The Maidan protests were driven by public disgust with corruption, more than picking sides between the EU and Russia. But ousting Viktor Yanukovych has not ended the dirty business woven into the fabric of Ukrainian life.
KIEV — The purges in Ukraine started as soon as Viktor Yanukovych had been run out of office, leaving behind what one called a “museum of corruption.” His opulent residence and the gold bars, the one-kilo gold coin bearing his own likeness, and the toilet in the style of a byzantine mosaic quickly became the symbol of the old government’s corruption.
And you can be sure, Yanukovych was hardly the only government official caught with unseemly amounts of riches.
The new Ukrainian government has not hesitated to put the fight against corruption front and center. “Corruption is an enemy that eats the country from the inside,” Ukraine Economy Minister Pavlo Sheremeta said in an interview. “That is why so many people protested on the streets. It wasn’t really about the European Union, it was that you just can’t live with so much corruption. People don’t just want a new color on the walls, they want to destroy the corrupt government.”
The purge has hit nearly all of Yanukovych’s former cabinet members. Arsen Avakov, Ukraine’s new Interior Ministor — no pauper himself, with a net worth of around $99 million in 2013 — says that these prosecutions are due to corruption, but some of them look like they might be politically motivated.
“They should be paying more attention now to lower-level officials,” said Pavel Kukhta, an economist in Kiev. “Even under the new government, the higher-level officials are appointed as political favors, or the positions are bought.”
Avakov doesn’t deny that their might be the “seeds of corruption” in Ukraine’s new government, but he’s not in a rush to confront it. That might be because there simply aren’t any government officials in the country with completely clean hands.
Despite the cleanup campaign, Ukrainian officials continue to take bribes. On March 20, an official demanded that a businessman pay a $4,500 bribe to prevent the official from closing his juice factory. The official was caught and could spend up to 10 years in jail. A prosecutor in Kharkov charged a citizen $1,500 to acknowledge that he had been the victim of a crime. In the months of January and February alone, the Interior Ministry opened 160 criminal cases against its own employees, 26 of which are for corruption.
Ukrainian officials seem both fearless and genuinely confused about why they are being sent to jail. Corruption here is a real part of the economy, and government officials don’t see a reason for honesty.
It’s not surprising. The official monthly pay for a customs official, for example, is around $280, and many feel forced to subsidize their income with bribes. If the customs inspectors can’t collect bribes anymore, they will start looking for other, better-paying jobs.
“The lack of understanding is absurd,” Kukhta said. “Some people prosecuted for corruption have even tried to figure out who they needed to bribe in order to avoid being prosecuted.”
According to Egor Sobolev, head of the parliamentary committee to purge corruption, the official law on cleaning up government will be ready by mid-April. The plan is to fire all government employees and then put each former employee through a corruption investigation. It’s not clear who or how decisions about whether someone should be permitted to return to work will be made.
Meanwhile, average people are using the charge of “corruption” to get rid of officials they don’t like. Several recent high school graduates calling themselves the “People’s Jury” recorded a video with an ultimatum for the head doctor at the local children’s hospital, charging her with corruption. It’s no secret that head doctors in Ukraine take bribes for just about any service. But if that’s the standard, every single civil servant in the country will have to be fired.
Before everything came unraveled, the signs were everywhere. Back in June 2013, Transparency International Ukraine head Aleksei Khmara, issued this warning: “The people of Ukraine have been giving the government a yellow card of mistrust for years now. Every third Ukrainian says that he or she is prepared to go out in the streets to protect his or her rights. The numbers show that the yellow card could easily become a red card.”
According to the Global Corruption Barometer 2013, 68% of Ukrainians said they were prepared to protest corruption and 36% were prepared to demonstrate in the streets against corruption. Nearly 80% of respondents said that the government’s fight against corruption was useless, and about the same number said that the government of Ukraine was only interested in protecting its own interests, not those of the country.
This is how the Maidan protests came about: Many people thought that an association with the European Union would rid the country of corruption.
Even the Russian president thought corruption in Ukraine was unbearable. “Corruption has reached levels that we have never even dreamed of,” Putin once remarked. Of course, it must be noted that research shows that the level of corruption in Ukraine and Russia is roughly the same. If you average the rankings of Ukraine and Russia in international corruption comparisons since 2000, they both rank 127th.
Nonetheless, it’s also true that Ukraine became more corrupt under Yanukovych, dropping 10 positions in the corruption rankings under his leadership. But under pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko, who led the country from 2005 to 2009, Ukraine dropped 40 places. That just shows that a pro-Western government is not necessarily less corrupt.
But ultimately, allegiances aside, Ukraine needs to figure out a way to combat corruption. And that requires, to start, a healthy dose of honesty about the problem.