LVIV—Ukraine and corruption. How often have you heard these two words connected? And yet can you give precise examples of this corruption, or is it just something you’ve heard?
The standard so many cite is the Corruption Perceptions Index, created by former World Bank employees who started Transparency International. The keyword: perception. But what people perceive can be far from reality. Denmark is number one in the index, as “least corrupt.” That’s the same kingdom whose government has been held unaccountable for its massive pandemic-era mink cull that ruined thousands of livelihoods.
So, first, we need definitions. Corruption means decay. Societies decay when only a small elite lives well and most of the population feels disconnected from the good possibilities of life. Russia is totally corrupt: even its oligarch class is not free, but exists only at the whim of Putin. Ukraine, as we’ve seen in the nation’s ability to withstand the might of Russia, is the opposite: vibrant. A corrupt society could not have held on against such a monstrous war machine.
I’ve been in Ukraine since a few weeks before the pandemic gripped the world. I saw a society of people who, no matter what, find a way. In this way, Ukraine is a threat not only to totalitarian regimes like Moscow but also to elites in Brussels and Washington. The people really govern.
We see some other voices in the world standing up for this type of real freedom. Giorgia Meloni, the new Italian prime minister, with whom President Zelenskiy met in Rome this past weekend, seems to understand the battle lines:
“Because everything that defines us is now an enemy for those who would like us to no longer have an identity and to simply be perfect consumer slaves,” she said in a speech before becoming prime minister. “Because when I am only a number or when I no longer have an identity then I will be the perfect slave at the mercy of the financial speculators.” To the surprise of her American populist admirers, Meloni has become a fierce proponent of Ukraine. She’s visited the scenes of Russian destruction and she knows what the Ukrainians are fighting for.
Ukrainians are not at the mercy of financial speculators and the Transparency International-type elites. They are not in debt like so many in the West, their food tends to be local, natural, fresh—and healthy things are affordable. Before coming to Ukraine, I have traveled the world, and no matter where I went from forest to jungle to desert I had terrible allergies. Only here, free of corporate chemical food, have my allergies disappeared.
You could say that corruption in Ukraine is democratic. Yea, sometimes Ukrainians pay officials a little extra, so they can get through the process faster. Since the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, such practices have been fading, but in the time of the big war they take on a new aspect: If you get pulled over by the police for speeding, you can avoid a ticket in some cases by donating on the spot to the armed forces.
I covered New York State politics as a reporter—and saw vast endemic corruption. Politicians threatened my reporters and me. I’ve covered politics in Washington, where Congress passes bills without reading them, bills written by corporations to suit their needs. I’ve lived in crime-ridden New Orleans. The little guy has little chance.
Consider the USA, where 95 percent of felony convictions are obtained through plea bargains: If you’re a regular person and the government accuses you of a crime, you must go up against the full weight of the state. Lawyers are expensive. Better to take a deal—and the more scalps prosecutors have, the better for their careers.
In Ukraine, everyone with wit and ability has a chance. Even a government-backed media initiative has noted this. United 24, a social media initiative of President Zelenskiy’s office, interviewed British journalist, Peter Pomerantsev, who said “In Russia corruption is paying to join the system. In Ukraine, it’s to get the system off your back.” Ukrainians are free people; they resist control by anyone.
Instead of simply being angry or frustrated, Ukrainians work for solutions. And the government here always has to remember that at any moment the people can take to the Maidan, the public square, to assert their rights.
In the 2014 Maidan revolution, Ukrainians sent the pro-corruption forces fleeing. Afterward, while he was vice president, President Biden traveled to Ukraine and lectured the country for its alleged corruption, though Ukraine had just achieved the near-impossible by evicting Putin’s puppet regime. All the while, Biden’s son, Hunter, was making money from Burisma, a firm run by a member of the corrupt Yanukovich government that fled from Kyiv to Moscow because of that same revolution.
Yes, there are problems in Ukraine, even amid the widespread solidarity of wartime. Many have come to me complaining about Soviet-minded middle management in the military and the government. People make allegations of sweetheart deals for special oligarchs. But month by month, as Ukrainians fight for their existence, these problems are remedied. Besides, many of the corrupt oligarchs fled the country the week before the big invasion on a day that saw the highest level of private jet traffic leaving Ukraine.
Meanwhile, corruption fighters, like Mayor Oleksandr Senkevich of shipbuilding Mykolaiv, whom I interviewed last October, have stood fast and kept the Russians at bay. Tragically, many of the best young corruption fighters have died in battle.
This is the clear reality: Russia’s war on Ukraine is a struggle between the freest, most vibrant people in the world, the people who know they have agency, and are willing to use it, versus corrupt tyranny. A real Ukrainian victory will either encourage an awakening of freedom in the world or it will lead to a global preference, even among freedom lovers, for the illusion of security over actual freedom.
Because in this fight we see the true bloody price of freedom: If Ukrainians had agreed to shut up, to let corrupt Moscow and global forces govern them in Kyiv, there’d be no war today. There’d be no need for it, just like Russia doesn’t go to war against Belarus, where Moscow already rules. As with lockdown, you can just stay home and shut up and all will seem ok.
Or you can live like a Ukrainian and push for real widespread freedom, the opposite of corruption.