Sunday 21 January 2018

A decent man in a country beset by appalling corruption and infighting


I asked Poroshenko if he trusted Vladimir Putin, his erstwhile negotiating partner.
I asked Poroshenko if he trusted Vladimir Putin, his erstwhile negotiating partner. "Trust?" he replied. Poroshenko looked astonished at the suggestion. "No, no." (REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin)

Fergal Keane

The President was running late. He had a day full of meetings and there was much to be done to get ready for an EU summit in Riga. Security men, press officers, civil servants of one kind and another, came and went, full of the business of those required to be busy.

The vast presidential building in Kiev is a good place to contemplate the history of Ukraine. It dates from the time of the Tsars but has been home to Stalin's butchers, the Nazis, the party functionaries of the late USSR and now the democratically elected government of an independent Ukraine.

The murders of millions were directed from under the high ceilings of this place. Alfred Rosenberg, the master ideologue of Nazi racial theory, ruled the eastern occupied territories from here and Nikolai Yezhov, architect of Stalin's Great Terror, purged with abandon before falling victim himself to the torture chamber and firing squad. It isn't the hand of history you feel here, but its cold, steely claw.

By contrast to such monstrous predecessors, President Petro Poroshenko can only seem benign. A billionaire who made his fortune in the chocolate industry, Poroshenko was elected after the mass pro-European demonstrations of last year. He comes across as a decent man, although his country is beset by appalling corruption, endemic political infighting and a reliance on militias rooted in far-right politics to fight the Russian-backed rebellion in the east. Tall and heavyset, he swept out of the lift and beckoned me to follow him on a tour of the corridors where giant photographs of Ukraine's war heroes had been erected. "I go to the funerals and I talk to the families," he told me. I sensed a weariness about the man. With the Americans showing signs of a rapprochement with the Russians, the EU incapable of forming a coherent policy and his own army badly led, trained and equipped, Poroshenko knows he has few real friends.

For this is the world we live in now. What the Ukrainians and many other weaker nations across the globe are learning is that they must look out for themselves. So they will start building up their own military strength. We can look forward to a whole panoply of regional arms races.

I asked Poroshenko if he trusted Vladimir Putin, his erstwhile negotiating partner. "Trust?" he replied. Poroshenko looked astonished at the suggestion. "No, no."

So how, I wondered, did he negotiate with someone he couldn't trust. "I have no choice," he said.

* * *

A day's journey east and we entered the land of dead coal mines and old collective farms. In the abandoned villa of a local notable, requisitioned by the army, we were presented with a sheet of paper to sign: we the undersigned acknowledge that the Ukrainian army bears no responsibility for our safety. We are responsible for our own lives. Or words to that effect. The last line read like a phrase from a self-help manual. No sooner had we left the building than the shells started to come in. I hate, hate the sound of artillery finding its range. Closer, closer, closer until you can see the flames of the impact and the windows rattle. We raced away from the direction of the incoming fire. And then we waited. I called the team together. "How does everybody feel about going back in?" There is a golden rule here. The team follows the instinct of the most cautious person. If one person is afraid we stay out. This takes trust in each other. Nobody must feel under pressure. And it is only possible when you work with people you know and care for. We decided to try and reach the embattled village. And so we waited for the proverbial 'decent interval' and then drove back along the road towards Peski. The ruined houses came into view. Our indefatigable driver Sasha gunned the engine to get us swiftly over the last exposed stretch of ground.

That night we stayed with Anatoly and Svetlana. They are both nearly 70 and have been in love since they were 16. The couple are among the handful of people who have stayed on in Peski, refusing to leave and join their children in the city. Anatoly keeps bees, his own and those of neighbours who have fled. Svetlana grows vegetables and rears hens. Their field, battered by mortar shells, still produces food for themselves and their few elderly neighbours. I felt privileged to meet them, to share their table and their decency. Throughout the night the shelling ruptured our sleep. Military drones flickered below the stars. All around us men were dealing in death. But I felt safe with the Beekeeper of Peski and his wife.

* * *

Home to news of the FIFA scandal. It reminded me of the pseudo shock which greeted the public unravelling of Charlie Haughey. We knew about it all along but very few had the guts to say or write anything. Before ranting, I need to express certain caveats: I enjoy football but am at heart a rugby man; my only experience of sports journalism is as a rugby correspondent many years ago in Limerick, and of a few nights covering for the Greyhound racing correspondent on the Limerick Leader. But I do believe the failings exposed in the FIFA story have wider lessons for all in journalism.

Blatter and his cronies are only under the spotlight because of a few dogged individuals on BBC Panorama and the Sunday Times. The vast majority of football journalists failed to hold power to account. Why did this happen? Why were so few brave enough to dig and dig until they uncovered the truth? A large part of it has to do with simply not wanting the aggravation that comes with upsetting powerful people.

Irish politicians and churchmen were able to get away with appalling misdeeds thanks to the media's aversion to afflicting the powerful.

Now that a brave few have made it safe for the many there is no shortage of horror and outrage on our front pages and screens.

But when they are finished demolishing FIFA the princes of the football media should look to themselves.

Fergal Keane is the BBC Special Correspondent

Sunday Independent

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