The Worm in the Ukrainian Apple

April 29, 2014

This last winter tens of thousands of Ukrainians poured into the center of Kiev to protest toxic, almost pestilential, corruption.  The upheaval was triggered by president Yanukovich’s decision to return the Ukraine toward Russian domination, a move that offered no relief from corruption. During the 1920s Ukrainians over and over revolted against Lenin and then Stalin. In response, Stalin in the 1930s confiscated and shipped Ukraine’s grain harvest to the rest of the world.  He fed the Russian economy while literally starving an estimated seven million Ukrainians. Today, when protesters say they don’t want a Yanukovich government dominated by Vladimir Putin, they have reason to remember and to resist.



Not only, however, did Stalin starve Ukraine, he also imposed, at the point of a gun, a culture of hierarchy, deceit, and corruption.  And that may be at the heart of the matter.


Throughout both Ukraine and Russia during the Soviet period it was generally accepted that to start a business required permits, and permits required knowing the right person, paying the right fees.  Often this would require payments to dozens of different officials.  Wealthier Ukrainians could buy good grades to get their children through school. If they bought good elementary grades they could buy university entrance and then they could buy good university grades and with these they could buy positions in government.  That is the way life had been for time out of mind in Russia and those were the conditions in the Soviet Union’s Ukraine.


Unfortunately, after Ukraine became independent in 1991, the corruption did not go away.  Ukrainians had become good at it on their own.  Today, therefore, the corruption that still rages throughout Russia rages every bit as much throughout Ukraine.  In effect, this corruption is what Yanukovich planned to secure by returning Ukraine to the Russian orbit and that is what the protesters in the streets revolted against.  Millions now seek closer ties with the West in order to create government and commerce that does not depend to such a degree upon bribes, secrecy, and deceit.


This very week, therefore, the European Union and the United States are engaged in an intense tug-of-war with Vladimir Putin to determine who will control the future of this country. On its surface, the battle is over territory and the legitimacy of boundaries.  President Putin is describing the Kiev interim government as “fascist” while at the same time himself mimicking the 20th century fascist tactics of Stalin and Hitler, creating pretext for the annexation of territories by stirring up nationalist passions.  


Putin may consider the Arab Spring and instability throughout the Middle East to be indicative of what happens with democracies.  For him, quite probably, democracy is retrogression and stability through strength is the promise of the Russian future.  This puts the Russian leader in direct opposition to the main currents of Western thought of the last 300 years.  Further, since he knows no other adhesive for government then personal hierarchy obtained through payments, favors, and secret alliances, he has no intuitive or emotional connection with the idea of the rule of law. Unfortunately, the idea of the law above the king, or the czar, or the president, is the foundation of democracy.  Putin and his oligarch colleagues undoubtedly think of that idea as naïve.


Practices, therefore, which we in the West call corrupt are for Putin “realistic,” and, equally important, are for the rest of the Russian population also realistic. When, at a dinner gathering in Moscow, someone calls for the elimination of corruption in Russia, one’s host is likely to roll his eyeballs and change the subject.  If a Westerner thinks that a favorable court decision, or a permit, or a good job, might be obtained without the right connections and the right payments to the right people at the right time, he is simply from another planet.    


When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union in 1985 he tried to change all this.  He declared a new policy of glasnost andperistroika meaning openness and reconstruction and by that he meant to reconstruct Soviet society from the bottom up.  This grand dream was shared by a great many in the arts and scientific communities and among writers, teachers, and journalists. But as the 1990s unfolded it turned out that a whole nation trained over the centuries by czars and communists simply did not believe in openness.  There were more people who thought like KGB agents than like Thomas Jefferson.


During a period of privatization in the 1990s, oligarchs quickly took control of Soviet gas and oil, mining and commodities.  These were men who were fluent in the traditional language of hierarchy, conspiracy, and deceit.  Putin made his deals and solidified his power with them.  Those who did not accept his control were arrested, many exiled to Siberia.  Journalists, activists, and intelligentsia who objected were in many cases murdered.


This is the rule that Putin now wishes to extend outside of Russia, west, south, east, and perhaps even north to the Baltics. The biggest prize of all, however, would be to reestablish hierarchical, corrupt and personally allegiant government in Ukraine. It was against this probability that the thousands poured into the streets of Kiev last fall.  It is this kind of autocracy that the West reviles and that Putin sees as the promise of the future.


Ultimately, therefore, the tug-of-war over Ukraine is not just about territory, or Russia, or international law. It is not just about independence or languages; it is about the very difficult question of how, or whether, to move an economy and a political culture away from a history of bribery, special favors, personal hierarchy and cults of personality. Or, from Putin’s point of view, how to keep it just that way.


When, last fall, president Yanukovich tried to move Ukraine back toward Russia it did not appear that the West could stop him.  Most governments accepted the event with only mild protest. When, however, the uprising occurred in the Maidan, suddenly it appeared that Ukraine might fall like an apple from the tree into the Western lap.


Now Putin wants the apple back and we are engaged in a mighty war of nerves to see who ends up with it.  But the West should keep this in mind: a culture of corruption is not easy to change.  People trained in the practice of deceit do not easily come to trust the rule of law.  Whoever takes over will find a very big worm in this Ukrainian apple. That means that there is no quick fix here and if we wade in it may be a long time before we wade out.