FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

One fine February day in 1954, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, in a fit of fraternal love, ceded Crimea to Ukrainian jurisdiction. This was part of the celebrations for 300 years of Ukrainian incorporation into the Russian empire.

During this time, both Russia and Ukraine were part of the now defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The USSR, we know, is just a reincarnation under communist rule of the old Russian empire.

The Russians and the Ukrainians have tussled over the territory for centuries. In 1854, Britain, France, the Ottoman Empire and Sardinia invaded Crimea in a bid to prevent the Russian Empire from consolidating its grip over the Black Sea. One particularly disastrous battle for the British in Sevastopol was immortalized in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Charge of the Light Brigade.”

Over the past few months, Ukraine was embroiled in a political crisis. The central question to be resolved in that crisis is whether Ukraine would remain within the Russian orbit or evolve much closer to the European Union.

Last week, the pro-Moscow Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych was expelled from power. While signaling a triumph for the democratic forces in Ukraine, the event appears to signal the beginning of an even more complex process, one that could spark a protracted civil war and even the breakup of the country.

The people of the Ukraine are bitterly divided. The western parts of the country, including the capital city Kiev, lean towards western Europe and the model of capitalist democracy. The eastern part of the country, largely Russian-speaking and including the Crimean peninsula, prefer closer ties with Moscow.

Moscow, for its part, cannot possibly remain passive as a satellite country of long standing spins beyond its control. Ukraine, the least performing of all the former Soviet states, is strategically important for Russia. Russian oil and gas pipelines to the European market pass through Ukraine. Major Russian military installations, including its Black Sea fleet and possibly nuclear armaments are based in sprawling military installations in Crimea.

Just days after the dramatic political changes in Kiev, Russian military forces took effective control of Crimea. Large Russian military units are now positioned on the border and could move into Ukraine’s eastern cities where substantial portions of the population are either Russian or Russian-speaking.

Ukraine called for full military mobilization in the face of what appears to be an impending invasion. There is little chance for the puny Ukrainian military to stand up against its powerful neighbor.

At this point, despite frantic western diplomacy, it is nearly certain that Crimea will return to Russia. Moscow will accept no other option — certainly not under the watch of the brusque Vladimir Putin. The best the western powers could do, it seems, is to prevent the eastern cities of Ukraine from being gobbled up by the Russian bear.

The peril, as in the events of 1914 leading to the First World War exactly a century ago, is that a territorial dispute between two countries could have a domino effect as other countries grab for territories under the cover of political tensions. This crisis could spill over into the east Asian region where territorial disputes have been heating up the past few months.


While the clouds of war gather elsewhere, and as we confront such pressing issues as power shortages and billion-peso scams, it seems that many of us would rather focus on contrived and trivial concerns.

There is a tempest in a teapot over the inclusion in the Meralco billing statement of the amount to be collected when the temporary restraining order imposed by the Supreme Court on last December’s electricity charges runs out.

On the one hand, the inclusion of that amount is informative. It indicates how much, or how little, price adjustments will be in the event the restraining order is lifted. The individual consumer might prepare for that eventuality. It is not an amount to be collected immediately.

On the other hand, for those reading their bills carelessly, it might seem confusing. Wherever the bill is paid, however, the tellers ought to be familiar with the bill and collect only the amount for immediate payment. I met no one who actually overpaid electricity bills because of this.

Those who have made a cottage industry of vilifying the power distributor, however, were quick to stoke agitation over this minor detail in bill design. They accused Meralco of malice, demanded an investigation on the matter.

Officialdom, strangely, decided to entertain the agitators. The Department of Trade and Industry asked both the power distributor and the Energy Regulatory Commission to officially explain the incident, although the bill is sufficiently self-explanatory. The second amount quoted in the bill is appropriately tagged “deferred pending resolution of the SC TRO.”

Even the Palace joined the needless fray. Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte announced that both Meralco and the ERC were ordered by government to mount an “information dissemination campaign” to help our consumers understand the latest billing statement.

That is a little overdone — unless we assume our consumers are incapable of making sense of a fairly simple billing statement.

All of us who scrape and save to pay our painful electricity bills understand what happened over the past two months. We know we need to pay a little more eventually when this brouhaha over power rates, due to a large part because of bureaucratic incompetence, runs out.

Instead of hyperventilating over a simple billing statement, we ought to expend our furies asking government why power shortages are about to happen.


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