The Ukraine protests for integrity

The protests in Ukraine that erupted after the president rejected possible EU membership are now aimed at high-level corruption. More countries are seeing protests demanding integrity from elected leaders.

A protester holds a Ukrainian national flag as he stands next to Interior Ministry personnel during a gathering of supporters of EU integration in Kiev Dec. 9.

At least a few nations now have a new way to gauge how much people think honesty is important in their elected leaders – mass protests.

In 2011, thousands took to the streets in India, angry at the daily cost of bribery. Many Arab Spring uprisings reflected a popular resentment over corruption. Last summer, Brazil, Spain, and Bulgaria saw giant protests against graft in high places. 

Now it is Ukraine’s turn.

The country of 46 million that straddles the divide between Europe and Russia erupted in protests last month after President Viktor Yanukovych refused to set the country on a path to join the European Union. The protesters, mainly young and largely leaderless, gradually began to see the rejection as simply a way for top officials to avoid meeting EU standards against corruption and to continue their wealth-amassing graft.

On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians gathered again in the capital of Kiev, many of them vowing to stay despite the winter cold until they see hope of a new government. “This is a decisive moment when all Ukrainians have gathered here because they don’t want to live in a country where corruption rules,” said Vitaly Klitschko, a reigning world heavyweight boxing champion and leader of the opposition Udar (Punch) party.

Ukraine is perceived as Europe’s most corrupt nation, according to the watchdog group Transparency International. On a global scale, its current corruption ranking is worse than that of Nigeria and Pakistan. It is also a major transit point for drug smuggling and human trafficking.

“Corruption in Ukraine is a systemic problem existing across the board and at all levels of public administration. Both petty and grand scale corruption are flourishing,” stated a Transparency International report.

More than a third of Ukrainians say bribery is necessary to resolve problems. Between 2005 and 2008, Ukraine was one of the countries with the largest increase in bribes for public procurement, according to the World Bank.

Yet more than two-thirds of Ukrainians are willing to participate in anti-corruption activities. This sizable sentiment hints at a common belief that people, especially in public life, are capable of operating with integrity. It also accounts for the size of the protests in Kiev.

Among the country’s young, the prospect of joining the EU is a way to clean up their government, especially the rampant vote-buying at election time. More than half of adults under age 29 support EU membership, according to a November poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology.

Ukraine has a high number of activist groups and lively social media. This helped bring people to the streets in recent days. It also helps the protesters avoid associating with the major opposition parties – although Mr. Klitschko and his party are favored.

In India, the 2011 protests did produce new laws against corruption. But perhaps the biggest result came Sunday in a election in the Indian state that includes the capital, New Delhi. The new anti-graft Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party captured a surprising 23 of Delhi’s 70 seats, even defeating a three-time chief minister. “This election shows that honest politics can win over corrupt politics,” said the party’s founder, Arvind Kejriwal.

During Ukraine’s 2004 “Orange Revolution,” protests helped improve a wobbly democracy in the former Soviet state. Now these latest protests are directed at instilling honesty into electoral politics and everyday governance. 

They may be part of a global trend among new democracies. Since 2003, the United Nations has designated Dec. 9 as International Anti-Corruption Day. In past years, few people noticed. But with Ukrainians still in the streets, that day may now have some meaning.

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