s basically the same imperfect design,’ says Andrey Odinenko of Greenpeace Ukraine. ‘And we’d wind up with the same dangers as Chernobyl.’

The project was agreed in a deal signed by Ukraine, the G7 group of industrial nations and the European Union (EU) in 1995. The G7 pledged to help Ukraine make up for electricity lost when Chernobyl shuts its doors for good next year. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) offered a $190-million loan towards the one-billion-dollar-plus project. That support would open the door to a further $500 million from Euratom, the EU-funded nuclear organization. And the G7 pledged millions more to guarantee payment from Ukraine for reactor parts exported to the country by Western suppliers.

Yuri Kostenko, former Minister for Environmental Protection and Nuclear Safety, says the Government initially suggested a gas power plant ‘but experts from the G7 said it would be cheaper’ to go nuclear. The reactors at Khmelnytsky and Rivne were started under the old Soviet regime, then abandoned nearly 80-per-cent complete after the Chernobyl disaster.

Western power companies have been keen supporters of the plan, since new orders for nuclear plants in Europe and North America have dried up. Nuclear giants Electricité De France, Tractabel from Belgium and the Finnish firm IVO International are already acting as consultants in Ukraine. Companies likely to win lucrative contracts if work goes ahead include the German corporation, Siemens. A large proportion of the loan package would consist of export guarantees, with Ukraine obliged to buy equipment and services from designated Western firms.

After the meltdown: a Ukrainian boy holds a drawing of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Heidi Bradner / Panos Pictures

But there are also political motivations. The West wants Ukraine as a buffer between Europe and Russia. Generating its own electricity from nuclear power would make the country less dependent on Russian gas, for which it has already incurred vast debts.

The irony is that Ukraine doesn’t need new generating capacity to replace Chernobyl. Since the collapse of the USSR and the economic stagnation that followed, energy demand has plummeted. The country now has the capacity to generate more power than it needs, according to a study by economist John Surrey commissioned by the EBRD. Surrey concluded Ukraine already has excess generating capacity of 100 per cent and recommended instead that the West help the country repair its existing coal- and gas-fired power plants. For Surrey the nuclear scheme has always been a ‘highly political project looking for economic justification that has never existed’.

A much bigger problem is distribution and waste. People open windows to cool overheated apartments from October to April. Ukraine uses many times more energy per person than the European Union average. Local environmentalists have been arguing for years that the system needs a complete overhaul and that energy-saving devices should be installed in houses, apartments, factories and offices.

Inefficiencies in the current system of electricity supply have done little to dampen Western interest in the nuclear project which environmentalists say is potentially disastrous. Neighbouring Austria has concluded that an accident at either of the new plants could contaminate all of Central Europe. And David Kyd of the International Atomic Energy Agency says scrapping the Russian design in favour of a total revamp along Western lines would cost more than a billion dollars and is simply too expensive. Kyd also says the reactors would never be licensed in the West.

There is a slim ray of hope the project can be halted. The EBRD has not yet approved the loan – perhaps because of increased pressure from the German Green Party after last year’s elections. But there is also a strong pro-nuclear lobby in the Ukrainian Government which clings doggedly to the project, holding the West to its original commitment.

Meanwhile, environmentalists worry the Khmelnytsky and Rivne reactors may open the door to more Western-funded nuclear projects in Eastern Europe. Tobias Muenchmeyer of Greenpeace International says Euratom is considering nuclear power loans to Russia, Bulgaria and Romania.

*Lily Hyde* is a freelance journalist based in Kiev.