The mayor of Odessa was in Baltimore yesterday, promoting the southern Ukrainian city and its important sea port. Among matters discussed with local officials was the possibility that when the Black Sea Shipping Co. begins regular cargo service to the East Coast next year, Baltimore might be a port of call.
Mayor Eduard I. Gurvits and his delegation of bankers, economists and industrialists gave a fascinating insight into post-Soviet reality in Ukraine. The country of 52 million people is still trying to resolve even the most basic problems of governmental structure.
Every question of authority produces a fight, although the country's president, Leonid Kuchma, recently won an important
parliamentary power struggle that may enable him finally to address some of the country's underlying problems.
If Odessa, population 1.1 million, is any indication, post-Soviet Ukraine is in horrible shape.
People have so little money that Odessa's public transportation system is free. The city's water lines are crumbling and diseased. So many polluting industries have gone out of business that air has become three times cleaner than just a few years ago and flounder has reappeared in local waters.
Baltimore City's financial problems are nothing compared with Odessa's.
Ukraine's second largest city had such a fight over taxation with the overlapping county that it had to be resolved by the parliament. Debate there lasted four months -- and the country's finance minister was ousted in the process. Odessa now gets its fair share of local tax revenues but is plagued by other problems.
Among them is residents' nonpayment of electricity and gas, which are sold by municipal utilities. Because meters did not exist under the Soviet system, scofflaws cannot be cut off.
"Our only problem is money," the mayor said stoically.
Under Mayor Gurvits, 47, Odessa has embarked on an aggressive privatization of housing and businesses. The former building engineer has also seen to it that the city continues to provide a safety net of social services and gives a daily free lunch to its 116,000 school kids. He calls it "capitalism with a human face."
Several Baltimore businesses and professionals have joined together as a trade council, trying to establish links with Odessa. Baltimore's sister city in Ukraine can use all the help it gets.