Few afflictions are as serious for a developing democracy as runaway corruption. Russia’s attempt at democracy died in the 1990s in no small part because of the perception that oligarchs were robbing the nation blind. Now something similar is happening in Ukraine. Yes, Ukraine is threatened by Russian invasion; but the even bigger threat confronting its future is the selfishness of so many public officials.
President Petro Poroshenko, a.k.a. “The Chocolate King” (he owns the largest confectionery company in Ukraine), was elected as an outsider who could, in American parlance, “drain the swamp.” One of his highest-profile initiatives was to appoint George’s former President Mikheil Saakashvili, as governor of Odessa province. Saakashvili had achieved impressed results cleaning up corruption in Georgia. Why couldn’t he do the same in Ukraine, a country where he lived as a young man?
No such luck: Saakashvili has now quit in frustration because he felt that Kiev stymied his reform initiatives. In a New York Times op-ed, he explained his reasoning, complaining “that local leaders of the president’s party were working to undermine the anti-corruption efforts.”
“My administration was starved of funding for months, the appointment of several of my key deputies has been stalled, and some of our most able reformers have quit in frustration,” Saakashvili wrote.
Saakashvili is now forming a new political party in Ukraine. Let’s hope he and other reformers have some success. If they fail, there is a real risk of Ukraine going the way of Russia where corruption has become so endemic that it has swallowed the state. Vladimir Putin is quite possibly the richest ruler in the world, and he presides over a network of corrupt cronies and hangers-on.
Russia’s state-run news media are now touting the arrest of Aleksei Ulyukayev, the minister of economic development, on charges of soliciting a $2 million bribe from Rosneft, the state oil giant. It is hard to take the case at face value–$2 million is far too paltry a sum for a Cabinet member to be soliciting in Russia’s oil-fueled kleptocracy. The New York Times does a good job of trying to unravel the back story, suggesting that Ulyukayev may have been punished for trying to impede Putin and his cronies (including the former KGB agent who runs Rosneft) from looting the company, which is sitting on $15 billion in cash.
Something similar occurs on a regular basis in China where Xi Jinping uses the guise of fighting corruption to eliminate rivals for power. In both China and Russia, ironically, corruption-fighting becomes a cover for corruption-promoting.
Saakashvili’s experience–to say nothing of other reformers such as President Ashraf Ghani in Afghanistan–shows how difficult rooting out corruption officials and practices can be. But it is essential if these struggling states are ever to mature into prosperous and stable democracies. The U.S. needs to provide what help it can to help clean up the political process in budding allies rather than simply accepting rampant corruption as a fact of life.