AMONG the 3,000 inhabitants of the village of Chervone, 60 kilometres (37 miles) east of Lviv, and a two-hour drive from Ukraine’s border with Poland, support was strong for the initial demands of the protesters in Kiev that Ukraine move towards European Union membership. Vassilek, an unemployed 22 year-old graduate of a vocational school, travelled three times by marshrutka (microbus) to the capital to show his solidarity (pictured are protest supporters from Lviv in Kiev). He carries the Ukrainian and EU ribbons in his lapel. Vassilek and everyone he knows sighed with relief when Viktor Yanukovych, the former president, fled the country.
In Chervone and in many similar villages in this part of Ukraine the economy is hurting so work abroad has become a survival technique. "Abroad" is either Russia or EU countries, rarely the distant America. A prospect of EU membership could mean the end of the visas requirement for trips to Poland and other EU countries. But “of course nothing has changed yet on this front”, says Maryan, who sometimes has construction jobs in Moscow. A visa requirement for trips to Russia, on the other hand, could be imposed in a matter of days.
Russia is hardly anyone’s first choice as a destination. The trip costs $100 and employers there treat Ukrainians with contempt if not open racism, complains Maryan. In Chervone almost every family has someone working in Poland. Men find seasonal work in agriculture or on construction sites whereas women take housework, cleaning jobs or care for children and the elderly. (Unscientific polls among Poles give them excellent ratings and many of these Ukrainki are fully integrated with their Polish host families.) Some 300.000 Ukrainians are said to work in Poland or, more rarely, in the Czech Republic, Germany or Italy. Most operate illegally, on tourist visas, and come from nearby western Ukraine. Many are of Polish or mixed descent and still speak Polish. Until 1939, when the Soviet Union used the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact to annex western Ukraine, the regional capital, Lviv, was called Lwów and part of Poland.
In Soviet times, Chervone and neighbouring Zolochiv had five factories. They made meat, paper, Wellington boots, radio parts and clothes and employed thousands people. These days only one is still operating and unemployment is rampant. "Unless someone in the family works outside Ukraine they eat nothing but bread and potatoes", says Anna. Of both her and her sister Katerina’s families (eleven adults it total) only Anna’s son Taras has work. His job as a security guard pays 1700 hryvnia or some $200 a month. So the main breadwinners are Anna and Katerina, who are live-in carers for elderly people in Warsaw, taking home $600 a month each, with food and accommodation provided. Not only is Anna’s Polish salary three times higher than Taras’s, but prices in Poland are also lower than in Ukraine. So Anna and Katerina are not transferring dollars to their families back in Chervone; they dispatch packages with coffee, detergent, clothes and meat by marshrutka.
As they sit down to breakfast in respectively Warsaw and Chervone, mother and son look at their buying power: With her monthly salary Anna can buy 1,000 loafs of Polish bread, whereas Taras’s monthly pay in Chervone would allow him to buy only 400 Ukrainian loafs; Anna could buy 930 litres of milk, her son only 250 litres; Anna can theoretically spend her entire salary on 80 kilos of coffee, but Taras could afford only 12 kilos of coffee. When it comes to prices of cigarettes, vodka and electricity, Ukrainians are better off in the salary-to-price ratio than Poles, but can they wait for better times smoking themselves to death, and getting drunk in cheaply lit rooms?
The temporary employees from Ukraine in Poland see what relatively good roads, a more efficient transport system, a relatively functioning tax system and a sound health service look like. No wonder they want the same for Ukraine. Glued to their TV sets in Warsaw, Anna and Katerina are trying to understand which direction their country will go—and are grateful for their pay in Poland. Yet back in Chervone Vassilek is not ready to relocate: "We do not want to have to go to Europe, we went to the Maidan so that Europe comes to Ukraine".