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Ukraine as a Second Home: Just a Few statistics and Personal Stories of Foreigners in Ukraine

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Since gaining independence 29 years ago, Ukraine has rather timidly but irrevocably integrated into the world economic and political community, opening its borders to citizens and aliens of other states. The new, big, and unknown country on the map of Europe has attracted and continues to attract foreigners differently. For one person – for educational purposes, since programmes in public and private higher education institutions are fully available, while the level of training is quite high. For another – for tourist purposes, to learn about the authentic and genuine flair, folklore or traditions. Where else but in Ukraine might one see the coexistence of Soviet architectural or cultural aesthetics and the post-modern innovations of young artists? Then, there is Chernobyl and the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant – a real tourist magnet for foreigners from Europe and the United States, which can only be visited in Ukraine. Some people are attracted to a young European state only in terms of building their own business or investing in the economy, especially in the agricultural and energy sectors. The potential of this country and still many unoccupied business niches are very beneficial. Some people came to Ukraine for personal happiness, or in a rush for downshifting, or search of rural authenticity. Others came to share the modern expertise of projects, companies or ministries management.

According to official statistics, as of September 2019, almost 400,000 foreigners live in Ukraine based on a permanent (280,872  persons) or temporary (114,394 persons) residence permit. These and other data in the article do not include information from the temporarily annexed Crimea region, the city of Sevastopol, and parts of the temporarily occupied territories in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The number of former foreigners, and now the Ukrainian citizens with tridents in passports, is quite complicated to calculate for all the years that Ukraine has been independent. According to the latest data, in 2014, 7,777 foreigners acquired Ukrainian citizenship in one of two completely legal ways – by territorial origin, or based on a presidential decree. In 2015, their number amounted to 4723 people, in 2016 and 2017 – 4803 and 4581, respectively, while in 2018 this number was 4775. Residents of the Russian Federation, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, and Belarus apply to the State Migration Service for Ukrainian citizenship most often. Citizens of Jordan, Palestine, Iran, Latvia, Turkey and other countries are also interested in Ukrainian passports.

The fact that being a citizen of Ukraine has become more beneficial is evidenced, in particular, by the Quality of Nationality Index (QNI) from the global consulting company Henley & Partners. In the 2018 ranking, Ukraine occupied 80th place among 168 countries, while in 2013 it was ranked 74th. Of course, the leading countries, where many people dream of living, are France, Germany, and Iceland. But Ukrainian citizenship does not lag far behind but belongs to the “high-quality citizenship” category. The reasons are obvious, namely – a visa-free agreement with the European Union (EU), a vector to reforms, and International Monetary Fund (IMF) support. Some downward trends in the “Public Order and Stability” section are associated with the occupation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine’s famous sights, delicious cuisine, beautiful women, relatively low prices, a significant amount of alcohol in the lives of Ukrainians, and other appealing things can make exciting impressions on foreigners via a short visit to Ukraine as a tourist. By the way, in recent years, Ukraine was visited by about 22-25 million sightseers annually. According to the State Border Guard Service, in 2018, in addition to traditional visitors from Moldova (4.1 million), Belarus (2.5 million), Russia (1.5 million), and Poland (1 million), there was a significant increase in travel by citizens of Great Britain (33,000+), USA (30,000+), Germany (25,000+), Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, France, Sweden, Canada (a rise from 5,000 to 7,000), Spain, Italy, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, China (an increase from 10,000 t0 15,000), and Saudi Arabia and Japan (3,000+).

But to get to know people, to feel the rhythm and flavour of Ukrainian life, in a sense to create one’s history here, it is worth living in Ukraine for some time. We know many public or well-known people for whom Ukraine has become a home or a place of more or less permanent residence or work. The list of those who once acquired Ukrainian citizenship together with a promising ( or state) job includes ex-ministers Aivaras Abromavicius (Lithuania) and Natalia Yaresko (USA), former Odesa Regional State Administration head Mikheil Saakashvili, former the National Police head Khatia Dekanoidze and former Deputy Interior Minister Eka Zguladze (all from Georgia). There were many “legionnaires” in power, but some even succeed to relinquish Ukrainian citizenship. Former Minister of Health Ulyana Suprun (USA) remains active in civil life.

Among the foreign entrepreneurs about whom Ukrainian media like to write and shoot video reports is a farmer from Belgium, Bernard Willem, who set up a cheese and goat farm in the Dmytrovychi village, Lviv region. Since the farm was established with foreign investment, the pleasant moments of cheese-making development and his agricultural experience sharing with Ukrainian farmers were accompanied by regulators’ revisions, conflicts with the authorities, and attempts to involve La Ferme d’Elise in a murky corrupt system. However, Bernard and his Ukrainian spouse Maria managed to resist. They defended the right to do their business honestly and taught their employees to respect what they engage in. Now, Bernard’s farm is one of the showcase goat cheese farms in Ukraine.

The life of foreign volunteers who came to defend Ukraine’s East from Russian aggression can be called worthy of a film or a book. One of the most striking examples is Marko Paslavsky, a US citizen, a Manhattan native, a graduate of West Point (the most prestigious US military academy), and an officer who served in an elite unit. In 2014, at the age of 55, he volunteered for the Donbas Battalion. Before that, he was an active protester on the Maidan, and earlier one of the most successful investment consultants, who has made a career, wealth and reputation in Ukraine. He was sometimes called the CIA’s overseer of Ukraine and its development direction, the chief agent of changes from the United States. It is unclear what specifically inspired Paslavsky to make his choice and stand up for Ukraine: whether the memories of relatives, who emigrated to the United States from Ukraine in 1944, or his upbringing in a Ukrainian kindergarten and school in New Jersey, or first-class military and civilian training at West Point. Perhaps it was all at once. On 19 August, in the battle for Ilovaisk, Paslavsky was killed, fulfilling his duty as a soldier and defender of Ukraine. The bright memory of a warrior.

Some other foreigners who also contribute to Ukraine’s growth, have agreed to tell us about their impressions of life here and the general attitude towards Ukraine and Ukrainians.

For instance, Toralph Weise, a 53-year-old German citizen from Bautzen, has been working in Ukraine since 2001. Before that, he studied here in 1987-1992. An urban planning engineer by profession, Mr. Weise headed the Construction Industry Support Foundation for many years. He considers the material and technical base creation for teaching construction business to about 1,000 students of vocational schools to be one of the essential gains in his professional activity in Ukraine. “Just investments in vocational education and training have exceeded €3 million since 2008, and many specialised training events have been held for more than 500 students from 13 Ukrainian universities,” says Weise. In addition to professional achievements, according to Weise, Ukraine has made significant progress in political and social terms. Despite all the pauses, retreats, and well-known external factors that hinder economic progress, the overall development of Ukraine is positive. Weise is pleased that the image of Lenin and other Soviet symbols, which he faced during his studies, have disappeared from the Ukrainians’ daily life, and self-awareness of Ukrainian society has increased. “Of course, I had some difficulties with adaptation, but the fact that I have been working and living in Ukraine for 20 years speaks for itself. All the difficulties were not great enough to make me leave,” he jokes. Thanks to the German folk wisdom, which says that when you “come to another country, open your eyes first, and then your mouth,” it was easy for Weise to get used to the customs and life in Ukraine, to learn Russian, and to understand Ukrainian quite well. “The only thing I couldn’t get used to was the fact that sometimes the right angle here is not 90 degrees, but 87 or 93 degrees,” says Mr Weise, and “a nailed screw holds better than a screwed nail.” He also says that professional life is not so thoroughly planned as in Germany.

Weise also finds it very life-affirming and kind that Ukrainians still congratulate him, a German, on Victory Day. The German specialist is surprised by the ability of Ukrainians to experience almost everything robustly. “I still can’t understand how so many mothers and fathers with a minimum wage (income) go through this life, quite skilfully bringing up their children. I like Ukrainian humour, especially under difficult life circumstances. What I do not perceive and cannot understand is the Ukrainian attitude to the law and the legal system, as well as the numerous, odious, senseless fences and concrete walls that are around, especially in industrial areas,” he shares, sincerely. Avoiding direct advice, but through his professional experience and its application in Ukraine, Weise tries to communicate to his students that creativity and purposefulness in work are the essential prerequisites for professional achievements and correct life goals. The rest is work, knowledge, experience. At the same time, he always warns Ukrainians against ingrained stereotypes about Germans, who, in our imagination, “walk as stiff as a poker, almost have no sense of humour,” and that “everything that lies on the streets of Germany is gold.” Weise expressed his most cherished wish to all Ukrainians with a quote from Goethe: “To stand with free feet of free people on free land.”

Forty-three-year-old Islam Dababseh, a native of Hebron (Palestine), expressed a slightly different view of life in Ukraine. Mr. Dababseh came to Kyiv in 1996 at the age of 18. Here he graduated from the Bogomolets National Medical University, defended his dissertation and obtained the Candidate of Medical Sciences title. Then, he served as a cardiovascular surgeon at a public hospital for 15 years. However, the lack of public hospitals reformed by 2016 and the realities of theft and non-transparent tenders forced him to resign and get a Chief Physician position in a private clinic. According to Dababseh, or the “Islam doctor” as patients call him, his native Palestine is currently developing a bit faster than Ukraine, possibly because the state invests budget funds and modernises all sectors of the economy at once. Islam believes the reform process in Ukraine is slower, especially in medicine. But in his opinion, as an entrepreneur, doing business with foreign investments is better here. Although corruption in senior-level management often hinders during the issuance of various permits and certificates, once Dababseh adapted to Ukraine quickly, mastered Russian for a “better understanding of future patients by a good doctor” He was not offered the opportunity to study Ukrainian at that time, but he understands it well. A former Palestinian and a citizen of Ukraine now, he considers the stereotype that foreigners have no place here, that they take away Ukrainians’ jobs, the most unpleasant moment of his life in our country.  “Working in a public clinic, I was often asked what I was doing here, why I did not come back to my country after graduation? Such daily manifestations of xenophobia and disrespect for my nationality, tangentially or jokingly, were very depressing at first, because I never violated the rules of Ukrainian life or culture and did not allow such treatment of Ukrainians in my homeland. The adaptation and overlooking some trifling xenophobia made me understand that, in 25 years, I feel almost Ukrainian. I behave like a Ukrainian, and I highly estimate the opportunity to become a good specialist,” he shares.

The next of “our” foreigners, Mr. Alfred Praust, was born in Vienna, Austria. He visited Ukraine first in 2004 during the Orange Revolution, then travelled between Austria and Ukraine until 2008, until settling in Kyiv in 2009. An MBA Fellow at the Austrian University of Economics, he made a great career in industry and engineering and then came to Ukraine by accident, being invited by a family friend during a creative holiday after the successful restructuring of a companies’ group in Austria. Then, he helped a friend with the implementation of his projects and founded two companies in Kyiv and then later in Transcarpathia. When the 2008/2009 crisis started and his first companies got closed, Praust did not leave Ukraine. He launched another happy project, by marrying a Ukrainian (a well-known soloist of the National Opera of Ukraine, Susanna Chakhoyan) and raising a son.

Since 2009, he has accompanied and advised different businesses about bilateral Ukrainian-Austrian projects. But a small number of such projects, even after the 2013 Revolution of Dignity, prompted him to establish the Ukrainian-Austrian Association (UAA) in 2017 as a platform for cultural, social, and business projects and events. It is difficult to find one more person among foreigners in Ukraine, who is doing so much for the development of bilateral (and not only bilateral) ties, cultivating cultural and business diplomacy. Last, but not least, in 2019, Praust was elected to the position of General Secretary of the International Council of Business Associations and Chambers in Ukraine. Moreover, the Association founded by him was also invited to join. According to Praust, some things have changed for the better in Ukraine. We became more oriented to the West, which is confirmed by the Association Agreements with the EU and the visa-free regime. We have a sufficient level of freedom of speech, especially in social media, which is an achievement of the Orange Revolution. Love for the country has strengthened in Ukraine due to Russian aggression in Crimea and Donbas. “Ukrainians have greatly changed their mentality from post-Soviet to global. Some industries have ‘flourished,’ including IT or the agricultural sector. In general, in macroeconomic terms, now Ukraine looks more stable, partially due to the pressure on reforms by the International Monetary Fund.” Praust is pleased for Ukrainians. Among the negative issues, he notes the oligarchs still wielding strong power and influence, the existence of monopolies in certain sectors, the endless judicial reform, and only a slight reduction in corruption in recent years. All these things, he says, cause a lack of trust among foreign investors and business. The level of investment needed for prosperity and growth is not at all as it might be. Sometimes there is a workforce shortage for certain projects, caused by labour migration to the West. Therefore, changes and improvements in Ukraine, according to Praust, will not happen as fast as the government promises. The difference in culture and mentality also impacts the culture of doing business. That often prevents Ukrainians from doing business successfully in Western Europe, and Europeans – from doing business in Ukraine. Sometimes it even seems to Praust that the number of Ukrainian projects in Western Europe is greater than the number of Western projects here. “Every time I return to Ukraine from Austria, I get a cultural shock. A small example: I’m not a very diligent driver, like the majority of Ukrainians. I often receive fines in the first days of my stay in Austria. On my return to Ukraine, I keep on following the traffic rules strictly, and that causes sneers from the Ukrainian drivers. What Ukrainian does not consider a foreigner who moves at a speed of 60 km/h to be fun? At the same time, my life in Ukraine has helped me to expand my experience and horizons, and I am grateful to you for that. I became convinced that ordinary people are generally friendly and hospitable, as I had felt this once in my childhood in Austria. And they do not cause the problems in Ukraine. I do not speak Russian or Ukrainian, but I do not face significant communication problems, especially in business circles. I consider transferring my expertise in Western standards of communication and management for successful business my contribution to Ukraine,” he admits.

Another example of a foreigner who has fallen in love with Ukraine is Mr. Roman Chechek. He was born in Odesa but moved to Israel when a teenager. For the first time since then, he returned to Ukraine in 2014 after Maidan. One of the reasons to come back was love with a girl from Kyiv and a joint decision to live here. A chef by profession, Chechek started his own business – a street food brand with the folk name ‘Didko’ [Didko in Ukrainian means a devil]. Later, he founded a small farm with his wife Julia and their two young daughters. And all that was done in a big city! Comparing life in Israel and Ukraine, Roman assesses the standard of living in Israel including social conditions, wages, lower levels of corruption as higher, but emphasises his admiration for the patriotic rise in Ukraine and hopes for the best. After leaving Israel, Roman quickly adapted to the rules of Ukrainian life, and the very fact of his birth in Ukraine increased his sincere patriotism and speed in mastering Ukrainian. He got acquainted with the best people of Kyiv, learned the language, and did not hesitate to speak with mistakes, due to his previous experience of moving to Israel and diving into a new language and mentally different environment. “I get irritated when a person like me, who has lived here just four years – can speak Ukrainian, but somebody who has been living here all his life cannot or does not want to. I organise master classes: I teach people to cook various dishes of Israeli cuisine. I always study something. For example, I was in the Ivano-Frankivsk region last year, studying blacksmithing there. Hopefully, I will go this year as well. Ukrainians taught me not to give up, even when it’s hard, and I want to cry and kick myself. I knew how to do it before, but in Ukraine, I’ve honed that skill,” Chechek says. The experience of serving in the Israeli army, and the worldview nurtured there, gives Chechek grounds to motivate Ukrainians to value their army, volunteers, public figures, artists, and the Motherland in general. He emphasises that he came from a country where customs and holidays, as well as love for the Motherland, are a sacred duty. “I like it here. I am a full member of society. I feel free. However, I still do not quite understand how some Ukrainians (not even so old) miss the Soviet Union, Russia, how they sincerely believe populist promises. Here, both me and Ukrainians still have to work and work on ourselves,” Chechek admits.

So, foreigners have their way in Ukraine, their own experience of getting used to Ukraine and adapting to life here. But almost every case tells us about their respect for us, a sense of solidarity with us, and their conscientious work for the benefit of Ukraine to develop and move closer to Europe. And we, Ukrainians, are also motivated by this.

Inna Krupnik is a journalist, marketer and advertising specialist.

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