April 19, 2016 2 Comments
Should corruption in Ukraine be legalized? As I ask this question, I can almost see many people who follow Ukrainian politics raise their eyebrows. I can also see many, especially members of the outspoken Ukrainian Diaspora, beginning to seethe. Yet, after two and a half decades of watching Ukraine fight, and mostly lose, battles against epidemic corruption, and realistically not seeing no other credible options to turn the tide, I turn to the only principal, which works well when trying to combat a very strong and seemingly unbeatable opponent. It is a millennium-old Judo principle, which states “use your opponent’s strength to your advantage”, or as I like to say, “when pushed, instead of pushing back, pull.” In this case, corruption is the proverbial opponent we are looking to defeat.
Government corruption in Ukraine is deep, well entrenched and akin to a massive granite mountain. Not to be too simplistic, but it can generally be divided into two basic categories. The first is corruption perpetrated by the influence of the powerful interests who direct budget flows, or rig supply and privatization tenders. The second type is corruption perpetrated by the underpaid bureaucrats (ministry clerks, prosecutors, and customs and tax agents). They extort money from businesspeople and from the public by either helping them expedite, or by running interference, as these folks try to navigate through the arcane systems of byzantine rules and regulations, which permeate Ukrainian life.
Although corruption in Ukraine has always been an issue, recently, certain young reform factions, with support from Western (primarily US) donors, have attempted to combat government corruption head on. Attempts to install Western and progressive Ukrainian Ministers to head the corrupt Ministries have failed. Not a single one of those ministers remains in power after one year. Unfortunately, but predictably, they were all consumed and spat out by the system they tried to reform. These people were set up to fail, as it is impossible for a handful of even the brightest people to defeat a monolith without having a strong backing of the population, support of organized political parties, sufficient finances and true support from the country’s business and political elites. As the saying goes, “we can only help those who want to help themselves.” It seems Ukrainian bureaucracy is not yet ready to help itself. The general population is also not at the level where it keeps up constant pressure for change. The people of Ukraine have bravely risen up during Maidan revolutions, but the after effects of their protests did not produce desired meaningful changes (e.g. post Orange Revolution government rift, Yanukovich presidency).
The idealistic thinking and mentality of some Western ministers who thought they could and singlehandedly tried to alleviate corruption and change the Ukrainian bureaucracy, is nothing but naive. I was privileged to know some of these intrepid warriors and their advisory teams. They certainly possessed the skills and the desire to change the system. Yet, they were very ill-equipped and did not have a realistic grasp on how badly the corruption cancer metastasized. In some cases, the reformers’ desires to radically break the system led to opposite effects. I have seen Ministers require tenders, where none were needed (or legally required) just to display a corruption fighting banner. The irony of the whole thing was that Ukrainians have learned to rig and beat many “fair and open” tenders, so these Ministers’ misconstrued demands were a double whammy. I have also seen a large state company paralyzed with fear of action on a terrific project, because the management was afraid that a minister would interpret a legal sole-source procurement, as corrupt.
These ministers, advisors, governors, investigative journalists and many other extremely well-meaning and reform minded folks also have failed, or modestly succeeded in their attempts to introduce e-government procurement, create a new police force, reform Prosecutor’s General office and the GPU and reform the Customs Service. It certainly was not for lack of trying, patriotism, or incorruptibility. All this got me thinking as to:
- why there is such rampant corruption in Ukraine?
- whether efforts to eradicate it are doomed?
- if there is a better way to solve the problem?
To answer the first question, we need to look at couple of factors, which amplify graft in Ukraine. Although corruption exists pretty much everywhere in the world, in Ukraine, a confluence of factors makes it particularly pervasive and damaging to the economy. A very low pay scale for public servants, very large gap between the salaries of civil servants and budget funds, which are expended in public procurement, external financings, aid and donor contributions. Thus people of means, seeking to corrupt the system, get greater leverage in influencing low-paid bureaucrats. These bureaucrats (especially the ones steeped by the Soviet system of graft) operate with impunity because the enforcement branches are corrupt and so on. The whole system is infested and needs complete structural overhaul.
Is Ukraine doomed? That depends on whether radical attempts of wishful thinking, unsustainable reforms, populist solutions and political farce continue. As people who have been on crash diets, tried to kick a habit cold turkey, or tried to undertake a massive change mostly with lip service PR, but without real resources and commitment know, these solutions almost never work.
So what needs to be done? The biggest asset, which Ukraine has today, are its people born in the 80’s, or after the fall of the Soviet Union. These folks grew up in a freedom-loving Ukraine and connected to the rest of the world. They are mostly free of the Soviet corruption malaise (although strong evidence exists that current Ukrainian corruption has permeated Ukraine’s higher education system in the last twenty years and many students are very comfortable with bribing teachers for good grades). Yet, despite these obstacles, and with the understanding that human nature will never change and some corruption will always be there, we can reasonably expect corruption in Ukraine to subside with every subsequent generation.
Meanwhile, in the medium term, it is reasonable to start chipping away at the corruption from many sides. Gradually introduce reforms, decrease rules and regulations, reform the tax code and completely overhaul Ukraine’s prosecutorial branch GPU, substantially increase public service salaries, and introduce international audits of select tenders. Eliminate tariffs and, most importantly, continue to raise the stakes for the powerful business and political elites by expanding their access to western markets and financial systems, thus raising the stakes for them in terms of reputational and real risks in case they are implicated in corruption.
In the short-term, it is worth looking at the lobbying and advisory/support institutions of the US as an example. Their structure should provide a very clear framework as to how our country has legalized activities normally considered corrupt. Setting up regulated lobbying firms, expediting firms, and shifting mindsets of the bureaucrats on being able to make money at such lobbying firms after leaving the public service, are just some of the tools, which may be employed to legalize corruption. This is the carrot.
The stick should be greatly increased punishment for those who break the rules, with prosecution being handled by outside independent arbitrators, the accused having the burden of proof and expense of their own legal defense in an international neutral venue.
Many countries and states have legalized vice and illegal activities in order manage them. Holland and Australia legalized prostitution, the state of Colorado marijuana, Nevada gambling. All such efforts have been largely successful, generated billions in taxes and dealt with massive public problems according the judo principle mentioned above.
So if the future powers to be in Ukraine and in the West start looking at the eradication of the corruption problem through a 30-50 year prism and start managing the transition gradually while legalizing some of the corruption, Ukraine stands a chance to finally realize its true potential.