Swiss Experience in Ukraine: This Country Won Our Hearts

Swiss Experience in Ukraine: This Country Won Our Hearts

Dr. Christoph Späti, Deputy Head of Mission and Counsellor at the Embassy of Switzerland in Ukraine and Moldova, has been living in Kyiv for a couple of years already with his wife Tamar and their three children. Tamar and Christoph surprised me by telling me that it was their preferred choice to come to live to Ukraine. Why did they make such a decision and are they still happy living in the biggest country of Eastern Europe where political, economic and social changes are taking place?

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Christoph: We’ve been living in Ukraine for almost three years and this time had a great impact on us. Yes, Ukraine was our preferred choice. On the one hand Ukraine is a beautiful country with huge potential, rich cultural heritage and warm, talented people, and on the other hand it is politically extremely interesting. Ukraine is a truly fascinating country. We came here in October 2014 and we’ve lived the Maidan events only on TV. I remember that the Swiss population was following these events closely, and so were we. I had been in Ukraine twice before, but shortly. And now it was our first visit and stay abroad as a family. This was a big change, and it influenced us fundamentally. I started to perform my functions representing my country here and working in the political, economic and cultural sphere of the Embassy. Tamar as a professional concert pianist started to perform and has been appreciated by the Ukrainian audience. But Ukraine had the biggest influence on our children. It is the first time they were abroad for such a long period of time. Our elder daughter Elena was born and spent her first years in Switzerland. She had to learn new languages, to make new friends in a new environment. Our middle daughter Maria is three now. She came here as a baby, so her home is Ukraine. And this is even more so for our son Karl who was born last autumn here in Kyiv. The first air he breathed was Ukrainian. So we are a kind of a ‘multinational’ Swiss family in Ukraine. My wife Tamar, who has become Swiss, is originally from Georgia. Our children learn several languages, Swiss German, Georgian, Ukrainian, Russian and English. Sometimes they mix it in one sentence and it sounds funny.
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Tamar: When I married Christoph eight years ago it was the first time I moved out of my country and it was not so easy. I used to live with my family in Tbilisi, having close relations with my relatives and friends. It was my first deracination, so to speak. Thanks to Christoph I settled well in Switzerland. He created a nice and comfortable environment for me. I made my Master degree in Lucerne conservatory, won several international piano competitions and was regularly performing on international festivals in Europe. Then we moved to Kyiv. I knew that it was quite a change in our lives. Having lived in Switzerland and got used to Western European mentality, I was also a little bit anxious in coming here. Now I really feel home and I discovered many things that are in common with Georgia, the country of my origin. For example hospitable people, mentality at its best sense, and the Russian language which I can use here, although it is not my mother tongue. Last but not least, musical life is very much similar to Georgia. People are genuinely interested in classical music and culture in general. This is important for me.
Is it safe, clean, comfortable for you here? What would you like to be changed?
Christoph: We feel well, safe and comfortable in Ukraine. Kyiv is a European city. You have all possibilities to go out, to go to theatres, cinemas, whatever you wish. You have beautiful landscapes around. For someone from Switzerland Ukraine’s dimensions are just huge! In Switzerland it takes just three hours to cross the country from one end to the other. Switzerland is relatively densely populated with highly developed infrastructure. But here I enjoy Ukraine’s big space. I like to drive straight for two hours, I like nature a lot and, of course, the people. Ukraine has a great tourism potential with unlimited possibilities for recreation.
But first and foremost, we admire the people for their role in defending their values and having the patience to make their country a better one, keeping up the determination and hard-work, despite difficulties or set-backs.
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So you can say that you really feel the changes for better in this country?
Christoph: Ukraine went a long way since the end of the Soviet Union. True reforms have only started late, after Maidan. So there is a certain backlog if we compare Ukraine to other Eastern European countries. Of course, the expectations after revolutions and after sacrifices the population was and is still making are very high. But reforms which basically constitute an overhaul of the whole political and economic system need constant political determination, unity behind this common goal of reforms and above all time. This shall not be an excuse for a sometimes perceived slowness of reforms, but let’s not forget that in addition to the reform pressure, Ukraine is in a conflict and de facto temporarily lost control of a part of its territory. The task is not simple.
From my professional experience in Ukraine, I can tell you that in my contacts with the Government I am heartened by the fact that there are many representatives who are dedicated, who work hard for change and who serve the people. The current and the previous Government achieved something already: macroeconomic stabilization; economic growth; better investment climate; cleaning of the banking sector; police reform; efforts towards anti-corruption. But there is a big way ahead: creation of functioning anti-corruption institutions, in particular of an anti-corruption court; improve tax administration and replace the tax police by a financial investigation service; reform of the judiciary; land reform; transparent privatization of state enterprises, just to name some important ones. And, of course, we from Switzerland look at the country’s perspective also from an investor’s point of view, since Switzerland is the 9th biggest investor in Ukraine.
In a rich country with a lot of resources there are also vested interests. I think the most important task ahead is to fully establish and enforce the rule of law and a level playing field for all economic players. To achieve this, constant accompaniment and ‘tough love’ from outside are needed, but also alertness from civil society. This combination of active engagement and patience, I think, is crucial for the success of reforms.
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Do you travel in Ukraine?
Christoph: It is not easy to travel with small children, so we haven’t travelled as much as we would wish to. But we’ve been in Lviv, Odesa, Kharkiv and Dnipro. We like the country a lot. We appreciate the seaside very much, so Odesa is fascinating for me, as well as for Tamar and the children. When I came to Lviv for the first time I was totally impressed. People have told me that this city is gorgeous. But what I saw by far surpassed my expectations. I was overwhelmed by the architectural beauty and art there. It is the same level like Florence or Prague or Vienna. There is plenty to discover for the people from my country and for people from Western Europe in general.
On weekends we like to travel down the right bank of Dnipro River. My favorite weekend getaway is Trakhtymiriv Landscape Park on Kaniv peninsula. As a historian by education, I am also interested in archaeology: last year we visited many ancient Greek cities like Olbia or Tyras near the Black Sea coast. I always feel enchanted by the infinite vastness of Ukrainian lands and the daily lives of people in this truly grand environment.
Tamar, being a musician you travel a lot worldwide. What do you like when you come back home to Kyiv?
Tamar: I feel home there where my family is. So when I come home, I want to see my dearest ones. Ukraine and Kyiv won my heart and I feel always happy coming back home. I like peoples' warmth, positive attitude and hospitality. It is very important for me that I can use my professional skills. People in musical society know me here and they love my music, as I am performing in different halls and different cities of Ukraine.
Now Ukrainians have the possibility to travel to Schengen countries with no visa. How can it influence Ukrainian culture and development of the country to your mind?
Christoph: I think it is always good to have the possibility to travel, to meet new people and to see with your own eyes how other nations live. Switzerland is a small country with a lot of cultural and linguistic diversity and a big part of its citizens are of foreign origin. We live from exchanges with our neighbors, this is vital. Switzerland is part of the Schengen area, so I expect exchanges between our countries to intensify, as well. The possibility to travel to Schengen countries without visa will further increase interactions between the Ukrainian population and abroad, and will help to shape opinion and values in Ukraine. This is good. Such interactions lead to a constant process of comparison and shaping of identity: Who are we? Who are they? How do people live? What can we borrow from them and what can we give to others? These are questions arising when you see new countries. By travelling, stereotypes are being replaced by one’s own experience. Imagine the new generation which will not know anything else but free travel. But in my opinion it is equally important that the young generation finds good job opportunities in Ukraine. They should travel abroad, but bring added value here. Rule of law and stable economic growth in Ukraine are preconditions for this.
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What can be done to attract more foreign travellers into Ukraine?
Christoph: Ukraine is an immense country with huge distances between different spots of interest. Therefore, it is important to further improve infrastructure and make it easier to travel from one place to another. Ukraine did a lot already, for example the fast trains between big cities are really of top standard. Certainly it is also important to increase competition between aircraft companies to bring more flight carriers to Ukraine, and the Ministry of Infrastructure is working on this. But there is another very important issue: communication.
Communication about Ukraine abroad can be improved. Ukraine has to invest in making its beauty known, and not let media abroad be dominated by bad news. With the successful organization of this year’s Eurovision song contest under the slogan ‘Celebrate Diversity’, Ukraine showed to the world that it is open, tolerant and hospitable. Many Swiss visitors left Ukraine with an extremely positive impression. Active cultural diplomacy is an important way to shape Ukraine’s image abroad. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine is undertaking particular efforts in this. I also think it would be great if Ukraine would bring more cultural events abroad. This country is a touristic gem, but a gem that remains to be discovered.
Tamar: Ukraine is rich in traditions, culture and nature and, therefore, attractive for travellers. I believe it is also important for the Ukrainian population to be able to speak English, German, French or other European languages. We see this happening with the young generation and it is encouraging. I am convinced that visa liberalization will not only make travel easier, but further motivate Ukrainians to learn foreign languages.
What features of different cultures you would like to assimilate into Ukraine?
Tamar: I think that Ukrainians have a strong feeling of self-identity and I really respect it. Being conscious of our own roots is vital, but developing openness towards new things is also good and useful, for example to study new languages, to travel abroad and to see other ways of life. I understand that people do what they can, taking into account their financial possibilities. Even with difficulties many Ukrainians are going through, they still go to theatres and to concerts, they live an active cultural life and this is amazing. I see that people do enjoy their life here.
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It is a lot said that Ukraine has feminine character. Do you agree with this?
Tamar: I would say Ukraine is a romantic country, as are the people. They like spending time with their beloved ones. The parks are full of people. Ukrainians enjoy every season of the year. In the sense of this love for beauty, I would agree that Ukraine has a feminine character. For me as a woman, Ukraine will always have a special place in my heart, because our little son was born here.
Christoph: I agree. It is about emotional features. I experience Ukrainians as people with a rich emotional treasure inside. They appreciate family values, they support each other and they have close contacts with each other. In this sense Ukrainians are not only focused on work but, they also have their emotional side and like to live it.
What do you like in Ukrainian cultural heritage in art, music, traditions etc.?
Tamar: I like that people appreciate their traditions wearing vyshivankas and speaking Ukrainian language. I don’t know a lot about Ukrainian art yet, but being a musician, I know a lot of great Ukrainian composers whose masterpieces I would like to perform in my concerts. Works of Ukrainian artists are performed on the big stages of the world-known theatres and concert halls. I am fascinated by the local classical music traditions. People who come to my concerts have really a deep understanding of music. In Western Europe classical music is more of an elite phenomenon and only a relatively thin layer of society are attending concerts. That’s why I find this deeply rooted love for classical music in Ukraine impressive.
Christoph: People have strong values here about what is right and what is wrong and Maidan confirmed this. They are ready to go out on the street for the dignity, for their values. On the other hand there is also the phenomenon of corruption. But I also met a lot of Ukrainians with firm values based on their education, culture and religion. The thing that I would hope for Ukraine is to have a stronger link of responsibility and trust between those who rule and those who are being ruled, a strengthening of the ‘social contract’ with mutual responsibility and accountability. Population has to be more engaged in political processes. This will decrease the negative feeling about government and increase trust and transparency. Decentralization reform which the government is undertaking now is an important step which will bring services closer to the people and increase responsibility and accountability. As a result the trust will grow. I wish for Ukraine that this social contract grows more and more solid.
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What is the short message you would you like to tell about Ukraine to a foreigner who has never been here?
Christoph: I would tell this person (I even told many people): come and visit Ukraine, because it is a great country of different places and things to see, of interesting people to meet and of great friendships to make. In Western Europe sometimes we are very much focused on work. But here people also find time to live and to find a balance between work and private life. The interpersonal values are worth to be experienced here.
Tamar: I agree that in Ukraine one can meet real friends who will stay in your heart for all your life. During our stay we’ve met many such people. And, of course, don't miss the chance to see those marvelous Ukrainian cities of Kyiv, Lviv, Odesa, Kharkiv and many others, with all their beautiful churches and monuments. Discover Ukraine with its natural wonders, the Carpathian Mountains and the Black Sea. You’ll love Ukraine and Ukraine will love you!
Interviewed by Anna Vishtak
Photos by Anna Vexlarsky

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