Business As Usual in Ukraine

We have left Ukraine.  I did not want to write this while living in Ukraine because, frankly, I did not know what implications might attach to such an article.  So I waited unitl we left.

There is much good to be said about Ukraine.  The people that we met are friendly and genuinely interested in foreigners.  They think well of the United States and the European Union.  Having lived in Ukraine for almost three months, I can also say that there is a sort of sad side to the Ukraine.  They are trapped in a society where corruption abounds.

Now, from what our friends tell us, it is much better than in the past. We were told that in the past the police would pull anyone over at will with or without cause.  One could either accept the ticket and go through the regular system or “we can just take care of it right here and now and it will be cheaper.”  Essentially, the police used to run an extortion racket of petty payments from innocent people. But that, we are told, is no more; the police are properly paid and it would be a bad idea to offer a policeman a bribe.

At the same time, we were told many stories of how governmental officials leveraged their posts for personal benefit; pay them, and you will get your permit.  Or the university system that is rife with bribery.  Don’t want to study?  Then just pay a bribe to the professor.  Professor has integrity and won’t take the bribe?  Then pay the Dean, and the Dean will enforce the bribery scheme.  This is considered common behavior.

Part of the issue arises from antiquated laws where businesses are trying to make their way in the new globalized economy with old laws not designed for the new market-driven system.  The employment laws protect employees like industrial workers of the 30s, and it’s difficult to fire someone.  And, the taxes are high.  As I was told by someone, instead of paying the full salary, the salary on the books was marked at 20% of the full salary.  Then, at the end of the month, everyone got a little white envelope which had the rest of their pay.  This is commonplace and expected.

Of course, rule of law is an important institution, and once you start having people break laws a little and it gets normalized, then people tend to break laws a lot.  The research on lying shows the same thing.  And so I found myself wondering at any encounter whether things were as I saw them or whether there was something that was just hidden from sight.  For example, I went to a meetup.  The people were all nice and it was a great little event.  I got there 15 minutes early and the three organizers were there already having their food.  And so I wondered, “Do they pre-organize these meetings so that they get a free meal for bringing 10 other guests to the restaurant and come early to avoid detection by the other participants?”  Maybe so, maybe not.  The point is that it would not surprise me if they do because I got the general feeling that this is how Ukrainian culture works.

So why did I wait to publish this piece?  Frankly, I did not want to say anything while in the country that could be construed as negative.  Who knows?  Maybe I would get a knock at the door that some complaint about xyz had been made, and now I needed to appear in court or some such nonsense.  Keep you head down and certainly don’t say anything.  There may be free speech, ostensibly, but I wasn’t willing to push my luck.

Is Traveling Abroad Dangerous?

Kate and I have traveled to many places in Europe over the past year  like Paris, Barcelona, Seville, Athens, Sofia, Krakov, and Kiev, and we are surprised by friends and family who ask us “Is it safe to be there?”  My immediate thought is “Don’t worry about us – is it safe to be where you are?”   Part of this is quite understandable because the US government issues travel advisories (click here for the most recent example) which warn Americans to be on extra-special lookout because violence can occur in public places like nightclubs (Paris), shopping malls (Barcelona), school retreats (Norway), and open-air malls (Turku, Finland).   So travel abroad gets presented as though it is a dangerous affair.

But it isn’t.

I was talking with a friend in Phoenix about random violence in America that occurs in churches (Texas, North Carolina), schools (Sandy Hook, Columbine), outdoor concerts (Las Vegas), nightclubs (Orlando), and even Federal Buildings (Oklahoma).  But these events are relatively rare and receive inordinate publicity due to their horrific nature.

What gets missed in the discussion in America is the daily killings.  Today I pulled up the Chicago Sun Times newspaper, and for a random day, Monday, November 6, there were five people injured in shootings:

  • A 37-year-old man got into an argument with another man who pulled out a gun and shot him.
  • Twol older people (67 and 50) were walking down the street when a car drives buy and people in the car and people on the street start shooting at each other and the older innocent bystanders took bullets.
  • A 17 year-old boy got into an argument with another male who pulled out a handgun and shot him.
  • A 32 year-old man was standing on the street when three males walked up and shot him.

That sounds pretty bad, but no one died. But the paper reports: “The day’s gun violence followed a weekend in which five people were killed and 24 others were wounded in citywide shootings between Friday afternoon and Monday morning.”  (See: https://chicago.suntimes.com/news/5-wounded-in-monday-shootings-across-chicago-2/)

Meanwhile I feel completely safe walking the streets of Helsinki or Kiev or Dubrovnik or Sofia.  The probability of being a victim of random gun violence in these places is minimal.  The question that Americans should ask is not whether it is safe to travel to Paris, but rather “Is it safe to travel to Chicago?”

I know that many will say that these shootings are in the wrong parts of town and that you just need to stay away from those places.  In that regard, I have a couple of thoughts.  First, if you visit a place like Helsinki, there is no part of Helsinki that is comparable as the “wrong part of town.”  You can get off at any stop on any bus line anywhere in Helsinki, and you won’t have to worry about your physical safety.   Second, I’m not sure I like the idea that we have two-Americas, a safe America and a dangerous America where one has to worry about which America you are in.  And third, it appears more and more that the danger of this dangerous America is now leaking into safe America, where you can be a congressman at bat in a baseball game and have to run for the dugout because shots are fired.

I am not an anti-gun nut or anything like that.  I own a shotgun, I’ve fired many guns at gun ranges and in the woods, gone hunting, and I believe in our second Amendment.  I have friends who own guns.  But traveling abroad has also shown me that some people in the world live without fear of violence in their daily lives too.  Not so in Atlanta or DC or pick your favorite city.  People talk about the second amendment in freedom terms, and freedom to own a gun is a nice thing, but freedom from fear of violence is also a wonderful freedom to have.

A lot of people are against any regulation of guns in America: registration, wait times, background checks.  And many won’t draw distinctions between handguns, shotguns, and assault rifles.  But there are plenty of alternative universes right here on our planet where ownership of a shotgun gets treated differently than an assault rifle because there really is a difference in terms of its destructive effects; that’s why we can’t own hand grenades. Handguns can be concealed where as long arms cannot.  In some of these alternative universes, the idea that you might have to wait a week or more or complete a gun safety course or register the weapon like an auto is just part of one’s civic duty to own and manage a dangerous device.  Does it ever make you wonder why we tolerate the registration of cars and require insurance on them when we won’t tolerate gun registration or have gun insurance?  My concern is that America will opt not for minor restrictions upon gun ownership like those found in the rest of the world but, in an attempt to find safety, will instead focus on creating a police state where our guardians act like the military in part because our citizens are so dangerous.  I am skeptical that such an approach will bring us safety from either the police or our fellow citizens.