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.