Once upon a time, when grass was greener and sun was brighter, I created a blog about Ukrainian politics by someone who actually lives here. This was fun when it lasted, and then it kind of didn’t when I got, rather unceremoniously, ran out of Twitter, got a day job, wrote a book, wrote another book and more or less got out of the Ukrainian political commentary altogether. Now while I’m still waiting for my hard-earned Roshen sweets for my gallant services to the Bankova, I find that political commentary is something you can’t just give up that easily. And so, I blow the dust off my rather forgotten English-language blog once again – the second time for the last, eh, two months? – to hammer out a few thousand symbol on that happy fun ride that is politics in Ukraine. It is sometimes mind-bogglingly stupid, and sometimes it makes you want to cry (much like, say, Russian cursive), but I wouldn’t give up this happy fun ride for any other one.
Prompted by the rather sad spectacle at the steps of the Verkhovna Rada these last few days, the topic I particularly want to tackle today would be corruption. Now, I’m allergic to corruption. I’m also allergic to anti-corruption, both terms having long since lost the original meaning some (read: Western observers) continue to ascribe to them. I’m serious: it takes one mention of ‘corruption’ anywhere, not even related to Ukraine, to send me frothing into an epileptic fit. This is not at all a pretty picture.
I’m also widely known to be a Ukrainian apologist. This particularly concerns my second passion with local politics, a field also dominated by hacks in Ukraine, and my relentless, Russian/Ukrainian-language, campaign against popular perceptions of Europe as a magic land of magic, where everything is so much better than the corrupt African hellhole that is Country 404. Said perceptions are then compounded by the Ukrainian zrada mentality and the fact that over 70% of Ukrainians never actually left Ukraine. Now, here’s hoping this is going to change sometimes soon, now that the bezviz is upon us and my blue passport opens more doors than my friends’ Russian and Belarusian ones. Until then, however, I’m stuck fighting the one-sided fight against people’s misconceptions on one hand, and getting accused of vatnost’, apologism and whataboutism on the other.
This is actually what compelled me to launch into this particular essay. I came to kind of understand the vatnik in the years since 2014, what Sun Tsu might have called ‘know thy enemy’, and from what I do know, corruption conjures some strange and arcane kind of pride in a vatnik. Corruption, to a vatnik, is something uniquely Russian, a virtue, not a vice, of the perfidious Russian soul, something ought to be immortalized by the likes of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Definitely not something to fight against, you dirty pro-Western State Department shills! The more moderate agade goes that oh, of course, there is corruption in Russia, but it’s only the bad boyars that do it, definitely not the good Tsar and his good boyars, no siree!
I don’t particularly like being compared to a vatnik (even though I have an actual fashionable vatnik, which I famously wore on my trip to Moscow), nor accused of whataboutism, nor do I, actually, want my essays or literary works to project the same image. Which is why I’m going to make my opinion clear on this:
a) Corruption is an issue;
b) It’s worth fighting against;
c) This needs a little more elaboration.
Now, I don’t claim to be an expert on Russia, much like I don’t claim to be an expert on Poland, Hungary or Latvia. This is in itself a sign of the times: Ukrainians, your obdt servant included, have just begun to see Russia as a foreign country, not a ‘brotherly people’ or ‘former fellow Soviet republic’ or whatever else, and I’m intensely proud of that. I’m decently informed, though, to say that Russia may indeed seem a little less corrupt than Ukraine does right now (at least, according to various corruption perception indexes and Transparency International, the first of which relies on perceptions and the second is back from 2015). If you don’t catch the eye of a friend of Putin’s and if you pay off the right people exactly once, and if you keep your mouth shut all the while, you can do your business and everything will be fine. The right people get their cut, the businessmen get to do business, and Transparency International gets to give Russia good corruption ratings. Moreover, the state control over practically all Russian media means that corruption is not, in fact, perceived as a major issue by a majority of Russians – the exact opposite of Ukraine, where hapless TV viewers are barraged by accusations of corruption heaped on one official or another, all the time, without much in terms of constructive proof, by a group of intrepid, self-proclaimed anti-corruption crusaders. Which brings us neatly to the next point of the essay, namely that ‘corruption’ and ‘anti-corruption’ are so overused in everyday Ukrainian political discourse that they pretty much lost any and all meaning and became nothing but convenient labels. Everything bad (or done by the government) is ‘corruption’; everything good (or done by the civil society) is ‘anti-corruption’.
That is not to say corruption is not an issue. It’s just that the term is so massively blown out of proportion by now that the issue is not even tackled in good faith.
The culprits at work, of course, are the same intrepid ‘anti-corruption crusaders’ I’ve harped a several times about on this very blog. Of course, I quit writing it shortly before some of their more unsavory activities – such as unexplained real estate purchases and e-declaration software scandals – came to light. I might have had a few choice words to say in that regard. The problem is that those same ‘anti-corruption crusaders’, in the years since 2014, have consecutively:
a) appropriated anti-corruption;
b) turned it into a political tool to be used against their opponents, said opponents including the acting Ukrainian government;
c) not that this is a particularly new thing in Ukrainian politics, it’s just it reached the levels never thought possible in 2005-2007.
Now, I’d be fine with that by itself, were it not for the media coverage anti-corruption crusaders get in Western media (who don’t know much better and get their info from these same anti-corruption crusaders and their journalist colleagues) and the Western diplomatic circles. For some reason, Western observers are so enamored by the image of the intrepid, young, reform-minded anti-corruption civil society activist that it actually hurts to read their opinion pieces quoting Serhiy Leschenko, Mustafa Nayyem or Vitaly Shabunin. For people who had a taste of who Leschenko, Nayyem and Shabunin actually are, that is.
I’ll confess – I met Leschenko at a McDonalds in 2014 and at the time he seemed like a decent enough fellow. Little did I know I would be sadly mistaken a few months after, when Leschenko and Nayyem, now both Rada MPs, actively campaigned against the 2015 state budget. And the 2016 state budget. And the 2017 state budget! This is just scratching the surface of the superior parliamentary work they do when they’re not tweeting, streaming or typing opinion pieces about how West should cut off Ukraine’s aid (or EU should take away the bezviz). But the main reason I’m mad at them was because they took anticorruption, and made it their bitch.
And a fat load of good it did us all.
The problem with fighting corruption is that pointing fingers is very easy. Actually proving the guy you’re pointing at is at fault is much harder, especially in a court of law. Even a Ukrainian court of law. Even if you have your own siloviki (the National Anti-Corruption Bureau), your own prosecutors (the Special Prosecutor’s Office), your friendly media and a couple of Western embassies at your beck and call. Now, if only we had good judges who would jail all the bad people… and, of course, we’ll tell them who the bad people are… that would be a completely different story, now wouldn’t it?
I’m not, in principle, opposed to an anti-corruption court. I’m just pointing out that comparable institutions aren’t particularly successful even in EU countries like Slovakia (where the first successful case was concluded this year, twelve years since the court was established in 2005), and there is no realistic reason to expect they would be successful in Ukraine. I mean, the NABU and the special prosecutor, try as they may, have yet to win a single high-profile case in an ordinary court. A specialized court, which would presumably obey the same procedures as the other courts do, wouldn’t be any different – if we’re not going around setting up kangaroo courts or Stalin’s troikas, that is.
The thing is, we had kangaroo courts in Ukraine a few years ago. There was the political will back then to put all the ‘bad’ people – the undesirable people – away to the gaol and let them rot. Judges fell into line after a single call from the then-occupants of the Bankova. This was a vicious circle that was one of the reasons Ukrainians took to the Maidan – and Maidan won.
People insisting we should bring back kangaroo courts and ‘telephone law’ undermine the basics of what Maidan stood for. This isn’t rule of law – which Ukraine reportedly doesn’t have, according to Western observers. Said Western observers then cheer when anti-corruption crusaders loudly insinuate the Bankova had to use ‘telephone law’ to pressure the judicial system into putting all the bad people to jail, evidence be damned.
That’s another reason why I more or less put down my hands with this blog.
What’s the point, you may ask?
The point is that, as I’ve said before on this very blog, corruption is not a cause. It’s a symptom. And right now, ‘anti-corruption crusaders’ and their supporters waste a hell of a lot of time on fighting the symptoms, not the disease. It’s even worse when Western diplomats start insisting on the same.
Ukraine already did some impressive work on combating the causes of corruption. There is Naftogaz, which went from budget black hole to an active contributor when consumer price schemes were eliminated by the new management. There is a catch, but there is always a catch, and this essay would be even longer than it is if I went into detail. There is Prozorro, and while I personally don’t like Max Nefyodov too much (thanks to him being firmly in cahoots with the anti-corruption crusading crowd), he did a hell of a job with tackling corruption in public procurement. There is deregulation, which is slow, but inexorable and well underway, as Ukraine’s improvements in Doing Business ratings testify. There is always more to be done, and while we would have wanted this process to go faster, you can’t just wave a magic wand and make old habits die easily and old people go away. There is no magic wand in politics, or in society, at all.
That is, if one doesn’t mistake a gun for one, and open a yet another can of worms.
Jailing some people ‘just because’ isn’t the magic wand, either. Even the worst crook in the system was enabled by that system in the first place. You put him away, and a different crook takes his place. You change the system, and there are no more crooks. Or at least, sufficiently few crooks that people wouldn’t notice.
Unfortunately, Ukrainians love easy solutions. And while the average Ukrainian doesn’t know MP Leschenko, ask him about corruption and you’ll get an earful on how everyone ‘up there’ deserves to be jailed and shot. Your average Ukrainian would then probably hand a bribe to some official or another in exchange for favors, but that wouldn’t bother him for a minute.
And this is another reason why you can’t change the system by removing people. Not if you want to put the entire nation in the gaol, and not if you want to have your cake and eat it, too. Only by changing the system you can succeed.
Corruption is a worldwide issue costing the global economy trillions of dollars per annum. This already is reason enough to tackle it. But there is a world of difference between fighting corruption and talking of fighting corruption for your own ends.
A world Ukrainians and Westerners alike both miss.
I would probably get an earful about Lee Quan Yew were I to bring this line of thought up in a discussion. But Singapore isn’t a prosperous nation because he jailed three of his friends, a ritual of some magical properties Ukrainian commentators often refer to. Singapore became prosperous because he took the system, broke it down and remade it again – and he wasn’t shy of cracking a few heads along the way.
Ukraine doesn’t have the option of going around cracking heads. We threw down one murderous dictatorship and fought another murderous dictatorship to a stalemate precisely because they thought they could solve everything by cracking heads.
We have to do it the hard way.
And you’re not helping.
P.S. There may be a light at the end of the tunnel in the face of recent events, after all’s said.
But there’s no cure for human short-sightedness in sight, and that, my friends, is even worse than any corruption.