Ukraine’s old habits die hard

Among the Euromaidan’s many complaints about the government of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s government was over the fact that it was really, really corrupt. Don’t take my word for it; it’s right here on their blog:

The spark that lit the Ukrainian revolution was Yanukovych’s rejection of a trade pact with the European Union, yet the reason for the revolution was the population’s despair with the most omnipresent, all-encompassing and brutal system of corruption ever established on this planet. A system established by the government of Viktor Yanukovych, using all the resources of all branches of government and so greedy it cost thousands their lives.

Nobody from the West, not even the most well-informed, can even imagine how this system strangled the lives of the Ukrainian people and to describe it in full would require hundreds of pages. Here below I will describe just some of the typical ways Yanukovych and his criminal associates plundered Ukraine and brought its people first to despair and then to revolution – a revolution of dignity!

Allowing for some hyperbole (I’m not sure Yanukovych was that much more corrupt than any of his predecessors going back to 1991), this is perfectly understandable. Yanukovych was a corrupt kleptocrat, and if you doubt me then I’d suggest taking a tour of his old presidential palace, including the private zoo and golf course (if any of those things are still there). But as I suggested a couple of sentences ago, rampant corruption is kind of just the way things are done in Ukraine, and has been for a while.

Euromaidan sought, I think genuinely (at least at some level of the movement) to finally put an end to that old habit. They bounced Yanukovych out of office and instituted a new, supposedly more technocratic government, led by Prime Minister (and American favorite) Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who continued in that post beyond the interim government when his party and President Petro Poroshenko’s party agreed to form a governing coalition after the 2014 parliamentary elections. Together, Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk promised to “root out” corruption.

“Did you stuff cash into your hat?” “Oh please, like you haven’t sewn money into the lining of that coat” (via)

How’s that working out? Buzzfeed’s Max Seddon reports:

A year and a half later, Ukraine’s prime minister is fighting for his political future after making slow progress on those reforms — and watching his allies become embroiled in corruption allegations themselves. Swiss prosecutors are investigating one of his top parliamentary leaders for paying bribes in a scheme to set up a nuclear power plant. The official in charge of repatriating ill-gotten foreign assets is facing criminal charges over luxury homes she somehow obtained in Britain and France. Investigative journalists revealed how a Yatsenyuk-linked billionaire used his political connections to win a government tender for duty-free space in Kiev’s airport.

Frustration over Ukraine’s sluggish reform process and anti-corruption efforts is fracturing its pro-Western governing coalition, creating rifts with the United States and European Union. Popular Front, Yatsenyuk’s political party, is polling so badly that it decided not to run in local elections on Oct. 25, only a year after it won a surprise majority of the parliamentary vote. An IRI poll published in August found that only 3% of Ukrainians were satisfied with the pace of change in the country; an astonishing 51% said that the government of Viktor Yanukovych — which protesters overthrew last year in large part due to anger at his appropriation of untold billions in state funds — did a better job fighting corruption.

Hm, let’s say “not well.” And it’s not that surprising, is it? I mean, how do you clean up a political system when you’re practically required to engage in corruption (for example, you’ve simply got to butter up media oligarchs lest they turn their airwaves against you) to get elected in the first place? Anonymous “Western diplomats” are privately expressing concerns that Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk can’t break up the system that produced them. Mikhail Saakashvili, the former President of Georgia who was named governor of Odessa by Poroshenko this past spring in a move that itself raised some eyebrows, recently described Ukraine as being run by a “shadow government” of oligarchs. Meanwhile, Yatsenyuk has kind of thrown up his hands about the issue, arguing that he’s “not responsible” for rooting out corruption.

This seems to be leading to some public discontent, as reflected in those polling numbers, though certainly the lingering war in the eastern part of the country is a contributing factor there. Poroshenko is politically safe for now, given that there won’t be another presidential election until 2019. There won’t be another parliamentary election until then, either, or at least there isn’t one planned before then, but Yatsenyuk can presumably be dumped by his party or given a vote of no confidence at any time, if things get bad enough. So far Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk have stayed pretty closely aligned, but given Ukraine’s history of presidents and prime ministers publicly carping at each other, it’s entirely possible that they won’t stay that way indefinitely (especially if Poroshenko feels threatened by Yatsenyuk’s close relationship with Washington). Mostly, it seems like Ukraine just can’t break its old habits.

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