Ukrainian winters

Part of the past occupation series: Of all the former Soviet republics bar those in Central Asia, I have been to the Ukraine the most. I spent a month in Odessa learning Russian as a student and went twice on work trips to Kiev. 

Ukraine always seems to be caught in political turmoil and instability. There’s thus plenty to do for a political risk analyst, also given that the country’s bonds are the highest-yielding in Europe (of course except the peripheral EMU names). Unclear connections between the country’s business and political elite add to the flavour.

All that was at play when I went in the winter of 2009, just before Christmas. Minus 16 degrees celsius, a snowstorm sweeping through Kiev’s wide boulevards – and the threat of another gas cut looming. It’s not the most comfortable time of the year to visit.

Speaking to officials in the ministry of finance was a surreal experience. We could hardly make out what they said. A loud demonstration against gas price hikes was in full swing outside and protestors miraculously braved the weather (a frequent allegation was that the opposition at that time paid those coming out to the streets).

The gas crisis seemed somewhat distant in the best hotel in town, the Hyatt Regency. It’s a great hotel with fantastic views of Kiev’s medieval architecture. The building itself, though, is a bit of an architectural act of violence, especially given its (dis-)regard for the structures around it.

It seemed that P. Diddy stayed here at the same time, for he allegedly was to sing at a birthday party of a famous Ukrainian politician’s daughter. I found out because I read the contents of a rather strange hotel room raider (sporting items such as 1.5%-fat milk, champagne of particular sort and a PS2 replete with certain games…) which had the fake artist name “Frank Black” printed above it (the concierge helped to make the connection after some casual chitchat).

The conspiratorial air in Kiev lends to the feeling of being caught up in a spy story. Government-controlled entities seemingly in default or the fate of political shooting stars and their alleged oligarch backers – all that keeps everyone busy. Depending on who you speak to, you jot down at least a handful of new theories in the notebook each day. Whether or not you return home all the wiser is a different question.

During the winter meeting with state gas monopoly Naftogaz, our meeting partner got a call from Yulia Tymoshenko (or so he told us, and the person on the other side had a female voice), assuring him that payment of next month’s gas bill to Russia would be “no problem”. That must have been the weirdest moment by far. I’m still not sure whether the call was real or fake. But then again, either way, it’s a gem.

A fund manager from Moscow had a few drinks too many in hotel bar the night before and fell asleep directly in front of the CEO of a top-5 Ukrainian bank during our meeting. We called him on his Blackberry in order to wake him up, unsuccessfully for several minutes. When he woke up, though, he immediately asked the boss a question about the health of the bank’s balance sheet.

The same bank had more surreal sights: a waiter in tux bringing us excellent coffee, a PA wearing a see-through top and the stench of cigar smoke on the entire office floor. Unforgettable.

I had great conversations with a US-based fund manager. He was a long-time Russia aficionado with two kids at home in the States. He enjoyed his semi-annual CIS trips as he could catch up on sleep. He asked amazing questions, often in Russian to avoid translation etiquete. Some meetings would easily turn into conversations between him and the corporate / policymaker, with rest of group listening and taking plenty of notes.

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