Saturday, April 19, 2014
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The Last Laugh in Ukraine

MELBOURNE – Last year, when Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski went to Kyiv for talks, his Ukrainian counterparts reportedly laughed at him because he was wearing a cheap Japanese watch. Several Ukrainian ministers had watches that cost more than $30,000. In a column I wrote about this incident, I pointed out that quartz watches perform a watch’s function – telling the time accurately – better than mechanical “prestige” watches that cost hundreds of times as much.

Sikorski has had the last laugh. Those who mocked him were speedily dismissed by the Ukrainian parliament in the wake of President Viktor Yanukovych’s flight from Kyiv. Nor were the expensive watches irrelevant to the fate of Yanukovych and his cronies.

Corruption is a key issue in the Ukrainian revolution, as it has been in many popular uprisings, including the Tunisian revolution against President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, which triggered the Arab Spring, and the “People Power Revolution” in the Philippines that ousted President Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

In each case, the overthrow of the corrupt leader has been followed by revelations about the lavish lifestyle he led at the expense of his people, many of whom were desperately poor. Yanukovych, we now know, had a private zoo, his own restaurant in the shape of a pirate ship, and a collection of contemporary and antique cars.

A document recovered after his flight shows that Yanukovych paid a German firm €1.7 million ($2.3 million) for wooden decor for his dining room and tearoom. In Tunisia, the notorious extravagance of Ben Ali’s extended family included a caged tiger and the use of a private jet to fly in ice cream from St. Tropez. As for Marcos, who can forget his wife Imelda’s 3,000 pairs of shoes?

One visitor to Yanukovych’s estate told The New York Times that everything had been stolen from the people. There was the same anger when Ben Ali and Marcos fell, and ordinary people saw how their rulers had lived. But, though one marble-tiled bedroom in a Ben Ali mansion soon acquired graffiti saying, “The rich get rich and the poor get poorer,” the issue is not simply one of economic inequality.

Arguably, income inequality is justified, because it provides incentives for entrepreneurs to provide goods and services that are better, or cheaper, than the goods or services that others are providing, and this competition benefits everyone. By contrast, it is not remotely arguable that political rulers should be able to acquire immense personal wealth through bribery or by distributing public resources to their family and friends.

This is stealing from the people. Moreover, its impact goes beyond the amounts stolen. In cables made public by WikiLeaks, Robert Godec, the US Ambassador to Tunisia before the revolution, warned that the level of corruption stemming from Ben Ali and his family was deterring investment, and thus contributing to the country’s high unemployment. It seems likely that a less corrupt Ukraine would also have been more prosperous.

In these situations, the public’s anger is easy to understand and entirely justifiable. It is more difficult to explain why some political leaders behave so poorly. To become the president of one’s country is an extraordinary achievement. How could anyone think that the best one can do with that achievement is to pursue personal enrichment?

The oft-repeated quote from George Santayana – “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – is apt for Yanukovych. Did he really forget what happened to Ben Ali and Marcos? Was it not obvious that illegally amassing immense personal wealth would increase the likelihood that he would be overthrown and spend the rest of his life in prison or, at best, in exile?

Even if Yanukovych had died in office at a ripe old age, his excesses would eventually have been exposed, and would have tarnished whatever positive reputation he might have achieved. Did he not care about his legacy?

There is also something even more important than one’s reputation. A political leader has greater opportunities than almost anyone else to help people, and that should have been Yanukovych’s highest priority.

But even if Yanukovych was thinking primarily of his own interests, his quest for personal enrichment was irrational. Imagine that he had stopped to ask himself what would make him happier. Imagine that, with this question in mind, he had compared the alternative of a lavish lifestyle (with a private zoo and pirate-ship restaurant) with that of living comfortably on the substantial salary to which he was entitled while knowing that he was governing with integrity and doing his best to improve the lives of Ukraine’s citizens. No matter how self-interested a person might be, I find it inconceivable that anyone with a modicum of common sense, pausing to reflect on this choice, could choose as Yanukovych chose.

There is now hope that in May the people of Ukraine will have the opportunity to elect a new leader. But how can they avoid electing another politician whose priorities are as misguided as those of Yanukovych? I suggest the following test: look at the candidate’s watch. If it costs more than $500, find someone else to vote for.

This test will not select the best candidate, but it will eliminate at least some candidates with priorities that no decent political leader should have.

Read more from "Europe's Eastern Question"

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  1. CommentedCarol Maczinsky

    "Most Germans look up to Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is known for her frugality and integrity."

    No. Germans don"t look up their chancellors, who are expected to just do their duty, not become moral figureheads. humbleness is a duty, not a virtue.

  2. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Ukrainian officials have been known for rampant corruption. In the past billions had been siphoned off aid and trade revenues, that Ukraine generated over the years. So it comes as no surprise that they bought themselves expensive watches. Those, who laughed at Radosław Sikorski, because he was wearing a cheap Japanese watch", are now worrying about their future.
    Although Poland pivoted to the West after the fall of the Iron Curtain, its foreign minister Radosław Sikorski doesn't seem to let himself be corrupted by Western consumerism, as it is the case in Russia. In 2011 the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill was criticised for being worldly. He was spotted wearing a gold Breguet watch worth more than $30,000. Sikorski is married to the American Pulitzer-Prize winning author Anne Applebaum. The couple is highly educated and seems to have a good sense of savoir-faire.
    After the fall of dictators like Muammar Gaddafi, Ferdinand Marcos, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Viktor Yanukovich, their lavish life-styles came to light. It confirms the understanding that power and money go hand-in-hand and money often corrupts politics.
    In the West, ordinary citizens tend to see their heads of state not only as political leaders, but also as their moral authority. Most Germans look up to Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is known for her frugality and integrity.
    Yet there are also politicians, who enjoy the company of the rich and famous. Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy was a bling bling president, married to Carla Bruni, a rich heiress. David Cameron belongs to Britain's upper-class and married somebody of his social status.
    In America most members of Congress are millionaires and so are some of their former presidents. Secretary John Kerry's wife was widow of John Heinz, heir of the world famous Heinz company.
    Although public offices aren't well paid, yet they are coveted. Politicians can benefit from the power they build up during their terms of office, which can pave the way for a future in the corporate world. In the West corrupt officials do their best to sweep their machinations under the carpet, in fear of prosecutions. Once charged and convicted, they will go down in history as villains.

  3. CommentedMark Allen

    While Einstein is supposed to have said that only the universe and human stupidity are infinite, stupidity is not a satisfactory explanation of why most dictators turn out to be obscenely corrupt. After all, these people possess the cunning to get the job and to hold it down for a time. An explanation that may help identify a solution to the problem may be rather different. The corrupt dictator operates in a social-economic framework that is characterized by corrupt and untransparent transactions: he (or she?) sits near the apex of a kleptocracy. The money of the other kleptocrats (oligarchs) brings them huge power to manipulate the political system and society. They want one of their own to head the political system and to ensure that conditions remain favorable to their continued enjoyment of their wealth and to its further increase. A president who sets himself morally above this kleptocracy by his austere virtue is unlikely to be someone they trust. Thus the palaces and expensive tastes are a pledge by the president that he is one of them. The solution is less that of putting in power a virtuous president than of curbing the power of the kleptocratic class.

  4. CommentedSebastian DiLorenzo

    "The passage from the state of nature to the civil state produces a very remarkable change in man, by substituting justice for instinct in his conduct, and giving his actions the morality they had formerly lacked. Then only, when the voice of duty takes the place of physical impulses and right of appetite, does man, who so far had considered only himself, find that he is forced to act on different principles, and to consult his reason before listening to his inclinations. Although, in this state, he deprives himself of some advantages which he got from nature, he gains in return others so great, his faculties are so stimulated and developed, his ideas so extended, his feelings so ennobled, and his whole soul so uplifted, that, did not the abuses of this new condition often degrade him below that which he left, he would be bound to bless continually the happy moment which took him from it for ever, and, instead of a stupid and unimaginative animal, made him an intelligent being and a man."
    -Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, Book I Chapter 8

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