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Promoting the UK in Odessa

September 4, 2015

This afternoon some time was spent with the new Political Attaché to UK Embassy Kyiv.  If there is ever an interesting time to be given such an appointment, and a need to climb a very steep learning curve very quickly in an ever changing environment, being dropped into Ukraine now is probably one of the most challenging – certainly within the European continent.

Indeed, the UK Embassy Kyiv has increased its modest staffing – modestly.  No longer in London is there a single person charged with looking at matters Ukrainian – there is now a team.

Whilst Ukraine is certainly not the atop of the UK foreign policy agenda – until “EU renegotiations” and the “in/out” referendum of the EU has passed and been taken off the table, that will clearly dominate UK foreign policy.  There is also ISIS and the refugee issues to consider.  Thus Ukraine probably sits third or perhaps fourth on the UK foreign policy agenda.

Of all the issues discussed, past, present and future with regard to the politics of Odessa (and to a lesser degree Ukraine) – a very good question was asked.

If there was a message to Whitehall about how better to project the UK and its influence in Odessa, what would it be?

Uk-Ukraine-flags

To answer that question, it is first necessary to recognise what Odessa is.

First and foremost it is a cosmopolitan and mercantile city.

That is the foundation for understanding the city.  Without first recognising the fact that it is a cosmopolitan and mercantile city above all other factors, is to fail to understand Odessa.  Race, religion, politics et al are secondary.

Indeed there are perhaps two truisms often heard in Odessa to seriously consider.

The first is that “Ukraine is Ukraine, but Odessa is Odessa.”

The second is that “I can show you where all my money came from – just don’t ask about the first million.”

Odessa is often described as politically apathetic – by those who do not sit around the kitchen tables of Odessa.  Yet it is true that politics is certainly secondary to what drives and sits highest within the psyche of Odessa.  Its cosmopolitan merchantability.

Odessa is a rich city with a large, stable and established middle class.  It is possible to count more new BMWs, Mercedes, Porsche, Lexus, Bentley’s, etc in 30 minutes in Odessa, than you can count in the vast majority of British cities in a week.

If there was ever a way to insure Odessa remained (at least conditionally) loyal to Kyiv, sanctions upon Crimea and the Crimean ports insured that conditionality, or at least went a long way in doing so.   That, and to be blunt, the fact that Odessa has always enjoyed giving “the finger to the man” and giving “the finger” to Kyiv prima facie seemed far easier (having done it for the past two decades) than to The Kremlin which may be perceived to have a far more robust grip on its provinces than Kyiv.

In short the loyalty of Odessa to Kyiv is conditional upon whoever is in charge in Kyiv not interfering too greatly in the cosmopolitan mercantile beat of the city – unless that interference improves the opportunities for those two core and interwoven themes.  This has been, and will remain the case, regardless of who is in power.

There are of course many other factors as to why Kyiv was chosen over the Kremlin, but be in no doubt that the perceived fumbling hand of Kyiv was preferred over the perceived iron hand of The Kremlin when it came to preserving the cosmopolitan mercantile Odessa so dear to all in Odessa regardless of political preferences.  The thought of sanctions as Crimea was subjected to would be unthinkable.

The two main “takeaways” from all the words above for Whitehall are therefore trade and culture.

(Likewise for Kyiv to retain and improve upon the conditional support of Odessa politically, these two issue should be core to any plan it may have toward the Oblast and the city.)

The UK, aside from a very meek and quiet British Council at Bolshoi Fantan 5, has absolutely no official representation in Odessa – despite almost 30 (some Honorary) consuls being in the city.

However, there is not the UK presence in Odessa to warrant an official/diplomatic presence.  There are about 85 permanently resident British citizens, and less than £1 billion in UK interests (and a lot of that is UK registered companies owned by Ukrainian citizens).  Honorary Consuls are either in or out of fashion with the UK.  They are currently out of fashion – thus when the local diplomatic community gather and chit-chat, the UK misses out upon who has heard what about whom etc.  This in part leads to a lack of understanding of Odessa and what goes on behind the curtain.

To be entirely blunt, the reason why this blog has certain IPs reading it daily, and why so many diplomats make time for face to face conversations (not withstanding emails) is that it acts as an English language source of information.  Their time is not given due to your author’s good looks, wit, charm and personality – it is given for what your author knows, who your author knows and what can be discovered if necessary.  The blog and its author form part of the diplomatic network of  sources in the city for numerous nations and entities.

So, in light of the fact that there is no, and will be no official UK presence in Odessa, how to project the UK’s influence?

Despite the modest increase in UK Embassy staff, there are not the staff numbers to assign a UK diplomat to Odessa Oblast in order to attend the “official opening of an official envelope” every time an “official envelope” is opened and the diplomatic community are invited to attend.

Even then, being seen by a close circle of people, often behind the curtain, does not necessarily equate to being seen to be seen and projecting influence within the local constituency.

There is of course “e-diplomacy” and a good concept it is – but it is important to recognise the limits of e-diplomacy and social media in general.  (Recent and on-going academic research into the role of social media and EuroMaidan suggests a far more limited mobilisation role than many many think.)

Thus, however and whatever those in Whitehall consider the best possible way to project UK influence into Odessa, it should seriously consider the limitations of e-diplomacy and social media.  The answer lies withing understanding the cultural cosmopolitan mercantile nature of the city and manipulating/leveraging/employing those core themes.

The UK therefore, being if nothing else a mercantile nation with a culture and institutions held in high esteem (wrongly perceived or otherwise) by many in Odessa, has a solid shared platform from which it can project.

Therefore it is perhaps time to toss some less than erudite, low budget thoughts out there that can be particular to the UK, rather than EU labeled.

There are plenty of affluent middle class parents in Odessa that would happily pay to send their children to UK universities.  Specifically Russell Group universities (of which your author went to one).  Unfortunately if the Russell Group look at official economic statistics, rather than at the real wealth on display every minute of every day in Odessa, targeting Ukraine (and by extension Odessa) will not be high upon their agenda.

This, it has to be said is a perception that Whitehall can do something to change – for Whitehall is very well aware of the affluence upon display in the major cities of Ukraine.  UK diplomats in Ukraine are not blind, and hopefully their messaging back to Whitehall underlines the difference between official “wealth” statistics and what is visible every day.

It should be noted that Poland is significantly increasing its scholarships with Ukraine and Odessa – the reason being Poland is worried about the continued “Soviet style” of education and the effect on Ukrainian youth.

Further Whitehall can get behind, and perhaps assist, the fledgling romances amongst academia between the UK and Ukraine, both complimentary to existing UK and EU programmes, but also the bespoke, such as that beginning to evlove between Kings College London, Kyiv National Economics University and Odessa Mechnikov University (a relationship that remains grant-less/fundingless).

Not only do such things increase revenues for the UK education system in the immediate term, but it creates an alumni legacy that will eventually climb the corporate and governmental ladders in Ukraine – and that can only assist the UK in the future.

There is then the mercantile nature of Odessa and the UK.

There is a good deal of trade in Odessa that contractually nominates the courts of Stockholm or London as courts of arbitration.  Thus despite the perception of lawlessness and corporate risk, the bigger deals and dealers in Odessa already contractually nominate the London courts as the place of arbitration.  That is not likely to change, for the London (and Stockholm) courts are deemed to be free of bias and/or influence.  Contractually stipulating London as the court of arbitration will not phase the merchants/business people of Odessa.  Many would prefer to avoid the Ukrainian courts wherever possible.

The UK Bribery Act is also a useful tool if dropped into negotiation conversation to keep matters on the straight and narrow when the full extent of its reach explained and possible Visa complications it may create for any applicant (even if the UK is perhaps not as diligent as it could be when enforcing the Act).

Trade perhaps should be left to another entry in and of itself when 1st January gets closer and the EU-Ukraine DCFTA enters into force.

Odessa is also a very humorous city, it has a vibrant creative class and has had successive local administrations that have understood the need to put on events to satisfy those societal needs.

One thing that Odessa often does is “Day’s of (insert nation)” where the nation in question is promoted.  (A recent “hit” with the local population was the “Day of Vietnam”).  Vietnam did its best to sell itself by way of trade, tourism and culture to the local constituency, and the local constituency obliged.

Poland and Greece seem to have them quite frequently – certainly annually.

There has never been a “Day of the UK” in Odessa.

With some thought and planning, preferably in the warmer months, it would perhaps be possible to combine a Russell Group, UKTI, British Council, Ukraine-British Chamber of Commerce, “Day of the UK” in Odessa.

If there was a way to entice a free performance similar to the “Last Night” – which is by its nature “interactive” and would appeal due to that peculiarity, for an audience sat upon the Potemkin Stairs – the construction of which was supervised by a British engineer called Upton whilst on the run from the UK wanted on forgery charges – it would be a “Day of” that would remain firmly in the minds of the local constituency far longer than most others – and that is in some way UK projection into Odessa that may lead to traction where there is currently almost none.

Indeed, as “The Proms” was meant to bring classical music to the masses in the UK (and swiftly became a popular institution), perhaps some clever thinking along such lines in bringing the UK to the masses in Odessa would be worth the time.  Especially if it is “interactive” in style like the “Last Night”.

Whatever the case, however the answer to the question manifests itself within Whitehall, to effectively project the UK specifically within Odessa, the answer can only be based upon, or perhaps around, a cultural, cosmopolitan, mercantile foundation – for that is what makes the Odessa heart beat.

Whitehall would be wise to forget any other platforms based upon its limited budgets, modest diplomatic staffing in Kyiv, and in the absence of a permanent official presence in Odessa.

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