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Ukraine’s protesters find unusual ally in business

A Canadian businessman says Ukrainians ‘want to live by European values of transparency.’


In most countries, the path from Ernst & Young to helping street protesters attempt to oust a sitting government is not a well-travelled one.

But in Ukraine, a country with a dismal business environment that is being rocked by huge anti-government demonstrations, the route makes perfect sense.

And it is one Roman Tatarsky knows quite well.

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Since returning to the country after the Orange Revolution of 2004, the Canadian-born businessman of Ukrainian descent says he has witnessed corruption, bureaucratic mismanagement and an impossible-to-comply-with tax regime become worse under the current government.

With his wife, the former director of E&Y's risk management consultancy has brought bread, sliced meat, cheese and baked goods – as well as two garbage bags full of jackets, sweaters, scarves and gloves – to protesters who have barricaded streets and occupied the Kiev city hall.

The country's government – which protesters accuse of corruption, cronyism and economic mismanagement – has been in turmoil since President Viktor Yanukovyh scuttled a trade agreement with the European Union and chose to align Ukraine more closely with Russia.

The protesters have at times numbered 350,000 and are being backed in their fight by an unusual ally: Businesses are arranging flexible work schedules that permit attendance at massive rallies and sending out memos that make it clear workers won't be punished for attending protests.

"By and large, businesses are being very supportive," Mr. Tatarsky said, adding people seem more united than during the Orange Revolution. "Here, there is no disagreement that people want to live by European values of transparency, rule of law and fairness – not the Russian model of dictatorship. This revolution is also much more aggressive, in thought and in actions; perhaps because the organizers are more experienced, perhaps because the people are single-minded and desperate."

For business people in Ukraine, things have only gotten worse. In Transparency International's recent global survey on perceptions of corruption, Ukraine was the worst performer in Europe, ranking 144 in a tie with Nigeria, Iran and the disintegrating Central African Republic.

Mr. Tatarsky, who now manages several real estate properties, including a small boutique hotel, said the interest rate on loans is between 15 and 30 per cent, making expansion next to impossible.

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Mr. Tatarsky said many employees in the Ukrainian-speaking western part of the country are showing up at offices – where speaking of politics is traditionally taboo – with a change of warmer clothes to take part in street protests after business hours. But in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, which generally supports the government, Mr. Tatarsky said businesses have shown little support for protests.

Mychailo Wynnyckyj, a business professor at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy who also teaches sociology, said he recently consulted with a 500-person company that sent out a memo making it clear employees would not be punished for participating in protests.

"The promise of euro integration is not really about Europe, but about a system of rules where you don't have a mob that's basically trying to milk your business for everything it's worth," said Mr. Wynnyckyj, who was born in Kitchener, Ont. The economic impact so far, he said, has been muted, particularly since Ukraine's shadow economy will likely continue to function. But he said he expects some currency instability of protests continue.

On Tuesday, as bond yields soared and the central bank pleaded for Ukrainians not to withdraw their bank deposits, the country's parliament rejected a motion for a confidence vote. The President flew to Beijing seeking loans and investment.

Canada's foreign minister, John Baird, said he will head to Kiev this week for talks at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Ruslana Wrzesnewskyj, 59, a Toronto real estate agent who runs a hotel in Ukraine's Carpathian mountains, has gone to court to battle officials who wanted to take her property away. She was in Kiev recently on a charitable pursuit, trying to get 36,000 pairs of shoes to local orphanages.

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"We've had so much difficulty getting them through customs because there's so much corruption – it's corrupt from top to bottom," she said. "The people have had enough. It's just done. … I suspect they'll be on the streets for a very long time. I think Europe and North America should wake up."

There is around $314-million in annual trade between Canada and the Ukraine, and roughly 1.3 million Canadians of Ukrainian descent. Free-trade talks between Canada and Ukraine stalled after the latter began trying to renegotiate its commitments under the World Trade Organization.

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