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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.