Ukraine: Corruption Doesn’t Capture It

Views expressed are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

Since it became an independent state 23 years ago, Ukraine has been looted by its structure of government at all levels and those close to it. The word “corruption” is not adequate to present-day Ukraine, and in fact, distorts reality. Western listeners, often aware of corruption in their own countries, and sure it exists everywhere else, shrug their shoulders and remain unimpressed. But what has taken place in Ukraine all these years, and accelerated rapidly under the current government, goes far beyond corruption. It is a policy of looting the country, transformed over the last several years into systematic and institutionalized extortion that reached all the way down into society, after not much was left to be stolen at the top.

This Texas-sized country of 45 million people in the center of Europe, containing expanses of rich, black agricultural soil, coal and mineral resources, an industrial infrastructure, a highly educated population, has been gradually sinking deeper and deeper into economic stagnation as those resources have been accumulated in the hands of a few.

To understand what led to the current protests in Ukraine, it helps to rewind the tape of history and to start with perhaps the most “politically incorrect” question for the West: how privatization took place in Ukraine (as well as in the other post-Soviet states) in the early 1990s and what role international institutions and Western experts played in it. I believe that, in its rush to shatter the existing centrally planned economy, to push free market reforms, and to make irrevocable the departure from socialism, the West made a fundamental misjudgment. It acted as if democratic societies can be built starting with economic changes even when institutional and governmental reforms are lacking.

The post-Soviet countries received a massive impetus from the West for the economic changes and reallocation of property rights reflected in privatization while they lacked the traditions and habits of accountable, transparent governance or any experience with grassroots democracy. In these conditions, privatization meant that state assets and natural resources landed firmly in the hands of those close to power, leaving the rest of the country in both financial and moral turmoil.

All that accelerated during the Yanukovych presidency, and was extended all the way down through the society. I was told in one government ministry that in each department, employees were forced to contribute part of his or her monthly salary, the money flowing up through the pyramid to those on top. This became generalized through government institutions. Any small business owner in Ukraine who hasn’t lost their company outright to physical threats or shady financial maneuvers ratified by corrupt courts, knows the necessity of paying large bribes to government officials just to keep the doors open.

It took time for democratic changes to take root in Ukraine – as they now have, but also for a post-privatization fog to lift from the eyes of the people of Ukraine. It took nearly 20 years. Now, a new generation of Ukrainians in their early 30s, who grew up free of the shadows of communism, with opportunities for travel and study abroad, empowered by modern communications, has refused to accept what their country had become. I see this generation playing a crucial role in leading Ukraine towards a renewed sense of public morality and honor.

People came to the central Independence Square in Kyiv, known as Maidan, in November 2013 not only to protest their government’s last minute rejection of the free trade and association agreement with the European Union that had been five years in the making, not only from outrage at riot police violence against dancing and singing peaceful demonstrators, mainly youth, on the night of November 30. They came to the streets and many have stayed there for 90 days to denounce the looting of their country that has been taking place in front of their eyes for years.

Perhaps most importantly, they came to reclaim their own dignity, of which they were stripped by becoming part of an unprecedented historical experiment of dismantling state ownership and creating private fortunes behind closed doors overnight, by accepting and living by the rules they did not establish and therefore becoming part of the system they despised. They came because one morning they watched TV, read an internet post, heard the firsthand account of a friend and felt – enough is enough.

For everyone who had the privilege, as I did, to visit Maidan last December, when it was commonly called EuroMaidan, the excitement of the proud, peaceful, friendly and creative people of all age groups and all economic classes gathering there during the day was contagious. Nor could you avoid a knot in your throat if you came to Maidan late at night when it became a male world of fires, comradeship and vigilance by those who have nothing left to lose.

More than anything else, Maidan signifies a moral revolution in Ukraine and a recovery of the ability to distinguish right from wrong and stand up for moral values. It is an uprising of people who are no longer blinded by the rule of money and the patina of glamour of the last two decades. It signals a maturity of Ukrainian democracy because it demands accountability in governance, transparency in decision-making and honesty in politics.

This week, the balance suddenly tipped in Kyiv as members of President Yanukovych’s Party of Regions deserted him, and the promise of constitutional changes and earlier elections appeared. It is too early to say what tipped the balance, what combination of the unbending courage of the protestors, increased pressure from Europe and the United States, fear among government supporters and concern amongst Ukraine’s oligarchs that the situation was spinning out of control. What is clear is that despite rhetorical support, the West did not act with resolution until too many people had been killed on the streets of Kyiv.

Given the protestors’ initial emphasis on “European values and standards,” even to the extent of naming their protest space in the center of Kyiv “EuroMaidan,” the EU’s apparent political and institutional impotence, its inability to exercise a coherent policy with regard to Ukraine, sharply diminished its standing in Ukrainian eyes. Lately young people who were ignited by failed association with EU to come to the freezing Maidan, as well as some Ukrainian press outlets, have been removing from their websites and Facebook pages EU flags and other symbols which adorned them for many weeks of the protests. In the endgame, EU representatives may have played an important role. But it came nearly 100 human lives too late.

When this complex and tragic chapter of 21st century history is written, the people of Ukraine will have many things to be proud of and to be remembered for. On their own initiative, without waiting for political leaders, they organized massive, peaceful and disciplined protests that shook the government and ended the climate of fear in the country. They survived Ukrainian winter, the charges of riot police, the frustration of seeing their demands ignored by the government, the threats, kidnapping, torture and killing of their comrades. The overwhelming majority of the protestors maintained the non-violent nature of their protest up to the moment the government declared war on them and started shooting people on the streets. And in the face of unleashed government violence, they demonstrated superhuman courage and stood firm. Their fortitude and courage will be just as necessary over the next several months to ensure that the agreed reforms are actually carried out. But they already changed their country forever.

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