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Sunday, June 20, 2010

Toast to Yanukovych

Bearcats Threaten Ukraine

The Arctictis binturong is neither bear nor cat. The nocturnal Asian mammal is making life difficult for some businesses in Ukraine, according to that country's president. (

Ukraine’s newest president has been described as pro-Russian, but Victor Yanukovych primarily employs US consultants to win elections, whitewash his image and investigate political opponents. If the Americans really want to help Yanukovych’s international image (and make a buck while doing so) they should start with something far simpler: proper English.

As one example, take the June 18 news item on Yanukovych’s initiative to combat corruption found on the English language pages of the presidential website:“We plan to reduce the number of permits and licenses, which has been complicating life of small and medium business, by at least 50%. Thus we will make doing business in Ukraine easier and minimize influence of bearcats on it”, said President Yanukovych.

Bearcats. Bill Gates’ spellchecker won’t say it’s wrong, but an American consultant could probably tell you that rare Asian mammals aren’t Ukraine’s greatest problem. The website contains many such errors: spelling mistake, grammatical no-no’s and obsolete usage. Of course, Yanukovych has more important things to worry about than getting the English language right. He must, first and foremost, create stability, even if that means bulldozing democracy and Rule of Law under the asphalt.

This reminds me of a true story related by a close family friend who was in Ukraine in the early 90's working for an international NGO. It’s about language and a toast worth raising to Yanukovych, his government and their US consultants.

The setting is a dinner in Kyiv with officials from Ukraine and Western diplomats seated around a table. As is customary at Ukrainian meals, vodka is consumed with the many-course meal, but only when it's preceded by longwinded toasts.

Respectful of his guest, the Ukrainian delivered his toast in English. Well, it wasn’t exactly English, but the weird variety of the English dubbed “Ukrenglish,” where words are translated from English into Ukrainian and back again, most often with hilarious consequences. (The book and film Everything is Illuminated capitalize on this phenomenon). The kind of English you’ll find on the presidential website.

The Ukrainian official spent several minutes promising a bright bilateral future while extolling the benefits of cooperation. In conclusion of his toast, and to show that he is savvy in the finer points of English, the Ukrainian said “Up your bottoms!” (The Ukrenglish version of “Bottoms up!”)

Bursts of laughter were successfully suppressed, but a few chuckles disguised as coughs could be heard as smiles crept upon the faces seated on the Western side of the table.

Not to be outdone, the highest ranking Western diplomat responded with a toast when the guests’ turn came around. He too spoke about mutual goals and common interests and the future. Wishing his Ukrainian counterparts only the best, the diplomat finished his toast with the words “Up yours too!

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