Rampant corruption tests Ukrainians’ patience

(latest in the Winnipeg Free Press)

This month marks the second anniversary of Ukraine’s bloody revolution on the Maidan, but no one’s in a mood to celebrate.

“People here are in a state of total depression,” a friend told me this week from Kyiv. “People are frustrated. Nobody sees any prospects here.”

The statistics back this up. One poll released in January showed Ukrainians are feeling worse about the future than ever before. The percentage of Ukrainians who reported being satisfied with their standard of living dropped 10 per cent in 2015. More than one-third of Ukrainians reported they felt they were “suffering” — the highest among all post-Soviet countries surveyed — alongside less than 10 per cent who said they were “thriving.”

“I think the main cause of this depression isn’t the war,” my friend said. “It’s the government. We have the same problems as before: corruption and bribery.”

Take a look at what Ukraine’s government has done in the last few weeks and it’s easy to see why Ukrainians are so frustrated.

Earlier this month, the economy minister was the latest in a wave of reformers to resign. He accused President Petro Poroshenko’s right-hand man of standing in the way of anti-corruption reforms and trying to take control of the ministry to oversee sales of lucrative state-owned energy assets.

Last week, Poroshenko looked like he was taking a stand when he called for the resignation of the prosecutor-general, a man who hasn’t pursued a single high-profile, anti-corruption case in his tenure. Problem is, no one is sure right now whether he’s actually resigned, or just gone on vacation — by law, Ukrainian officials can’t be fired if they’re on vacation.

Poroshenko also called for the resignation of unpopular Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a man who’s long been accused of protecting the interests of Ukraine’s wealthy oligarchs and dragging his feet on anti-corruption reforms.

But while Ukraine’s parliament passed a resolution expressing dissatisfaction with Yatsenyuk and his cabinet, the vote to oust him from power failed. Three dozen MPs from Poroshenko’s party curiously decided not to vote in favour of ousting the prime minister, even though they’d voted for the resolution just 15 minutes earlier. A backroom deal had apparently been reached to keep Yatsenyuk in office, and the hands of Ukraine’s wealthy oligarchs were all over it, keen on keeping their exclusive access to the corridors of power.

Ukraine’s government will find itself in deep trouble if it doesn’t take the fight against corruption and the power of the oligarchs more seriously. The International Monetary Fund has told the government its four-year, US$17.5-billion bailout could be withdrawn unless meaningful anti-corruption reforms are put in place. A $1.7-billion tranche of that funding has been withheld since October, waiting for reforms that haven’t happened yet.

Ukraine’s economy is already struggling, and without western assistance, it will crumble. Even with western assistance, Ukraine’s economy contracted by 10 per cent in 2015, and the value of the hryvnya, its currency, keeps plunging. But, as Glib Vyshlinsky of Kyiv’s Centre for Economic Strategy told Agence France-Presse: “There are no other sources of foreign assistance. Turning to (Russian President Vladimir) Putin is not an option.”

But without anti-corruption reforms, and without help and pressure from the West, there’s a real risk Ukraine will fall back into the Kremlin’s nihilistic, kleptocratic orbit and the revolution on the Maidan will have been for nothing — exactly what Putin wants.

It’s worrying then many Ukrainians feel like nothing has changed.

“Everything’s starting to be just like it was before,” another friend from western Ukraine said. “Everybody is so tired of all this. People are just trying to survive.”

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