KIEV, Ukraine – Like most Ukrainian university students, Olena Prokhorova can earn a passing grade two ways: by slogging through the books or by paying a $20 bribe. Traffic cops are notoriously on the take, and Ukrainians say they don’t give it a second thought when they can bribe their way out of a traffic infraction – real or not.
“We almost don’t even consider it corruption,” said Prokhorova, a 19-year-old university student from the western city of Lviv.
There’s evidence the plague of corruption spawned the fraud in the second-round presidential vote on Nov. 21. Hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters such as Prokhorova massed in Kiev to protest not only their stolen votes, but also the underlying corruption. The Supreme Court later annulled the results, citing mass fraud, and ordered last week’s revote.
It is not surprising then that Viktor Yushchenko, the opposition leader whom preliminary results show to be the victor, has pledged to fight corruption as the first task of his presidency.
By all accounts, it won’t be easy. According to Transparency International’s 2004 ranking of corrupt nations, Ukraine was one of the worst – No. 128 out of 146, nestled between Sudan and Cameroon.
This summer, some of the world’s biggest steel companies cried foul after Ukraine’s main steel producer Kryvorizhstal was sold to a company controlled by outgoing President Leonid Kuchma’s son-in-law, Viktor Pinchuk – even though his bid was significantly lower than the bids offered by the steel companies.
But it is the little bribes – to a university teacher, doctors, judges, traffic cops – that have outraged this nation.
Svetlana Bordyla, 47, said it is common practice to bring a box of chocolates to the state medical clinic – it guarantees a gentler touch and more time with the physician.
“Ninety-nine percent of Ukrainian citizens feel corruption impact on their lives,” said Petro Poroshenko, a lawmaker and one of Yushchenko’s closest allies. “It is awful. We think that during the next two or three months, it will be our main problem.”
Viktor Luhovyk, a political analyst with the Dragon Capital investment house, said the problem dates back to the days of the Soviet Union when bureaucrats, fearing they could lose their jobs anytime, sought to reap as much as possible in the way of graft.
Yushchenko has promised to reshuffle government at all levels, and said “without a doubt” that he will consider replacing all regional governors. He also warned that some privatization deals, including Kryvorizhstal, might be revisited, though he has left open the possibility that the buyers could just pay extra cash.
“He will probably try to reverse some of the recent, and most obviously rigged deals … but that doesn’t mean there will be a major crackdown on oligarchs,” Luhovyk said.