Tens of thousands of Ukraine’s elected officials had until the end of the last weekend to declare their 2015 income and assets to an open access public database. A part of the International Monetary Fund’s efforts to increase fiscal transparency in the severely corrupt and oligarchic dominated economy, the archly resented law was essentially imposed on the political system and on the Ukrainian parliament by its Western partners.
The creation of the e-declaration system had been plagued with technical issues in the course of its formation. The deadline for the declarations was this past Sunday, and the system almost crashed several times during the crunch of last-minute filings as Ukrainian politicians unhappily scrambled to fulfill their legal obligations. In some Ukrainian journalistic circles it became a jocular topic of debate to wonder whether or not the very wealthiest and most high profile MPs would file, and how much of their actual holdings would be exposed to the world’s scrutiny. Ukrainian politicians are also known for declaring themselves impoverished while living in mansions owned by their wives or brothers and driving luxury automobiles owned by their cousins.
Ukraine’s Jewish Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman—who contrary to the proclamations of numerous media outlets is not the first but rather Ukraine’s second Jewish PM (Yukhym Zvyahilsky)—revealed cash holdings of more than total of $1.2 million in cash as well as a stockpile of luxury watches. Dozens of MPs likewise declared millions in cash, luxury cars, jewelry, land and industrial holdings, and rare bottles of wine. Unsurprisingly, the most fervently populist members of parliament, such as Radical party head Oleh Lyashko, who once showed up in parliament with a pitchfork, held some of the most impressive hoards of cash.
The revelations have sent Ukrainian politics into paroxysms of mutual recriminations. When American writer Sophie Pinkham, author of an excellent recently published memoir of post-Maidan Ukraine, saw the Reuters headline “Ukrainians shocked as politicians declare cast wealth,” she commented that she “thought [it] was an Onion article.” The tenor of Ukrainian social media was one of outrage. In a Facebook post, journalist Kristina Berdynskykh publicly asked colleagues who see Poroshenko bloc MP Andrei Pavleno to ask him where he lives because left that part of his e-declaration blank. “Does he live in the Rada itself?” she retorted, wondering about a man known to have multiple watches.
Ukraine’s political class is infamous for its venality. Many members of parliament are representatives of big business who entered the Verkhovna Rada for the express purpose of siphoning resources from the state budget or to acquire parliamentary immunity against possible prosecution. Ironically, the reverse side of Ukraine’s widespread kleptocracy is its puritanical public relationship to wealth that is a leftover legacy of Soviet communism. Ukrainians’ income has been slashed by a war-driven recession, and their buying power has been further reduced by the twin scourges of a depreciation of the currency against the dollar and sharply rising inflation.
In a defensive Facebook post published Tuesday morning, Prime Minister Groysman’s press secretary accused Fatherland party leader Yulia Tymoshenko of making a salary five times higher when she had served as prime minister about a decade ago. In an unrelated but particularly bad case of timing, Ukraine’s parliament is now in the midst of voting in a retroactive pay raise that would more than double their salaries. Many skeptical local political observers as well as international experts of the declaration process pointedly wondered why any member of the ordinary Ukrainian population should be expected to entrust the banking system with his life savings when large swathes of the political elite choose to keep their wealth tucked under their mattress or in the form of expensive wine bottles. That is a reasonable question to ask as Ukraine struggles to create strong public institutions and cleanse its public sphere of corruption.