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People First: The latest in the watch on Ukrainian democracy

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Sept. 11, 2012, 4:39 p.m. | Op-ed — by Viktor Tkachuk

Corruption seems to have infected every corner of Ukrainian society.
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As the government busies itself with election campaigning, tourism receives no attention, even at the height of the summer season, whilst the Internet receives too much of it. Meanwhile corruption continues to be exposed in every area of Ukrainian life.

Election campaign gathers pace in Ukraine

Representatives from 87 political parties are running for parliamentary seats in majority constituencies, whilst 22 political parties will compete under party lists. In some majority constituencies the competition is as high as 30-40 candidates for one deputy seat. Unfortunately around half of them are suspected of being dummy candidates.

According to reports from the Ukrainian media about 10 thousand foreign observers are expected to arrive in Ukraine. The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights is launching its international observation mission in early September. Some 100 long term observers from OSCE member states will arrive in Ukraine starting from the middle of September, followed by 600 short-term observers who will arrive a week before the elections to monitor the election process at voting stations.

To assist observers, voting stations will be equipped with surveillance cameras. The Central Election Committee of Ukraine has approved the purchase of cameras for the purpose of the 2012 parliamentary elections at a cost of Hr 993 million. ($124 million). Some members of the Committee have raised doubts regarding the efficiency of this measure. 

According to recent research the people's sympathy is divided as follows: United Opposition (Batkivschyna with Yulia Tymoshenko and Front Zmin with Arseniy Yatsenyuk) has the most support at 26%, the governing Party of the Regions has 24 percent, the political party of boxing champion Volodymyr Klitschko 12 percent, the Communist Party of Ukraine 9 percent, Ukraina - Vpered political Party 4.3 percent (many experts believe it is merely a puppet of the current government) and Svoboda, the all-Ukrainian nationalist union have only 4.2 percent. Some 15 percent of people studied have not yet made up their minds as to who to vote for.

So the election process has started, political parties and candidates have become uncharacteristically active whilst the government is keen to be the ultimate winner. However, if they fail to uphold transparent democratic processes their victory may prove short lived.

People First Comment: According to press reports, Vladimir Shapoval, Chairman of the Central election commission for the forthcoming parliamentary elections has said that… “ the election will meet national standards but may fall short of international standards of legitimacy”.  His comments were made after a meeting with the German Ambassador whom it would seem has left him in no doubt over the standards required by the international community.  He further commented that Ukrainians should “…distinguish between internal and external legitimacy…” and that… “the CEC does not require a positive and objective assessment. Nevertheless we will try to hold elections so that their results for Ukraine look dignified.’

One has to ask quite what the CEC are proposing… free and almost fair… almost free with a charade of fairness… who is going to determine the internal standard of legitimacy? Is he suggesting that national dignity should override national democracy? After such comments Mr Shapoval should do the only honourable thing… by international standards… and resign as he clearly has no idea of what is expected in democratic elections.  If the CEC cannot guarantee to hold free and fair elections then the whole election should be scrapped until officials can be found and legislation prepared to ensure ‘Free’ and ‘Fair’ elections.  There is no other democratic standard.  The people of Ukraine have the right to demand that the forthcoming elections truly, fairly and legitimately reflect their will…

However as with all political matters in Ukraine there is always a 2nd and possibly 3rd agenda as on the basis of his comments the President can demand free and fair elections, thereby appeasing his international critics.  The CEC would then be required to deliver free and fair elections at least on paper as whilst the vote may express the will of the people the selection and funding of candidates most certainly does not.  According to press reports some 70% of all candidates are being funded directly or indirectly by the governing political party or its supporters. This could well set a scenario whereby Party of Regions are defeated in the polls but can then form a majority in parliament through horse trading with those they have supported.  Furthermore Party of Regions control all of the Regional governors and a majority of local councils thus any independent majoritarian deputy that really wants to achieve anything for his constituents’ is going to have to bargain at all levels… Perhaps this is what Shapoval means by internal legitimacy and national dignity?

Corruption, no part of Ukraine untouched

The current social security system in Ukraine requires substantial reform. Yanukovych reports that only about 23 percent of social service funds go to those who actually need it. This alleges that 80 percent of social benefits are being granted to people with high income. The President of Ukraine believes that the country should abandon the social benefits system in favour of targeted financial aid to socially unprotected people. The Ukrainian media have featured many stories revealing that even parliamentarians illegally receive social benefits, fraudulently claiming to be war and Chornobyl veterans.

Ukrainian scientists report that in 2011 almost 45 percent of homes had at least one social security beneficiary. According to official data sources the state has 45 types of social benefit with nearly 18 million people who either receive or are eligible to receive such benefits. The most common benefits are transport (26.7 percent) and public utilities (21.7%) benefits. The least utilized benefit is to free spa treatments and recreation trips - only 0.4% of homes.

It is no wonder that audit company Ernst & Young put Ukraine among the three most corrupted nations of the world together with Columbia and Brazil. The research conducted by analysts at Ernst & Young shows that the practice of top managers accepting bribery increased by 9 percent in 2011 and 15 percent in 2012. Another 4 percent are ready to pay bribes in order to hide the details of their financial performance. 

People First Comment: Ukraine already has in place systems for means testing all applicants for social benefits.  The system was developed in the late 1990’s by the American professor Dr Roger Vaughan in a project called ‘Nash Dim’ that was funded by the World Bank.  The project was a bid to reduce the cost of the housing subsidy and to ensure that social support was only given to those with real need or were deserving under the law.  At the time the Minister of Social Protection hailed the means testing system as revolutionary and stated that in future this would be the system for all social support offered under their mandate. 

The president is right to question this issue as social protection is one of the most expensive parts of the national budget.  One has to question why Ukraine needs 45 different classes of social benefit.  Most certainly in any modern state there needs to be systems to protect those in genuine need but it would appear that as with many other systems in Ukraine the legislation has major loopholes that are allowing the greedy to swindle the nation.  We would actively support any action by the administration to reduce the fraud and to ensure that social support is properly targeted to those in need.

Government and Internet, unsteady friends

Sociologists report that since the beginning of 2012 social networks have been the most popular Internet portals among Ukrainians. Out of all Internet users in Ukraine which account for almost 15 million people (38 percent of the adult population) 52 percent (7.6 million people) regularly visit Facebook, Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki. Only Facebook has more than 2 million users from Ukraine considering that in January 2011 only 1 million Ukrainians had Facebook accounts.

Prime Minister Mykola Azarov decided to support Internet communication and advised all ministers and local governors to communicate with the people through Internet as he personally receives a lot of information on Facebook which he uses to make decisions.

So the number of Internet users in Ukraine is continuously growing. The governing authorities have started to open criminal cases on infringements committed on the Internet. According to the spokesperson of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine, the first criminal case relates to posts in social networks which violate the rules of fair competition. Other case has been initiated due to the breach of confidentiality as a result of publication of personal data. Only during the last few months over 10 Ukrainian web-sites offering illegal services have been shut down. At the same time, Interior Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko has addressed the Cabinet of Ministers earlier this month and suggested to regulate the level of access to information on the Internet. So the risk that after Internet control the government will attack the freedom of speech in electronic media including social networks. 

People First Comment: Ukraine seems to be so swept up in its Social Media tidal wave – which even drags political dinosaurs in its wake – that few people have taken the time to examine what it is they are surfing on, let alone where it might be going. The first misconception is that, because you are sharing with friends, social networks are private platforms. In fact, sharing on social media can be likened to chatting to your friends in a busy bar… except that everything you say is entered into a permanent record and painted up on the wall.

Secondly, there seems to be a prevailing idea that online crime is somehow not as real as ‘real’ crime. However, I hope few would argue with the claim that paedophiles should be prosecuted for propositioning children for sex – regardless of whether it takes place in a playground or an online forum.

One genuinely unanswered question is how, as a global people, we want these media to be policed; if a French citizen commits a crime from a laptop in Germany, on a server in the USA, that harms a Ukrainian woman on holiday in Israel: how many national laws and police forces should it take to bring him to justice? Issues such as free speech vs. hate speech, intellectual property rights and multinational fraud call out for a global consensual approach to legislation, police and politics – in the meantime, national enforcers will have to do their best.

The fact that Ukraine’s authorities shutting-down of illegal (prostitution) websites sparked an outcry in protection of free speech is an indictment of how ready the public are for the next wave of repressions from the incumbent regime. Its not that Ukrainians don’t want the Internet policed… they just don’t trust a biased criminal elite to be the ones to do it.

No need for tourism in Ukraine

Having successfully hosted a major European football championship, the government of Ukraine has failed to understand the importance of developing the country’s tourism potential. After visiting Ukraine, 42 percent of European guests mentioned that the English language information support for foreigners needed substantial improvement. 33 percent felt that road repair was very much necessary. 31% of tourists believed that hotel accommodation was way overpriced.

The Kyiv Municipal Administration heard what tourists had to say and have done the opposite cancelling the English language announcements at metro stations. Why? Very simple - because Euro-2012 is over. It seems like major Ukrainian cities are not interested in foreign tourists post Euro-2012. Instead of making more foreign language guides, street maps and additional helpful information for guests, the Kyiv Municipal Administration have even decided instead to close down what has already been set up for the convenience of European football fans.

It should not be forgotten that the positive impression of Ukraine created during Euro-2012 has made Europeans feel somewhat better about Ukraine's integration with the EU. People's diplomacy has made all the difference. 40 percent of interviewed European football fans who visited Ukraine believe that that the country deserves to become an EU member state in the near future. 31 percent of respondents noted that Ukraine could become a member of the EU in the middle term). Thus by slowing down the development of tourism in Ukraine the government is directly restraining the process of European integration.  

People First Comment: It seems that whilst the administration crow on about wanting to attract tourists to Ukraine they do precious little to make the country more attractive or more tourist friendly.  To be honest you can see practically all there is to see in Kyiv in a long weekend as once you have seen the main city holy places – the Lavra, St Sophias, Andrievsky Spusk and the few decent art galleries – there is not a lot more to see.

Getting out of the city to anywhere decent is a long drive across miles of open farm land and once you arrive most tourists would be bitterly disappointed.  The hailed gardens at Uman for example need massive investment to bring them up to anywhere near the expectation of foreign tourists.  Lviv and Odessa are colourful cities with a lot of history but the same cannot be said for the industrial cities of the East. The Carpathian Mountains are stunning but what little infrastructure that exists is disproportionately expensive by international standards.

The problem is that no government has ever developed a national plan to revitalise the nation’s assets or to develop new ones that will be of interest to the tourist community.  Kyiv Zoo is a classic example.  The Zoo is roundly condemned as one of the worst in Europe.  The Zoo administration does their best on very meagre resources but they are trying to patch up what is a sinking ship.  The land under the Zoo is worth considerably more than the cost of building a modern green field park style zoo on the outskirts of the city leaving the existing site open for much needed redevelopment.  Sadly nobody in government or the city administration thinks this way preferring to squabble over who will be allowed to buy the land and so the status quo prevails.

Viktor Tkachuk is chief executive officer of the People First Foundation, which seeks to strengthen Ukrainian democracy. The organization’s website is: www.peoplefirst.org.ua and the e-mail address is: democracywatch@peoplefirst.org.ua

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