Category Archives: Courts and law

“Where Is the Closest Tiki Bar?”

tiki_barBy Peter Galuszka

Often times, blog commenters really hit the nail on the head. This is the case with “Virginiagal2” who responded to my blog post earlier this week that Richmond’s schools are decrepit and crumbling, as Style Weekly detailed in a recent cover story.

They note that Richmond’s elite has done little for its public schools while chasing higher-profile and extraneous projects such as a summer training camp for the Washington Redskins and a new baseball stadium for the Minor League AA Flying Squirrels.

Schools? What schools?

Blog posts also note that NFL football star Russell Wilson, a Richmonder, stayed at private Collegiate school after his father saw academics as more important than sports and blunted maneuvers by Richmond public schools to recruit Wilson during his school years.

Part of the problem, as Virginiagal2 notes, is that Richmond’s select and self-appointed “leadership” ignores the city’s serious problems while they embark another pointless road trip to another city, typically in the sunny South, to gather ideas on how they should proceed with their (how to describe?) “leadership.”

Just a week or so ago, about 160 of Richmond’s “leaders” were bopping around Tampa, sampling its eateries and noting the watery views. The biggest cheerleader for these junkets is The Richmond Times-Dispatch, which is very much a propaganda organ of the area’s chamber of commerce. Its publisher Thomas A. Silvestri was chamber chair a few years back yet few commented on the potential conflict of interest. On the Tampa trip, the editor of the editorial pages wrote a supposedly cute series of reports in a “postcard” (ha-ha) style about the Tampa trip. Here’s one tidbit:

“About 160 Richmonders will spend three days sipping from Tampa’s version of youth’s fabled fountain. Where oh where is the closest tiki bar?”

I couldn’t have said that better myself. Next, I’d like to copy what Virginiagal2 had to say in response to my blog. She absolutely nails it:

“The cost of sending a kid to Collegiate is beyond a lot of young families. What do you think those Richmond families value the most – a sports team that has around 5,000 people attend games, or a good safe public school for their kids? The RTD has been shilling for the stadium for months – when’s the last time the RTD advocated for money for better city schools? Do you ever remember them encouraging businesses to partner with city schools? Advocate for vouchers, yes – advocate for baseball, yes – improve the overall public schools, no.

‘nuf said.

Why Five Ex-Attorneys General Are So Wrong

mcdonnells arraignedBy Peter Galuszka

The practice of law in Virginia is supposed to be an honorable profession.

The state, which produced such orators as Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson, loves its lawyers perhaps much more than individuals who actually create or do something of value. It could be why the state has so many of them.

This makes a filing in the McDonnell corruption case by five former attorneys general all the more despicable. The bunch includes both parties and is made up of Andrew P. Miller, J. Marshall Coleman, Mary Sue Terry, Stephen D. Rosenthal and Mark L. Earley.

They want corruption charges thrown out against former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, who, with his wife, has been indicted on 14 federal corruption charges. Their trial, expected in July, will explore charges they misused their position to help a dietary supplement maker who showered them with more than $165,000 in personal gifts and loans.

The five attorneys general claim that there is no clear evidence the McDonnells did anything wrong. Odd, but I thought lawyers knew enough not to try and bias a case that has been through the indictment and arraignment phase and is due for trial but then I didn’t go to law school.

Their other reason is actually more upsetting. Their filing claims that future governors might be reluctant to invite state business leaders on foreign trade missions or to host campaign donors at the governors mansion, according to The Washington Post.

Huh? I don’t see the connection. Of course, governor’s can host trade missions. They can invite people to the Executive Mansion. It’s just that, in the process, the governors can’t reasonably be OK with accepting a $6,500 Rolex from the head of Kia Motors or a special loan for his failing beach houses from the local rep of Rolls Royce North America.

It is stunning that the five attorneys general are caught up in “the Virginia Way” of having hardly any controls on gift giving and spending that everything is OK. They also can’t seem to move beyond the conceit that  anyone who occupies the governor’s chair must naturally be an honest gentleman or gentlewoman.

This kind of thinking helps explain nothing substantive has been done to reform the state’s ethics laws. I can give you five reasons why.

An Ex-Coal Baron’s Strange Movie

Blankenship

Blankenship

By Peter Galuszka

Almost four years after 29 miners employed by then Richmond-based Massey Energy were killed in a West Virginia mine explosion, its former chief executive under federal investigation for widespread safety violations has come forward with an apparently self-funded “documentary” proclaiming his innocence.

Donald Blankenship released the film “Upper Big Branch, Never Again” this week which reiterates his claims that he and the firm were innocent of wrongdoing and that an unexpected flood of natural gas and meddling by federal regulators caused the blast.

Three investigations have cited Blankenship and Massey for a culture of cost-cutting  and ignoring safety problems. So far, four former Massey employees have been imprisoned for related convictions.

The strange, 51-minute film brought immediate demands for its retraction by U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia who claims he did not know of Blankenship’s involvement when was interviewed for the film  being played on YouTube. Manchin is shown making what seem to be supportive statements of coal in general and, presumably, Blankenship.

The film also features interviews with E. Morgan Massey, a retired Massey executive who lives in Richmond. Another is University of Utah mining professor named Tom Hethmon who has told National Public Radio that he was also misled about the film and wants nothing to do with it.

The movie was made by a Chesapeake –based firm called Adroit Films whose officials have refused to tell reporters who funded the production.

In the film, Blankenship, Massey and Stanley Suboleski, a former Massey director who lives in Chesterfield County, repeat earlier claims that the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va. on April 5, 2010 was caused by an unexpected flood of natural gas. The explosion was affected by what Blankenship claims were wrong-headed demands by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to change the ventilation system which stretches for more than seven miles underground.

An MSHA probe along with one ordered by Manchin when he was state governor claim that the blast was caused when badly-maintained mining equipment hit a pocket of gas that touched off a huge coal dust explosion. The company was required but failed to keep highly combustible coal dust at bay by spraying mine shafts with powdered limestone, investigators say.

After he was forced out as Massey’s CEO in 2010 and the company was sold in 2011 for $7 billion to Alpha Natural Resources of Bristol, Blankenship kept a low profile.  He stirred to life about a year ago when he launched a website offering his views that coal is overregulated and that global warming is a hoax.He is also well-known for his staunchly anti-labor views and his support for mountaintop removal mining methods that are highly destructive of watersheds, wildlife and landscapes.

The film also shows footage of President Barack Obama as if to suggest a connection between him and the mine blast. At the time, Obama had been in office for a little more than a year. In other words, if he mangled the coal industry, he did so in a remarkably short period of time. The film also revives “War on Coal” footage shot during the 2012 presidential campaign. It tends to suggest that the coal mined at Upper Big Branch was used to generate electricity for America’s benefit when, in fact, all of it was of a metallurgical variety bound for export to foreign steel mills.

Another odd aspect of the film is why Manchin would agree to an interview with filmmakers he did not know. When I was researching my 2012 book “Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal” (St. Martin’s Press), I could only talk to Manchin and other elected officials at public events, although Massey, Suboleski and other former company officials spoke with me at length. Blankenship declined to be interviewed.

Federal prosecutors in West Virginia say that their ongoing probe may extend to top officers and directors of the defunct firm. It is unclear why Blankenship made the movie now.

Full Disclosure: I have been interviewed and have acted as an unpaid consultant for an upcoming documentary  titled “Blood on the Mountain” produced by Evening Star Productions.

The Terrible Link Between Income and Longevity

RAM in Wise County

RAM in Wise County

By Peter Galuszka

Call it a tale of two Virginias.

One is rich with military retirees, ample benefits and gated communities. The other is remote, poor and polluted, where the life expectancy for men is merely 64 years.

The former is Fairfax County at the heart of NOVA, Virginia’s economic engine, the land of federal largesse. The other is 350 miles away in McDowell County, in the coal belt of southern West Virginia just a stone’s throw from the Old Dominion border.

In one of the best and most glaring reporting of income disparity in this country, Annie Lowery of The New York Times lays out the stunning contrasts in two very different places maybe a six-hour car ride distant. The nut of her report is that higher income means longer lives thanks to better access to decent food, retirement benefits and medical care.

In Fairfax County, men live to be 82 and women 85. In McDowell County, men (as noted) live to 64 and women to 73. Even more astonishing is that this is happening in 21st century America, the supposed land of plenty. If ever there were a call to do something about health care, this is it.

Think what you will about the Affordable Care Act, the prior system of managed care with Big Insurance calling the shots just isn’t working. One also wonders, in the case of McDowell, where Medicaid and Medicare are. Where are the benefits from the coal companies that used to dominate employment in the area?

This hits home for me because I grew up partially in West Virginia when my father, a Navy doctor, decided to retire and go into practice there. I also traveled about researching a recent book on the coal industry. I spent a lot of time in Mingo County, the next one over from McDowell. I drove plenty of times through the small town of Williamson, a major rail marshaling yard, and was struck by how many elderly people I saw pacing slowly with oxygen tanks strapped to their aluminum walkers. Coal-related black lung? Too many cigarettes? Breathing air dirty from coal trains and trucks  and strip mines? Over in Fairfax, people of a similar age are more likely to be in a warm swimming pool at an aquatic aerobics class.

Back in the Appalachians, one morning my photographer Scott Elmquist and I were traveling from Kentucky back into Mingo County and I happened to see a Remote Area Medical free clinic at a high school in Pikesville. We turned in and found more than 1,000 people thronging the gymnasium floor waiting for doctors or for their turns at the more than seven dozen dental chairs for free care they couldn’t otherwise afford. Some I spoke with had been waiting there since 1:30 that morning. RAM runs a circuit that includes Wise County in Virginia, also in coal country.

So how did these people slip through the cracks? The Times notes that in McDowell, there aren’t any organic food stores or Whole Foods. The place in inundated with fast food and convenience stores that sell ready-to-go hot dogs, energy drinks and salty chips.

Another reason is the connection with the coal industry which has been so lucrative over the years that it should have provided plenty for the elderly. Instead, as coal seams play out and natural gas usurps coal’s role in electricity generation, coal firms are setting up to skedaddle. One is Patriot Coal, an offshoot of St. Louis giant Peabody, that took over its Appalachian interests so the mother firm could concentrate on richer areas in the U.S. West and Asia. Patriot was set up to fail and perhaps take retirement benefits with it. It’s an obvious scam. You spin something off to get some distance between you and having to pay pensions and health benefits.

Another factor is what they are doing with the local environment. Mountaintop removal is a powerful instrument in places around McDowell. At the blog Blue Virginia, they ran an intriguing map showing just how this highly destructive form of mining that rips up thousands of acres overlays with high poverty areas. Out of sight out of mind. It’s a shame how many in the green movement are forgetting the horrors of mountaintop to beat up on fracking which may be closer to home for them. Continue reading

No Negative Coal Poetry, Please

WV Governor's ArtsBy Peter Galuszka

Meanwhile, over in West Virginia, the long arm of King Coal reaches over to a high school poetry reading.

Grace Pitt, a Hurricane High School student, wanted to read a poem by Charleston poet Crystal Good about Richmond-based Massey Energy’s April 5, 2010, disaster at its Upper Big Branch mine that killed 29 men. The reading was to be held at the West Virginia Governor’s Arts Awards ceremony this week.

The poem describes how the disaster, the deadliest in this country in 40 years, created 29 black diamonds “in what they call a ‘mine disaster’; others ‘industrial homicide.’ (The United Mine Workers of American titled their report on Upper Big Branch as “industrial homicide.”)

According to the Charleston Gazette, before the reading, Tabitha Walter, grants coordinator for the Division of Culture and History and a sponsor of the ceremony, emailed that “I really hate to do this, but because your poem deals with coal and many state representatives will be there, our director wants you to choose a different poem.”

The email went viral and the push back was so strong that the state department backed down.

The poem will be read Thursday.

It is not unusual in the coalfields for coal companies and other energy firms to bankroll cultural events and perhaps maintain some degree of control over them. Alpha Natural Resources, the Bristol-Va.-based coal firm that bought Massey, funds “Mountain Stage,” a roots and folk music program with a national audience that is produced by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

The public broadcasting group also recently ran a soft documentary that noted how natural gas has been drilled for years in the Mountain State. The film was an apparent propaganda effort to smooth public acceptance of using controversial “fracking” to reach Marcellus Shale gas fields.

Coal Giant Alpha Pays Biggest Water Fine Ever

MTRBy Peter Galuszka

Alpha Natural Resources of Bristol, the coal giant that took over troubled Massey Energy of Richmond in 2011, has the dubious honor paying the highest fines ever of $27.5 million for water pollution violations at its coal mining operations in five Appalachian states, including Virginia.

Massey Energy, the owner of the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia where an explosion killed 29 miners in the worst such disaster in the U.S. in 40 years, held the previous water pollution fine record of $20 million issued in 2008.

The Environmental Protection Agency says that from 2006 to 2013, Alpha and its subsidiaries violated water pollution permits 6,000 times and allowed toxic materials such as heavy metals into streams and the watersheds of Tennessee, West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania besides Virginia. The firm will also pay $200 million to reduce such toxic discharges.

The settlement comes after a pair of unrelated water pollution situations involving coal in West Virginia and North Carolina. Some 300,000 residents of the Charleston area went without drinking water for several days when a toxic chemical used to treat coal leaked into a river. Duke Energy faces fines in North Carolina for improperly maintaining its coal ash storage facilities, leading to a substantial spill into the Dan River which provides drinking water for Danville and eventually, Virginia Beach.

Alpha has touted its “Running Right” safety and management program as it absorbed Massey Energy and its rich coal reserves in a $7 billion deal. Alpha said it was retraining Massey workers who had suffered from Massey’s abusive corporate culture that cut corners on mine safety and environmental control, regulators say.

Alpha had agreed to pay $200 million in a deal with the U.S. Attorney’s Office of Southern West Virginia to cover violations from the Upper Big Branch which it bought and closed after acquiring Massey. Alpha later settled a number of shareholder lawsuits for $265 million. Some of the payout funding had factored into funds set up by Massey before the acquisition by Alpha.

Like most Appalachian coal producers, Alpha has been taking hits with soft markets for steam and metallurgical coal. Its 2013 revenues were $5 billion compared with $7 billion the year before.

Environmentalists say that Alpha’s fine does not address the massive ecological destruction of mountaintop removal strip mining which they say should be stopped at the permit stage. Alpha operates a number of such mines.

The latest fines involve 79 active coal mines and 25 coal processing plants.

Federal investigators are still probing Massey for violations of safety laws related to the operation of Upper Big Branch where the explosion occurred April 5, 2010 and other mines. So far, three former employees have been convicted and Massey’s former CEO Don Blankenship is said to be a target of the probe. There is also a suggestion that Alpha is cooperating with federal investigators in the investigation.

McAuliffe Peruses Tobacco Commission

tobacco leafBy Peter Galuszka

What’s going on with the Tobacco Commission? Gov. Terry McAuliffe wants to know and is asking for a detailed accounting of its finances over the past five years.

The Tobacco Indemnification and Revitalization Commission, created in 1999 with a $1 billion endowment from lawsuit settlements with four major tobacco companies, has been under the gun for years.

The idea was that Virginia would take its settlement from a $206 billion nest egg 46 states won from Big Tobacco and put it to good use. Some states allocated their share solely for health concerns and to convince people, especially children, not to start smoking.

Virginia used part of its funds for this, but also created a slush fund supposedly for economic development in counties affected by changes in the tobacco economy from Southside to Southwest Virginia that grew bright leaf and burley tobacco.

The commission has always operated in a kind of “Andy of Mayberry” fashion without much oversight and that has caused some big problems. The worst was in 2010 when former state Finance Secretary John W. Forbes and later commission head was convicted of using $4 million in tobacco money for personal purposes, like fixing his house.

A 2011 report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission gave the commission mixed reviews, noting that some projects it funded made sense but others did not.

JLARC praised the commission for its worker training programs and helping expand high speed broadband to rural areas. But it said that the commission needed a better and more sophisticated way of tracking the impacts of projects it funded. Two years earlier, a commission headed by former Gov. Gerald E. Baliles had come up with some similar findings but the commission adopted only eight of 22 of them. One of the Baliles’ recommendations was to have a JLARC study made of the commission but it was not pursed at the time.

One area of concern for the McAuliffe administration is the $20 million in grants provided to Liberty University’s Center for Medical and Health Services spent over the past two years when the commission was making less than $60 million on interest payments.

One could argue that having a medical center in Lynchburg would help residents in Southside but another issue is that Liberty, founded by fundamentalist Protestant preacher Jerry Falwell, is a religious institution. The late Falwell was a major political player. The school is starting an osteopathic medical school which is interesting since it chose not to found a traditional one, although osteopathic doctors receive much the same training as medical doctors.

Speaking of politics, the co-chairman of the tobacco commission is Terry Kilgore, a Republican politician. By coincidence, his twin brother, Jerry, is a former attorney general, gubernatorial candidate and a lawyer for Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the former head of Star Scientific and the man who paid or gave now-indicted former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and his wife Maureen more than $160,000 in gifts.

At one point, Williams who has not been indicted in the GiftGate matter and is expected to be an important prosecution witness against the McDonnells, tried to push for tobacco commission help with his nicotine-based dietary supplements.

There could be a political motivation with McAuliffe’s query but the tobacco commission has always been a ripe target for good reason.

N.B. Maurice Jones, McAuliffe’s nominee for Commerce Secretary and the former publisher of The Virginian-Pilot, has been targeted by a probe by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for possible improper lobbying while he was a HUD deputy secretary. It appears there will be no criminal charges but the Jones matter will be part of a Capitol Hill hearing today. Republicans are certain make some political hay out of the matter. Full disclosure, I worked part time for Richmond’s Style Weekly (still do) when Jones was Pilot publisher and oversaw Style. I know him personally.

“We Don’t Need No Stinking Ethics Reform!”

maureen_and_bob(1)By Peter Galuszka

It’s no surprise but Virginia legislators appear to doing as little as possible to upgrade the state’s lax ethics rules. In fact, they may be backtracking on some of them.

In a rational world, one would think that something would be done after the indictment of former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and his wife on 14 federal felony counts. Maybe then the state, which has some of the weakest ethics rules for public officials in the country, would take serious corrective steps.

True to form, with only two weeks left to go in this year’s General Assembly session, legislators are still clinging to their conceit of Virginia exceptionalism.

They insist on believing that somehow the Old Dominion is still dominated by gentlemanly cavaliers who are too honest to be burdened with much oversight. Questioning their integrity disrespects  people of  their assumed social class and is in poor taste.

Indeed, according to Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney, the mishmash of laws is actually quite shocking when you consider just how other worldly their proposals are. Consider:

  • Both the House of Delegated and Senate have bills that would require filing disclosure statements electronically instead of on paper as required now. The bills don’t require the filers to have their statements notarized. Why? Too inconvenient to do so digitally. Of course, they could make it a felony to lie on the statements, but that’s considered too harsh.
  • There would be a new cap on gifts of more than $250 but no limit on how many times gifts could be given. By this logic, an individual or corporation seeking influence could give a total of  $10,000 worth of gifts as long as they are split 40 ways.
  • This applies only to “tangible” gifts like McDonnell’s famous, engraved Rolex watch worth $6,500 from the chief executive of dietary supplement maker Star Scientific. Most gifts given by Dominion or Altria and the like are “intangibles” similar to trips to the Master’s golf tournament in Georgia or hunting safaris in Africa. ProgressVA, an advocacy group, found that of 756 gifts they studied, only 18 were considered “tangible.”
  • Lastly, and most important, there will be no ethics commission with teeth. There will be some kind of “advisory” commission that will not have the power to investigate or subpoena unlike institutions some 40 other states have. Like many forms of regulation in Virginia, this moves things to the “voluntary” level, giving those in power the benefit of the doubt.

Hopefully, Gov. Terry McAuliffe will show stronger leadership than he has so far on this issue. He has issued an executive order cutting gives to his staff to $100 but that doesn’t apply to the General Assembly.

Legislators led by the likes of House Speaker Bill Howell seem to see real ethics reform as anathema brought on by outside forces. They see it as insulting to their personal sense of honor.

Many support McDonnell who goes on trial in July. That support, however, is not showing up in “Legal Defense for Bob” funding. My guess is that he’ll cop a plea before then since he needs $1 million for his lawyers and is nowhere close to getting it.

Curiously, according to the Post, McDonnell was offered a deal by federal prosecutors to plead guilty to lying on bank statements and they’d let his wife Maureen off the hook. No deal, said McDonnell.

Self-Driving Cars to Government: Eat My Dust!

eat_dustby James A. Bacon

It’s amazing how Self-Driving Cars (SDCs) have burst into the consciousness of thinkers about transportation and urban development in the past month or two. Even more remarkable, the thinking hasn’t yet polarized into Republican/ Democratic, left wing/right wing camps. Eric Jaffe, a contributing writer to the center-left Atlantic Cities blog, has just written how a dynamic and innovative private sector may well leap-frog an ossified and gridlocked government sector to create the nation’s next transportation revolution, driverless cars — a position with which I largely concur.

Jaffe’s post was inspired by an article by Clifford Winston and Fred Mannerling in Economics of Transportation. I quoted the same article earlier this week in a post about properly taxing trucks to cover the damage they cause to roads and highways. That was just one of several opportunities created by new technology for government to wring greater efficiency from the nation’s transportation network. Unfortunately, the forces of inertia are great. Write Winston and Mannerling:

Our discussion of policymakers’ failure to implement this technology has culminated in the eternal debate over whether the public or the private sector is better able to spur technological change that contributes to growth. In the case of highways, we conclude that it is likely that the private sector will eventually implement driverless car technologies, and that those technologies will benefit motorists by leapfrogging the technological advance that the public sector has put on hold.

As Jaffe observes, government could implement many useful changes right now: “Proper road pricing could decrease traffic, not to mention generate transportation revenue. Better pavement design could reduce maintenance costs and vehicle damage. Stronger traffic control systems could improve safety on the road.” But government officials, he suggests, suffer from a bias toward the status quo.

Federal, state and local governments will get around to implementing those strategies eventually. They’ll just take way longer than it will take the private sector — driven by competition, the profit motive and organizational cultures that reward innovation — to put driverless cars on the road.

Unfortunately, government — or, more precisely, the tort system — still can muck up driverless cars. The key issue is liability for automobile accidents. As I hope to elaborate in a future article, our tort system is peculiarly mal-adapted to Self-Driving Cars. There can be little doubt that SDCs, which don’t get distracted, don’t get road rage and don’t drink, smoke dope or fall asleep at the wheel, will cause fewer accidents than humans. But the electronic components that make them safer overall create a special problem in individual court cases. The coding inside the software is so complex that it is impossible for automakers to prove that a flaw in the code did not cause an accident.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Don Howard and Mark P. Mills sing the praises of SDCs and address the liability issue head-on:

Self-driving cars shift liability for accidents from people, with relatively shallow pockets, to the deep pockets of manufacturers. …

The self-driving-car solution is clear. Congress should pre-empt [the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] and the trial lawyers and pass a National Autonomous Vehicle Injury Act. The Fords and Nissans and Googles and Qualcomms should voluntarily create an Autonomous Vehicle Event Reporting System. And industry players should also create a National Autonomous Vehicle Compensation System. 

Ideally, there would be a national legal standard. But if Congress is too gridlocked to act, the states should enact their own solutions. C’mon, Virginia, it’s time to get moving.

Update: I am informed that included in the FY 2015 budget is $1 million to support an inter-departmental work group to “identify regulatory challenges related to the development, testing, and use of unmanned technologies across all modes of conveyance. The work group shall suggest strategies to attract and promote the development of unmanned technology applications and companies, federal research at facilities located in the Virginia, venture and human capital, and applied research and technology that contribute to the growth and development of the unmanned systems sector in the Commonwealth.”

The Tragic Lessons of Kiev

A pro-European protester swings a metal chain during riots in KievBy Peter Galuszka

The news from Ukraine is frightening and familiar.

At least 100 people have been killed in rioting in Kiev. Some were shot by Interior Ministry snipers after demanding that President Viktor Yanukovych allow new elections. The latest is that he may do just that.

Like all former Soviet republics, Ukraine has been caught in the usual post-collapse of the U.S.S.R. Liberal Democrats can’t amass enough power to overturn leftovers from the Communist system who have prisons and police at their disposal.

The economy has not recovered from the shock of the Soviet split up. It happened too fast. You can’t go from a seriously ossified command structure that provided cradle-to-grave services, crash it and then pretend the “magic of the market” will work overnight, or even in 25 years.

These failures have set up the tragedy in Kiev that if not controlled soon, could get truly scary. All Europe needs right now is a civil war on its edge. So far, the Ukrainian military is not involved and luckily for the world, Ukraine apparently got rid of its 5,000 nuclear weapons after the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991.

For me personally, the Kiev drama is reminiscent on several levels. I used to go to Kiev and Ukraine fairly often. Downtown Kiev is lovely. The main drag where the violence is taking place is on Khristyatyk Street, an impressive boulevard of monuments and buildings. I used to stay at a hotel around the corner near a leafy park on a bluff overlooking the Dnieper River.

Ukrainians are pleasant and friendly – somewhat like U.S. Midwesterners or Southerners. Ukraine used to be a farming dynamo until Stalin got involved. It also has some impressive industries, including advanced metallurgy and an aircraft plant that makes gigantic Antonov cargo planes. Tragically, it was also the scene of Chernobyl.

There’s been an underlying tension between western Ukrainians who felt much more in common with Western Europe and the east where Russians and their language prevailed. The friction, however, never got as intense as between Russians and, say, the Chechens or Central Asians. Ukrainians are very close in religion, language and color. There were rivalries and insults, such as Russians who dubbed Ukrainians “Hok-lee” which is a putdown of the Ukrainian language which is very close to Russian but has different inflections. Some Ukrainians hate being called “the” Ukraine because it means “on the edge” of Russia.

Vladimir Putin is a major player in today’s problems. Just as Ukraine was getting closer to the European Union in aid, trade and funding, Putin swept in with a $15 billion aid package. Putin is part of the old “Sil” or “forces” such as the KGB who have re-emerged in a new form, sort of like the robo-cop in the Terminator II movie. Continue reading