While talking to Steven Fisher, CEO of Citibank Ukraine and Chairman of Board of American Chamber of Commerce in Ukraine, you really feel his commitment to this country and his perception of Ukraine is worth sharing.
Steven, you have been living in Kiev for about 6 years. So, you’ve seen the latest very important events in Ukraine and evolution of this country. How did you perceive Ukraine during those years?
Actually, my perceptions traced the political development of the country. When I came in 2010, I was very cautious about the Yanukovich regime but I thought that at least at the beginning there might be a chance for some political unity to enact reforms. However, then, when I looked at the economic situation and the lack of any reforms materialzing, one indicator worried me in particular: Every month the foreign exchange reserves of the country would go lower and lower. It was a non-stop decrease. And this was a very worrisome trend. So I talked to so many Ukrainians, especially those particularly embedded in the country dynamic and I asked them all: “What do you think about where the government is heading?” They told me: “Yanukovich has one strategy - stay in power and to keep the Hryvna at 8.0 in the foolish hope that this would guarantee support for him.” That was the strategy that damaged the economy so much. From a professional point of view, I started to reduce the risks of the bank in order to protect it against what I thought would be an impending economic disaster. It was even more clear after Yanukovich's refusal to sign the document on integration with the European Union that any kind of real and effective reform was never going to happen.
Photo by Valeriya Anufriyeva
And when Maidan came, of course, I felt that the new government really understood what needed to be done. And this was really a big change. And now I was talking to people who actually were trying to do something. I became encouraged after 2014 to be part of this new process supporting country reforms that were moving the country in the right direction. And I do whatever I can in my professional position and also personal one.
What was your first impression about Kiev and Ukrainians and did it change later?
My first impression only became stronger and it did not change. I had to come to Ukraine several times before when I was living in Moscow. I didn’t understand the country very well then, but I had exposure and I knew some people here. I liked Ukraine for several reasons. I thought Kiev was a very relaxing city, green, much more easy going. I found people here very, very friendly. No traffic at all comparing to Moscow. Here you feel free and during the weekend you really can have rest, meet with friends and do so many things. In Moscow you could do one thing in the morning, one thing in the afternoon and one thing in the evening if you were lucky, because it took so long to get around due to the heavy traffic. There is significant integration of Ukrainians into the foreign community. I felt very comfortable making friends here and becoming integrated into society. So, my impression did not change but got stronger in the 6 years that I have lived here.
What is really close to you in our mentality and what seems really strange?
Mentality wise, I like that Ukrainians are very open and friendly, willing to integrate into the West and are open to foreign ideas and foreigners in general. I think this is very important. And there is no lack of trust towards foreigners, but instead there is a very cooperative attitude. I think Ukrainians are very comfortable with themselves and this is good.
What things i still haven't fully decided on is how far do Ukrainians want to fight for their future. You really have to fight if you want to change the country and to succeed in European integration. And you have to say “no” to corruption. And everyone has to be strong and not to give up. I think civic society here still needs to grow stronger.
I know that you are a part of the big expat community in Kiev. How do foreigners feel themselves in this city nowadays?
I think that everyone is quite comfortable with the feeling that things are getting better and the city is running well. Everyone feels that Kiev is a very friendly place; it is livable and quite affordable for foreigners. Do you know what I like a lot, what I noticed? A lot of new Ukrainian restaurants, bars, bakeries, kalian places, and cafes have been opened in the last year in areas like Podil. And a lot of them are owned and run by young people. I am really impressed by this entrepreneurship. And people are saying: look at my Ukrainian products: cheese, other food products, clothes, art. A new wave of Ukrainian fashion is coming up and I think that is great. I think it is the people's reaction to economic crisis – they decided to do something about it and succeed.
You visited a lot of places in Ukraine. What do you like most and why?
My two other favorite cities in Ukraine are Odessa and Lviv. I love Odessa because it is by the sea. I just love walking on the streets because every street has its own fabulous history. Pushkin was walking along that street or Gogol lived there. History is on every street corner and it’s an amazing place. And, of course, there are good places to relax, eat and enjoy the city life. I love Odessa for that.
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I love Lviv because it has very classic central European elements and it has been developing much within the last 2 years. It is becoming a more and more attractive place. It has festivals all the time: classic music, jazz, art… Lviv is just a life. And I wish it the best.
What do you think about gastronomic culture in Kiev and what are your favorite places?
The restaurants and bars have been developing exponentially during the last year irrespective of the economic crisis and it is a somewhat of a positive surprise for me. I have to say, this sphere is open for innovation. I'll find cool little new places where sincerity and innovation rule. Small new Ukrainian restaurants like Kiflik. It is honest, it is friendly, it is true and thus, it is great. People go there not just for the good food but for the sincere people running it. Georgian food is great here. And all these popular places like Beef, Reef and so on. People are focused on quality and innovation.
Jamala and Steven Fisher
What would you advise a foreigner who is going to visit Ukraine for the first time?
I would say it is a great place to visit and stay here for a longer time. Meet lots of Ukrainians, because they are really the best and they make the place worth visiting. Don’t be afraid to jump into the city and to the country. Try things and just learn because the Ukrainians are willing to show you the way, so go for it. Be part of the experience.
Whoever comes to Ukraine has to feel the part of the historical process in this country, to be part of the future. Come and make your contribution.
Interviewed by Anna Vishtak