ERR's Ainar Ruussaar traveled to Eastern Ukraine in February this year as part of a training program for local journalists. In the fourth and last article of his series, Ruussaar talks about an aspect of Ukrainian life that has decisively affected the country's fate as well as its reputation: corruption.
We all steal, some of us more, others less. Working time, for example, or pens. I remember my first and last time, 30 years ago, when I was a hungry student in Sochi. I stole a hardboiled egg from a seaside café, my heart in my mouth and the egg in my pocket. I didn't get caught.
When then-president Viktor Yanukovych left the country with a duffel bag full of cash in a helicopter headed for Russia, that wasn't just simple theft. It was the last act of his years of plundering the country, abusing his office and power for personal gain. That's what you call corruption.
In Ukraine, theft, or at least cheating foreigners out of their money, has been a part of everyday life and and a way to make a living. The Ukrainians will be the first to tell you that the hopes they had four years ago that things might change have been disappointed. They will tell you that every public official, from the local level right up to the parliament in Kiev and the president, steals from them. They have no way of checking or proving it.
Exhibition of objects recovered from the house of Presdient Viktor Yanukovych after he fled the country. Author: AP/Scanpix
Last spring I met with Nadiya Savchenko in Tallinn. Today Savchenko is a member of the Ukrainian parliament. She has been imprisoned in Russia after her Mi-24 helicopter was shot down in the Lugansk area. The helicopter crashed and she was taken prisoner. Eventually she was swapped and made it back home, and her popularity helped her to get into parliament.
For some time after that, she was one of Europe's most famous politicians. But when I met her in Tallinn last spring, she told me that life as a politician in Ukraine is difficult. Nobody trusts them, because everyone is convinced that they all steal, she said.
Of course it could never be that everyone steals, because some people still have a sense of shame. But there are always those who cheat and blackmail, and these people leave a bad enough impression to drag others down with them.
Smoking is prohibited on Ukrainian trains. There are signs on the walls warning of a fine over 350 hrivna, some €10. Out in the corridor, right next to one of the signs, I encounter the conductor smoking a cigarette. Being a smoker myself, I pull out my pack and I'm about to light up when he tells me that smoking isn't allowed here.
While going on smoking himself, cool as a cucumber.
Of course I go ahead and ask him how it's possible that one can smoke, and the other can't. Pay me 350, and you can smoke all you want as long as you want, the conductor tells me. Thanks to him, I don't have a smoke until the morning, I don't pay the fine, and hopefully extend my life, if by a little bit.
On my trip I meet Anzhela, a middle-aged lawyer. We talk about Ukraine, Estonia, Europe, politics, and the law. Some way into the conversation, the woman opens up, and tells me how her son was drafted into the army just when a wave of protests started in Kiev. She tells me that sitting in Mariupol and watching what was happening on TV, she lost her head. Of course she wanted a change, but seeing what was going on in the capital, and knowing about her son being drafted there, she scraped together all of her money, drove to Kiev and bought her son back out of the army.
That's the story Anzhela told me. She went there, paid whatever she had to pay, and got her son back from the army. I wouldn't be able to so much as hint at who exactly one would have to pay in Estonia to get a kid out of military service. Luckily. I wouldn't want to know. And I would never think of doing it either.
I paid a taxi driver to take me from Mariupol closer to the war zone. We agreed on a price and a number of working hours, shook hands, and got on the way. Naturally there were military and geographical obstacles, but the time we agreed on still covered the trip. Not the money though. Once we're back, he announces that it all cost 50 percent more than we agreed on. The risk was bigger, the roads worse than expected, the tires worn out, and anyway, a foreigner pays more.
There are lots and lots of these stories. Would you call that theft? Blackmail? Poverty? A bit of everything? The conductor, Anzhela, and every clever taxi driver I met all still claimed that those in power are corrupt and steal.
In Kiev a taxi driver offers me a receipt, but only after asking me what sum I want him to write down. Whatever I owe you, I respond. He looks baffled, and then says, okay, let's be honest then.
Special representative of the EU's Eastern Partnership program, Jaan Reinhold, says that they advise Ukraine in its fight against corruption. "The aim of the Eastern Partnership is to create a stable neighborhood for the European Union and to improve the lives of the locals. Suggesting reforms and implementing good governing practice as well as e-solutions, those are the first steps to change Ukrainians' thinking patterns," the ambassador says.
According to Reinhold, the Ukrainians understand very well that the image of a corrupted country keeps foreign investment away and has an effect on the economy and the well-being of people. "Estonians are trusted because we have gone through similar difficulties. To us it is important that with our help for Ukraine we don't just change the country, but that we gain expert knowledge about what's happening there to decide what we want to achieve in Ukraine, including for example in the area of foreign trade," Reinhold adds.
On March 1, a bill passed its first reading in Ukraine's parliament that calls for the introduction of a court specially to deal with corruption cases. The measure has been demanded by plenty of international organizations that support Ukraine. Perhaps ten years from now things will have changed.
Ainar Ruussaar (*1966) is an Estonian journalist and until 2017 was a member of the management of Estonian Public Broadcasting. Ruussaar's career spans three decades and began a few years before Estonia regained its independence in 1991, still under Soviet occupation. He is one of Estonia's longest-serving and most recognized news journalists.
Ruussaar traveled to East Ukraine in February 2018 as part of a training program for local journalists, run by SA Eesti Idapartnerluse Keskus and financed by the Estonian Ministry of Foreign affairs in cooperation with the United States and Flanders.
Editor: Dario Cavegn