Geopolitics

In Ukraine, Corruption Is Everywhere You Look - Still

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.

Bribery culture
Bribery culture
Artem Nikitin

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.

No fear

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.

Red cards

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.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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