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Ukraine: Group Battling To Change Public's Apathy Over Corruption

  • Askold Krushelnycky

A recent survey reveals that four out of five Ukrainians believe that politicians and other government officials are corrupt. Ukrainians, like the citizens of most other postcommunist states, have long complained about widespread corruption, and many of the respondents in the latest poll say they are resigned to bribery as an ineradicable part of public life. RFE/RL profiles one organization that is trying to convince ordinary Ukrainians that they can fight corruption.

Prague, 20 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The public perception that Ukraine is rotten with corruption is not new.

But the latest opinion poll (15 January) by Ukraine's Social Monitoring Center and the Institute of Social Studies is startling because of the high numbers of people who believe that most or all government officials are on the take -- 78 percent of respondents -- and the admission that 44 percent personally paid bribes last year.

The figures paint an even more ominous picture than a survey commissioned last year by a nongovernmental body working in Ukraine called Partnership for a Transparent Society (PPS). That survey found that 65 percent of Ukrainians believe corruption is very widespread.

In the latest poll, respondents accuse staff in Ukraine's supposedly free medical system of being the biggest bribe takers. That's in line with the results of the PPS survey, which showed that more than half of those receiving medical treatment admitted to paying a bribe to receive service.

Both polls showed that traffic police, tax inspectors, and teachers in higher education are among the most common bribe seekers.

PPS, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, is working to convince Ukrainians that corruption need not be an inevitable part of their lives. PPS Director Marta Kolomayets said the organization, which has been working in the country for two years, wants to inform ordinary Ukrainians about the rights they possess and to help organize groups to fight corruption.

Kolomayets said PPS is not aimed at eradicating corruption among the top echelons of government but rather at the levels that affect ordinary people -- bribes paid to medical personnel for treatment, to staff to admit children into higher education, or to minor bureaucrats to issue vital documents or payments such as pensions.

Kolomayets said PPS also helps small and mid-sized businesses negotiate the obstacles presented by the country's opaque business regulations and erected by bribe seekers, such as the tax inspectorate, fire department safety officials, and public hygiene inspectors.

She said PPS has opened seven regional offices and that another four will open by the end of this month. These function as advice centers, where individuals can drop in for help with problems linked to corruption. The centers coordinate with other nongovernmental agencies also interested in combating bribery and corruption.

Kolomayets said one of PPS's most positive achievements has been to get local government authorities involved in the anticorruption process. "I think one of our biggest successes is that we were able to unite nongovernmental organizations from various regions of Ukraine which, even if they have different interests, want to fight the problem of corruption and want more transparency from local government. I also think that it's important that we have been able to work as partners with local and state government bodies and their departments. I think that this shows something is changing and that officials are prepared to listen to the opinions of the community, to people's thoughts, and to incorporate them in their work. That means that the society is turning into a more democratic society," she said.

PPS coordinator Svetlana Yaremenko, from the eastern city of Donetsk, said a vital ingredient of the work is informing people of their rights and letting them know they can come to the project's offices for advice.

She said the Donetsk office operates a telephone "hot line," which is often used by small and mid-sized businesses. Yaremenko explained what she believes is the project's greatest value: "Another reason for the importance of our program is that many people acknowledge that corruption exists in Ukraine today, but unfortunately they are unwilling to fight against it. Most say, 'Yes, there is corruption, but we'll wait to see what happens.' Only a small proportion say they will try to fight against it. That shows that people accept the existence of corruption but are not prepared to fight against it. Therefore, I think the work of our coalition is important to instill that everyone personally should do something and that only through a united effort can we defeat this phenomenon."

The project coordinator from the southern Mykolaiv region, Anatoliy Ivanychenko, said that bribery -- whether money or gifts -- is so prevalent that many officials do not consider it wrong. "They don't understand at all that receiving a present, a gift of gratitude, is not really a sign of thanks but that it's something corrupt. They don't understand that just because an official has issued a document without delay or has done what the law says he should do, that receiving a reward is corrupt," he said.

His colleague, Orest Pasichnyk, project coordinator in the western city of Lviv, agreed. He believes many officials who would like to run honest operations feel helpless to root out corruption. "I'm sure that some of the heads of [government] departments are dismayed at having to work in places where such negative things are happening -- that is, corruption and so forth. That's natural. And some of these heads of departments cannot deal with the problem because the junior staff cover up for one another, and it's possible that the chief doesn't even know about many of the goings-on."

Both men say that working with local authorities is essential to foster reform.

The mayor of the western Ukrainian town of Drahobych, Mykhaylo Luzhetsky, says PPS has demonstrated a more open way for the town's functionaries to work. He said important decisions are now taken following public meetings, where the views of townspeople are heard.

Luzhetsky said an office has been provided where citizens can receive clear explanations about what is happening in the town and to get advice from lawyers and other specialists about problems they may be encountering. He said that he and other officials regularly appear on television and radio phone-in programs, where they answer questions about official matters.

Luzhetsky said the combination of transparency and the involvement of the public in decision making is a good recipe for fighting corruption. "This transparency is one of the ways we can fight corruption because all matters to do with privatization, questions of renting out facilities, questions about construction projects, are resolved transparently with the participation of the community before we make the final decision. Decisions are not made by just one or two officials but after consultation with the community. The scope for corruption diminishes, as it's not just one or two bureaucrats making the decision," he said.

Luzhetsky said PPS inspired him to take another practical step to lessen corruption: "We've also implemented our project combating corruption by rotating 70 percent of all our town officials into different jobs. This movement of people, who have worked for a long time in the same office, has snapped many of the links that lead to corruption, and today we have a fairly positive result."

The PPS's Ivanychenko says one of the biggest problems facing Ukraine is that young people seem to accept the necessity for bribery. That sentiment also emerged from the most recent poll, which shows nearly one-quarter of respondents nationwide -- and nearly half in the capital, Kyiv -- believe that paying bribes is a normal part of life.

"In our experience, most of the people we work with are more than 50 years old. The younger generation prefers to resolve matters speedily, even if this means making illegal payments, to save time. But this returns like a boomerang to affect that same person," Ivanychenko said.

PPS Director Kolomayets said the latest poll shows again the importance of demonstrating to ordinary people that they are not powerless and that -- with enough determination and information -- they can combat corruption.