Tales from (eastern) Europe: Airports
I'm writing this in Prague airport, on my way to Bratislava. I've seen a fair few East European airports on this trip and in their own way they tell the story of where this crisis is going.
Riga, Latvia: clean, decent retail/cafe choices. Very long unloading times: it felt like they had one guy back and forth. This is a shame because the Latvian airline AirBaltic is pretty good, and reports booming business off the back of a) everbody else's collapse and b) the move to a hub model, meaning you can go from London to Almaty via Riga.
Kiev Borispol, Ukraine: Aaargh. I mean Aaaaaaargh. The arrivals is swarming with taxi touts who would give their counterparts in Lagos, Nigeria a severe lesson in persistence. In fact, in comparison to Nigeria's much maligned airport (which has been reformed by handing it over to a private contractor) Kiev is really third world. Nobody could change me any sterling and nobody wanted to take local currency. This is a sure sign that your local currency is going down the tubes. In addition we had "carnet hell": a carnet is what news crews have to carry itemising every last lightbulb. Fellow journalists when I say the phrase "please wait here, it will all have to be typed out by hand" you may flinch now. Three hours later my producer emerged into the arrivals hall with a truckload of TV equipment and, oh, about a battallion size crowd of taxi drivers all too willing to help him.
Kiev, in general, is no joke. As you'll see tomorrow night, the country's on the brink of bankruptcy but the airport is a symbol of why rescuing it is going to be difficult. In my experience national airports that are a total shambles, with unrestrained touting are generally a symptom of a system of widespread graft and corruption. A senior businessman in Kiev has been painting grim off the record pictures of layer upon layer of graft.
Another sure sign of social malaise is large numbers of shaven headed men in black coats with radio earpieces. Such men are everywhere in Ukraine where there is wealth.
Prague: Having got here via Ukrainian 737 which seemed to have gaffer tape holding the cabin togther, Prague is its old self. It's just about to be privatised, which kind of sums up the Czech republic government's attitude to the credit crunch: fast forward to market solutions.
Somebody in their market zeal has decided there should be multiple branches of KFC, Pilsner Urquell pubs and dutyfree shops but no McDo or Burgerking so our team are a little mortified, not wanting to hit the Pilsner Urquell at breakfast time (I am surrounded by Czechs who have no such reticence).
Watch my Slovakia film here:
Anyway, the gist of all this is as follows: there is, as the departed Hungarian PM said this month, a danger of a new "iron curtain" in Europe; with the east divided between the saved and the damned. Czech and Slovak Republics look to be on the right side of the line - so its not just a Eurozone thing. Latvia is teetering between the two, despite its nice airport, and Ukraine more or less defines the problem of being unloved and unsaveable.
That's why I've found so many Ukrainian people I talked to determined to "survive on our own". They're heavily cynical about their polticians but they will duck and dive their way through. I can't see the taxi-driver numbers falling at Borispol any time soon.