Corruption in Ukraine: Implications for the World

On April 6, in a low-turnout (32 percent) non-binding referendum, the Dutch people strongly voted against (61-38 percent) ratifying an EU economic association agreement with Ukraine, even though the other 27 EU member states ratified the agreement. The Dutch government has said it will honor the results by reviewing the agreement to “look for a solution acceptable to all parties.” This is certainly a blow to EU unity and Ukraine’s European aspirations, and a bonanza for Putin’s masterful manipulation of Europe’s immigration woes in order to reshape geopolitics—something that should concern us all: Ukraine’s failure will have grave security implications for Europe and the world.

There are many moving parts to Ukraine’s international tango as it struggles to extricate itself from its Soviet past and from Russia’s hegemonically insatiable appetite. Brian Whitmore brilliantly nailed the complicating factor—corruption in Ukraine.

Ukraine is losing the war of governance. And this is a tragedy. It’s a tragedy because good governance is what this whole crisis is about. It’s a tragedy because more than 100 ordinary Ukrainians died on the Maidan, and thousands of soldiers and civilians died on the battlefields of Donbas for the sake of the reforms that Kyiv is failing to deliver. It’s a tragedy because what happens in Ukraine is crucial for European security and the rules-based international order. And it is a tragedy because this failure is exactly what Moscow is counting on.

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Just how bad is corruption in Ukraine? First, some personal perspective: We lived and worked in Ukraine for 14 years—including prior to the collapse of the USSR. Four of our seven children were born there. We’ve seen a lot. We have family there. Our closest friends live there. Indeed, the word “friendship” was raised to a whole new level for us in Ukraine. There’s a generosity of heart typical of those who are generally poor: think of the people of the Philippines.

There is also lingering mass-psychological damage largely resulting from over 70 years of dignity-degrading communist rule—reflected in bitter anecdotes like: “A Soviet citizen is one who thinks one thing, says another, and does a third.” Such fear-inspired disingenuousness is, to various extents, fossilized in those over thirty (the USSR collapsed in 1991), while a generally less disciplined younger generation hardly questions the disordered freedom-for-its-own-sake mentality of the secular west’s disposable responsibilities (if it’s not Russian or Soviet it’s good, right?). There is also a certain level of faith “tribalism” that, in what I’ve witnessed, arises from mixing too closely ethnicity with religious faith in which phyletism and nationalism might find fertile ground.

While Ukrainians are slowly emerging from the Soviet morass, sober thinking points to a long, painful road ahead—greatly complicated by Russia’s continued war in eastern Ukraine and the illegal annexation of Crimea. The journey will not differ too much from the generation-long wanderings in the desert of the people of Moses who, following their physical emancipation from Egypt, still longed for the warmth, security, and predictability of Egypt—hence their hearts and minds needed to be cleansed of Egypt. For this reason I chuckled sadly when Ukraine’s former finance minister—a Ukrainian-American (with her own interesting background)—asserted the only solution to the current economic and governmental crisis was a cadre of “technocratic” cabinet members and bureaucrats, ironically forgetting the Soviet government was almost exclusively “technocratic.” Technical process trumps character, and an externally imposed Obamaesque-like “change” trumps change of heart.

Brian Whitmore also claimed, “[Ukraine’s] civil society has long been ahead of its political elites. And now, it’s time to close the gap. It’s time for its government to be as good as its people.” That Ukrainians are “ahead” of their political elite in their aspirations to live in a “normal” society is indisputable. But, the pernicious devil of corruption lurking behind day-to-day life strains the meaning of “good.” As Aristotle taught (and the American Founding Father’s strongly echoed), a well-ordered nation depends crucially upon virtuous citizens—that is, upon a people who employ right-reason to do the right thing at the right time in the right way … over and over.

The understanding (let alone practice) of virtue ethics is essentially non-existent in Ukraine, while the vice of corruption is ubiquitous, and quite difficult for westerners to fathom. One cannot view corruption exclusively through an economic lens. Corruption—the impairment of dignity, integrity, virtue, or moral principle—occurs at all levels in Ukraine. All. It spans the spectrum from overt government-level economic corruption to the everyday “convenience” of cutting corners. It starts from birth (parents often cough up a “facilitation fee” for reasonable care in a system ostensibly based on “free health care for all”), throughout the educational system and work to the day a person dies. It’s not that most people are “legally” corrupt. Rather, it’s the long-term, deeply-entrenched sense of entitlement (and the concomitant drag on the economy) that drives an entire nation to seek material advantage. It is institutionalized slavery that feeds on itself. The Synod of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church (UGCC) nailed the source of corruption:

The level of corruption is a kind of indicator of the moral state of a society as a whole and of each individual in particular. One may fall prey to the illusion that corruption makes life easier, when in fact it degrades peoples’ hearts and as a result society as a whole… “For where your treasure is, there also will be your heart.” (Matt 6:21) So, according to the Word of God, the root cause of corruption is a sinful attachment of the human heart to the transient and perishable goods of this world which a person mistakenly believes is their genuine treasure—thereby living as if God does not exist.

During February 2015 a copy of an image of Veronica’s veil was displayed at St. George’s Cathedral in L’viv. The lines to pray before the veil were mind-bogglingly long, and it seems the organizers did not plan access to the veil very well: they permitted not more than 60 seconds for the faithful to view it before shuffling them away—ironically similar to what guards do to those viewing Lenin’s body in his Moscow mausoleum. Because those with young children were granted special privileges to make it through the lines more quickly, a cottage industry of “selling children” quickly sprang up: people paid to have others’ children accompany them to cheat their way through the long wait … and in some cases these children were used multiple times a day.

A theology student at the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) lamented last year that companies providing transportation services in L’viv (for half-size buses called marshrutky) had raised the cost of a ride from 3 to 4 hryvnia (18 cents). When I pointed out that because the current cost of a liter of gasoline in L’viv is one dollar (about $3.80 per gallon), the cost of a ride is unprofitable for the company. He grew incensed—resorting to name calling (“engorging parasites”—an old Soviet label) and defamation: accusing the companies of being run by corrupt oligarchs. I pointed out the cost of gasoline is only part of the problem for companies struggling to make a profit (building rental, bus maintenance and repair, insurance, payroll, taxes, etc.), and that he had no right to interfere in a business to set its prices unless the student was ready to take upon himself responsibility for managing the business. His response was to play the American card—accusing me of having it easy, and that the proof of the corruption was in the poor conditions of the buses and less-than-cordial drivers. He would hear nothing of the possibility that his paying such a low fare makes it impossible for bus companies to provide adequate transportation.

Dmytro Firtash, a natural gas tycoon and oligarch, was arrested in Austria in March 2014 on bribery and other charges at the request of American law enforcement agencies, and it is alleged he had connections to deposed president Viktor Yanukovych (to skew the outcomes of legal cases) as well as ties to Semyon Mogilevich, the notorious Russian organized-crime boss. Firtash has contributed generously to UCU and other Ukrainian causes and has promised to provide support to the Ukrainian Army. Yet, his response against those who caused him financial losses was classically thuggish: “someone will pay dearly, it won’t go unnoticed.” So, while UCU likely did not realize the Firtash donation was tainted, an important question remains: can UCU—on ethical grounds—knowingly continue to utilize donations obtained at the expense of others to, among other things, build a church in the center of its campus (fungibility notwithstanding)?

Per these and many more examples, the UGCC Synod is correct: corruption at the highest levels does not pop out of thin air: it is based on a disordered and self-centered view of the world. (Another particularly exasperating example we’ve experienced is the unjust jockeying-for-position among those waiting in lines for the confessional prior to and during Liturgies.) To be fair, a “system” which makes life difficult for its citizens reinforces the temptation to survive by questionable means—ironically animated by dreams of having their children escape corruption. Common, everyday “survival” choices open doors for corruption eventually to grow into state-level crimes. Similar low-level “corruption of convenience” occurs in the West. The difference, however, is that in Ukraine there is little sense that obvious examples of large-scale corruption arise from the low-level everyday “cutting of corners.”

It is undeniably true that a great deal has improved in Ukraine since it emerged from what Lenin himself categorized as the “prisonhouse of nations” (the Russian Empire). Nonetheless, the jury is still out on whether Ukraine will manage to overcome its corrupt Soviet past—as Whitmore notes above. Some have criticized the recent NY Times editorial “Ukraine’s Unyielding Corruption” as too harsh, or “unhelpful” in its timing—directed at a country finding itself in an extremely difficult situation. Perhaps this is true. But Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, whose name figures in the recently released “Panama Papers”—implicating him in establishing off-shore accounts as Ukraine’s war against invading Russia rages—vainly complained the editorial was another manifestation of Russia’s “hybrid war.” Fortunately, there are signs there may be no direct evidence of maleficence on the part of Poroshenko. Nonetheless, the damage has been done, and at least attests to carelessness.

The defeat of corruption begins with an admittedly difficult “No!” to gain obtained at the expense of others, accompanied by a hopeful and fecundal “Yes!” to repentance and conversion. His Beatitude, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, Head of UGCC, works tirelessly to lead his flock out of the lingering mindset of corruption, and the UGCC is generally a haven for those seeking a moral anchor during trying times. In his recent Pastoral Letter on the Occasion of the Year of Mercy, His Beatitude made clear how high the stakes are:

The corruption that permeates almost all spheres of our national life, injustice in the courts, dishonesty at work, alcoholism and drug addiction, adultery and immorality, murder of the unborn, a predatory attitude towards the natural environment—this, unfortunately, is not a complete list of the national maladies that weaken the vitality of our nation, causing irreparable loss to the present and future generations.

Undeterred by the seeming intractability of corruption in Ukraine, His Beatitude does not project the Church as a place of escape, but as fertile ground from which evangelists might spring. He also knows actions speak louder than words—challenging not just his flock but calling all to transformation through repentance and conversion, reminding them:

[T]he protection of life from conception to natural death, respect for marriage as an indissoluble union of man and woman, protection and promotion of family values, respect for the dignity of each and every person without exception, establishing justice in the judicial system, nurturing spirituality and culture of the nation, taking charge of our God-given natural environment—these are the tasks facing Ukrainian society, which must be also be taken on by legitimately elected government officials at all levels.

Catholics in the West might take note and, perhaps, come to know a bit better the two Eastern Catholic Rites and what all Ukrainians face—including a potential Russian offensive this Spring.

(Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.)


  • Alexander R. Sich

    Alexander R. Sich is Professor of Physics and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He has twelve years of professional experience in nuclear safety and non-proliferation abroad, primarily in Ukraine. For the 2014-15 academic year, Dr. Sich was a Fulbright Teaching and Research Scholar at the Ukrainian Catholic University. He earned his doctorate in nuclear engineering from MIT and a Master’s in Soviet Studies from Harvard University and a second Master’s in philosophy from Holy Apostles College and Seminary.

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