Yushchenko vows to fight corruption

Published: Monday, January 3, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 2, 2005 at 10:49 p.m.
KIEV, Ukraine - Like most Ukrainian university students, Olena Prokhorova can earn a passing grade two ways: by slogging through the books or by paying a $20 bribe. Traffic cops are notoriously on the take, and Ukrainians say they don't give it a second thought when they can bribe their way out of a traffic infraction - real or not.
"We almost don't even consider it corruption," said Prokhorova, a 19-year-old university student from the western city of Lviv.
There's evidence the plague of corruption spawned the fraud in the second-round presidential vote Nov. 21. Hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters like Prokhorova massed in Kiev to protest not only their stolen votes, but also the underlying corruption. The Supreme Court later annulled the results, citing mass fraud, and ordered last week's revote.
It is not surprising then that Viktor Yushchenko, the opposition leader whom preliminary results show to be the victor, has pledged to fight corruption as the first task of his presidency.
By all accounts, it won't be easy. According to Transparency International's 2004 ranking of corrupt nations, Ukraine was one of the worst - No. 128 out of 146, nestled between Sudan and Cameroon.
This summer, some of the world's biggest steel companies cried foul after Ukraine's main steel producer Kryvorizhstal was sold to a company controlled by outgoing President Leonid Kuchma's son-in-law, Viktor Pinchuk - even though his bid was significantly lower than the bids offered by the steel companies.
But it is the little bribes - to a university teacher, doctors, judges, traffic cops - that have outraged this nation of 48 million.
Svetlana Bordyla, 47, said it is common practice to bring a box of chocolates to the state medical clinic - it guarantees a gentler touch and more time with the physician than for someone who turns up empty-handed.
"Ninety-nine percent of Ukrainian citizens feel corruption impact on their lives," said Petro Poroshenko, a lawmaker and one of Yushchenko's closest allies. "It is awful. We think that during the next two or three months, it will be our main problem."
Viktor Luhovyk, a political analyst with the Dragon Capital investment house, said the problem dates back to the Soviet Union when bureaucrats, fearing they could lose their jobs anytime, sought to reap as much in the way of graft as possible.
Yushchenko has offered few specifics about his anti-corruption fight. He has promised to reshuffle government at all levels, and said "without a doubt" he will consider replacing all regional governors. He also warned some privatization deals, including Kryvorizhstal, might be revisited, though he has left open the possibility that the buyers could just pay extra cash.
"I am not expecting a witch hunt," Luhovyk said. "He will probably try to reverse some of the recent, and most obviously rigged deals ... but that doesn't mean there will be a major crackdown on oligarchs."
Political analyst Ina Pidluska said a Yushchenko administration is likely to pursue administrative and regulatory reform, to try to do away with some of the bureaucratic hurdles facing small-business owners.
Nadezhda Ionavna said her general store in Kaniv was subjected to regular visits by tax police and never-ending checks by environmental, fire, and sanitary inspectors. Many inspectors come expecting something for themselves.
"It wears you down," she said. Yushchenko could try to tackle this by raising state salaries - but the government has a budget deficit now. He could also opt for a few, attention-grabbing, anti-corruption cases to send a message, analysts said.
With his rival, Viktor Yanukovych, refusing to concede defeat, and with little support in Ukraine's industrial east Yushchenko - who can't be officially declared president until all appeals are exhausted - must not portray himself as out for revenge, Pidluska said.
But Prokhorova - who has spent more than a month living in the opposition's sprawling tent camp on Kiev's main avenue - wants speedy changes. When she returns to university in Lviv, she vowed not to hand over $1 for every missed class - the usual rate.
"I won't pay it. That's not why I'm out here. That's not what we are fighting for," she said.

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