Here Comes the Bribe

Out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index, Ukraine ranks 99th.

I have seen evidence of this first-hand after living in Kiev, where I taught English until recently.

In my classroom at the American English Center, the word that would produce a chuckle in any class – no matter how reticent– was kapusta, which is slang for money or a bribe. While bribery carries a strongly negative connotation in the US, bribes are viewed as a necessary part of life in Ukraine.

“If you want to get anything done in Ukraine, you offer bribes,” a student once told me.

This is Ukraine after the celebrated Orange Revolution.

The hero of the reformist Orange Revolution, Ukraine’s President Viktor Yushchenko, publicly acknowledged this in April 2005 after meeting with President Bush in the White House.

“The legacy that we inherited is a very difficult country; Ukraine, where the rule of law did not exist and human rights were not observed; where half of the national economy is a shadow….We’re talking about the country where the number one problem [that] remains”…is “corruption,” Yushchenko said.

Ukraine has yet another chance to reform herself. On September 30, the country will hold early parliamentary elections.

“Without a doubt, the public’s frustration with continuing corruption is a major issue in the upcoming election,” said Kiev-based political analyst and Fulbright researcher Emmet Tuohy. “Parties on both sides of the country’s major political divide–from the prime minister’s Party of Regions to the pro-presidential Our Ukraine-National Self-Defense Bloc–are outdoing each other with promises to eliminate the unjust system of favoritism and privilege that has so long characterized the country’s governments.”

But I am not very optimistic. Corruption extends into every area of Ukrainian life. It is not uncommon for students to gain admission to the best universities through bribery; a certain percentage of slots are reserved for bribes, while only a few slots are held for those getting in on their own merit. But corruption in universities does not stop there. Students routinely bribe their professors to earn higher marks; incredibly, this practice is even followed in medical school. (It is no small wonder that most members of the Ukrainian parliament seek medical care outside of Ukraine.) Even Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych holds two terminal degrees — something that he most certainly did not earn, given his difficulties with both the Ukrainian and Russian languages.
According to a recent poll conducted by the Ukrainian Ministry of Education, one in five Ukrainian students would agree to a request from an instructor for a bribe in exchange for a higher grade. In my experience, however, that number is closer to four in five.

When I gave my first exam, I made the mistake of stepping into the hallway to confer with a colleague. When I came back, all of my students were loudly and obviously cheating. From that point on, I had to watch them carefully for the entirety of the exam period, and even then, they still would cheat.

One of my students was drafted into the less-than-desirable Ukrainian army; his father offered a bribe to a friend who worked in the conscription office; five hundred dollars later, he was assured that he would never have to build a supervisor’s house, paint dead spots on the lawn with a can of green spray paint, or be sexually assaulted in the showers, as is not uncommon in the army.

Another student was taking his driver’s license test. He failed it the first time. Instead of boning up on the material, he paid for the repeat test. However, he did show up for the second exam and even put his name on it.

On Kiev’s Fifth Avenue, Khreshchatyk Boulevard, police routinely demand documents from people who appear to be foreigners, and they usually target young men. Five American men in their early twenties that I know since January have been stopped and detained, since they were not carrying their passports. This is a standard procedure in which the police attempt to extract bribes from foreigners who do not know better and usually do not speak Russian well. One bloke was thrown to the ground by Ukrainian police, bundled into a Soviet jeep and then ferried from one police station to another. The police were happy to let them go, if they would only offer “a gift,” which they insisted was “not a bribe.” The going rate varies from $20-100.

At a local border crossing between Ukraine and Moldova, I found myself stuck; only Ukrainians and Moldovans could cross. My partner suggested to the Ukrainian guard that they should “come to an agreement” which is common Ukrainian and Russian code for “How much?” The guard actually apologized that he could not dogovoritsya (come to an agreement with us) since European Union monitors were stationed on the other side of the crossing. Had they not been there, I have no doubt that the border crossing would have become an international one for the right price.

One weekend, I rented a car with some friends. The rental company gave us a list detailing how large of a bribe was expected for speeding, evading a police officer, etc. As we were speeding through the Chernihiv region, a policeman pulled us over, admonishingly pointing to the screen on his radar gun. Confidently, we handed him the equivalent of $4, triggering a response of “Oh, you’ve done this before.”

He certainly had.

Melinda Haring is a freelance journalist who lives in Moscow, Russia.

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