My one reporting visit to Ukraine came in 2008. My subject was Ukraine after the 2004 Orange Revolution which had brought to power the anti-corruption reformer President Viktor Yushchenko.
I interviewed several government ministers and advisers, back then, who were full of plans for land reform, to literally capitalize on the country’s fabled agricultural riches, for banking reform, reducing the powers of the oligarchs, and for a new era of transparency, accountability and post-Soviet modernization in business and politics.
Then I talked to some ordinary Ukrainians, which wasn’t easy, because the quickest way to empty a public space was to brandish a TV camera. But after the camera was stowed, or a quiet, private space was provided for an interview, I heard how almost everyone was still under the thumb of corruption…petty payoffs or shakedowns over market stall space or parking tickets … or the endless series of papers pushed and bribes required that prevented a package delivery service from doing its one basic task…moving goods quickly.
And on a bigger scale, one of the country’s most active agricultural reformers, trying to reward farmers by teaching them the ways of open markets, pointed to a man at a desk in a far corner of his office. “That’s my guy for dealing with the Mafias,” he told me, as if it were a fact of life.
Since Yushchenko, two elected presidents and a temporary place holder have come and gone, coming in as professed anti-corruption reformers and going out reviled as enablers, not reformers of corruption.
The newest Ukrainian president, elected in May, Volodomyr Zelensky, was a famous corruption-fighter…on television, in a sit-com in which Zelensky’s character, a schoolteacher, is elected president after a video of a classroom denunciation of corruption goes viral when a student puts it online. The key to Zelensky’s campaign, and landslide victory, was his promise that this time things would be different, that this time a simple, honest, non-political man would clean things up.
According to a September 2019 report by the IMF, President Zelensky hasn’t changed things. Ukraine, the IMF judged, is still hobbled by ““shortcomings in the legal framework, pervasive corruption, and large parts of the economy dominated by inefficient state-owned enterprises or by oligarchs.”
Actually, the IMF was particularly concerned about one oligarch, Ihor Kolomoisky, the billionaire who helped Volodymyr Zelensky become a TV star and helped him win the presidency. When President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani pressed his anti-corruption campaign in Ukraine, the first people his local agents reached out to, it has been reported, were people tied to Kolomoisky.
What, if anything, does this tell us? And what is the reality of endemic corruption in Ukrainian governance and society? And who are all these Ukrainian presidents and prosecutors and whose interests do they represent?
ALEXANDER J. MOTYL is professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark, as well as a writer and painter. He served as associate director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University from 1992 to 1998. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires, and theory, he is the author of Pidsumky imperii; Puti imperii; Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires; Revolutions, Nations, Empires: Conceptual Limits and Theoretical Possibilities; Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism; Sovietology, Rationality, Nationality: Coming to Grips with Nationalism in the USSR; Will the Non‑Russians Rebel? State, Ethnicity, and Stability in the USSR; The Turn to the Right: The Ideological Origins and Development of Ukrainian Nationalism, 1919–1929; and the editor of more than ten volumes, including The Encyclopedia of Nationalism. Motyl’s novels include Whiskey Priest; Who Killed Andrei Warhol; Flippancy; The Jew Who Was Ukrainian; and a work in progress, My Orchidia. His poems have appeared in Counterexample Poetics, Istanbul Literary Review, and New York Quarterly(forthcoming). He has done performances of his fiction at the Cornelia Street Café, the Bowery Poetry Club, and the Ukrainian Museum in New York. Motyl’s artwork has been shown in solo and group shows in New York, Philadelphia, and Toronto; his art is represented by The Tori Collection.