In my last post, I examined the context and history surrounding the Ukrainian crisis. To gain further insight, I spoke to Ukrainian and Russian students and staff members at the University of Missouri, who focused their comments on issues of corruption in Ukrainian politics and daily life, their feelings toward Yanukovych, the likelihood of a Russian takeover, consequences of Western intervention and the question of whether Ukraine is headed in the right direction.
Many of my sources stated that Ukraine’s problems begin not with Russia, but with immense internal corruption.
Roman Kolgushev, a Ukrainian journalist and graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism, holds that corruption is prevalent throughout daily life in Ukraine.
“It begins with being born and the doctor bribe, to death and the cemetery bribe. In school there aren’t bribes but there are relationships. There are presents to the teacher. In the university, they can buy grades, diplomas. They bribe policemen on the streets for traffic violations,” said Kolgushev.
Kolgushev believes that this corruption greatly destabilizes Ukraine’s political system and leads to official incompetence.
“With corruption, it’s almost inevitable that (Ukraine) would have unprofessionals taking the post of professionals,” said Kolgushev.
Alex Safronov, a professor at the University of Missouri’s School of Medicine, has observed an increase in the intensity of corruption since Yanukovych came to power.
“Everybody knows that the previous president, Yushchenko, dipped Ukraine, figuratively speaking, into the sea of corruption. [Yanukovych] tipped the whole thing into the corruption and it stayed under water,” said Safronov.
In addition to allegedly deepening corruption, Yanukovych alienated many Ukrainians by failing to follow through on promises to bring the country closer to the European Union.
Maria Kernychny, a Ukrainian student at the Missouri School of Journalism, holds that Yanukovych used deceit to become elected.
“He lied to everyone,” said Kernychny. “His campaign to be elected was literally, “elect me because I‘m the only one who’ll help you join the EU.’ Every other candidate at the time was pretty clear they didn’t want to do that.”
Safronov believes these promises were simply a tool to gain more money from Russia. According to Safronov, Ukraine’s joining the EU would mean solidified borders and, thus, barriers between Ukraine and Russia.
“As far as I understand, he was just trying to blackmail Putin — just saying, ‘if you’re not giving us money or a natural gas discount, we will enter the European Union,’” said Safronov.
Ultimately, Kolgushev believes that Yanukovych’s actions have greatly impacted his chances for political greatness. Kolgushev holds that Yanukovych could have won respect and strengthened his position through EU deals, but fell dramatically after pulling out of deals and creating anti-protest legislation.
“He could have walked into history, but he smashed into it,” said Kolgushev.
Yanukovych’s subsequent flight to Russia and call for referendums as well as Russian military activity in the Black Sea region have caused worries regarding the likelihood and extent of a Russian takeover.
Anna Valiavska, a University of Missouri Residential Life coordinator from Ukraine, expects a takeover due to the presence of Russian troops and historic factors.
“There are years of history,” said Valiavska. “Territories have been taken over by many countries and nations. There are geographic tensions, national tensions and economic tensions. Ukraine is highly agricultural, and has natural resources.”
Safronov holds that Ukraine’s eastern territories will join Russia. According to him, the pro-Russian movement is very strong there. He hopes, though, that Russia will simply stop at the Crimean Peninsula without attempting to control additional territories.
Kolgushev, though, believes that Ukrainians will not willingly join Russia.
“People feel a connection to Russia,” said Kolgushev. “The friendship is important, but there’s never an overwhelming feeling to be part of the Russian federation. Many miss Soviet promises of free education and medicine, the part of social life that’s taken care of.
“But it never went beyond that – to wanting to join Russia,” said Kolgushev in reference to the majority of Ukrainians. “Basically, Russia has been, for the last fifteen years, having this campaign of saying there is this grand Russian world, and all the ethnic Russians should be connected. So the rhetoric was to try and talk nations like Belarus and Ukraine into becoming a single state, which is why a lot of experts claim that Putin wants to reestablish the Soviet Union or the Russian empire.”
In fact, Kernychny believes that that the Soviet Union never truly broke its hold on Ukraine.
“The Soviet Union broke up, but they (still) have complete control over everyone,” said Kernychny.
The government of Ukraine sees Western intervention as the only way to stop a potential Russian takeover, and has asked NATO for military support. My sources, though, believe that this intervention will lead to violence.
“(Intervention is) necessary, but I don’t know how,” said Valiavska. “I don’t think troops will be sent, or that soft diplomacy works on Putin. Putin just doesn’t care (about sanctions). He wants to identify as a strong leader.”
In light of the previous two world wars, Kolgushev fears the consequences of another European war.
“Everybody knows what the result of the Second World War was, and everybody knows that we need to do everything to stop military intervention,” said Kolgushev. “At the same time, (Ukrainians) know they need to protect their borders.”
Safronov hopes for a deal between the two countries. According to him, “Russia is crazy enough to start a war.”
In light of this uncertainty and instability, many are now asking whether Ukraine is ultimately headed in the right direction.
Kolgushev recommends free elections and new officials.
“We need new, fresh people in the parliament,” said Kolgushev. “We need a strong government formed with the professionals.”
He cautions, though, that old habits of corruption may be hard to break.
“There (are) a lot of fears here because still a lot of politicians are going to be in power that still have old understandings of how business is done, of how politics (are) done. Which is not necessarily a good thing,” said Kolgushev.
Safronov holds that Ukrainians must reflect on their politics and choice in officials. He compares the voting situation to the proverb, ‘if it happens once, shame on you. If it happens twice, shame on me:’
“Already the second time, they voted for someone who is not good for the country. The shame is on the people now. They should just vote more wisely,” said Safronov.
Kernychny believes that the young people must continue realizing their own power and pushing the revolution in a positive direction.
“I don’t think (the young people) are going to stop because they’ve seen what they can do with social media and their power of their voices alone,” said Kernychny.
Valiavska also recognizes the power of Ukrainians in fighting for a more representative government, but worries about ultimate conflict resolution.
“It’s fabulous that Ukrainians are rising up against wrongdoing,” said Valiavska. “It’s great that they’re strong enough to do this again. If the crisis is resolved, there will be fair elections, transparency, leaders who listen and make sure no corruption happens. But this is only possible if the conflict is resolved. It’s a dangerous game.”