Like the reigns of many corrupt leaders, that of Viktor Yanukovich ended in farce. But there’s nothing farcical about Ukraine’s situation.
Russian troops have taken over its Crimean region, and President Vladimir Putin this week said that Russia “reserves the right to use all means at our disposal to protect” Russian-speakers in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the country Yanukovich left behind is broke and close to default after he, his family and his cronies looted it during the three years he was president. His son, a dentist, somehow increased his wealth to an estimated $510 million during his father’s truncated term, according to Forbes Ukraine.
The interim prime minister, Arseny Yatsenyuk, told parliament last week that in the last three years, the central bank’s foreign reserves, including gold, dropped from $37 billion to $15 billion, that as much as $70 billion was sent out of the country and that the treasury was practically empty.
But the looting of Ukraine didn’t start with Yanukovich. It goes back to the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the rush to privatize the newly independent Ukraine’s economic infrastructure and resources. This was pushed hard by Western policymakers intent on driving a stake through the heart of communism — and less concerned about the concentration of great wealth in a few hands.
The outcome was a class of fabulously wealthy oligarchs who snapped up controlling interests in Ukraine’s coal and steel industries, in banking, media and agriculture. The insider deals behind those transactions were far from transparent, but an example of the potential scale became public in 2004 when Ukraine’s largest steel mill was sold to a couple of oligarchs, one of them the then-president’s son-in-law, for $800 million. The next government — under President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who came to power in the Orange Revolution — renationalized the mill, then put it on the open market, where it brought $4.8 billion.
In recent years, a few oligarchs have become philanthropists. They support academic programs in Britain and think tanks in Washington, as well as education, health and cultural programs in Ukraine. They sit on prominent boards of directors and hobnob with world figures such as Tony Blair, the Clintons and Bill Gates.
But, with a few notable exceptions, most of the oligarchs sat on the fence during the three-month uprising, occasionally issuing a statement deploring violence. Now, for the good of their country and for their own good, this may be the moment for them to step up as Ukraine’s new leaders look for political support in the face of Putin’s threat, and for loans to tide the country over for a few months.
Two oligarchs, citing their commitment to keeping Ukraine from being split, have already accepted appointments as governors in eastern Ukraine, where most of their interests are concentrated. The new government in Kiev hopes their influence can blunt what it sees as provocateurs who support Russia stirring unrest there.
Here’s a modest proposal for the others. From among the 100 richest Ukrainians — listed by Forbes Ukraine last April, with a combined wealth of $55 billion — a consortium could be formed to purchase the $2 billion in bonds that Russia had promised to buy in February, then declined. Clearly, not everyone on the list would agree. Yanukovich’s son and several cronies, for example, are probably more concerned about the freezing of their foreign bank accounts. But the ones who did sign on would help give the country financial breathing space.
The European Union is proposing at least $15 billion in loans and grants, and the U.S. announced $1 billion in loan guarantees. But that’s less than half of what Ukraine estimates it will need over the next two years.
The example of wealthy Ukrainians showing confidence in their nation should encourage foreign lenders, whose first question often is, what are the locals doing? If Ukraine survives, the oligarchs get their money back, with interest. That would give them a strong stake in Ukraine’s success, and might be a guarantee against corruption.
It would take leadership and some sacrifice. Even enormously wealthy people can have cash-flow problems. But other Ukrainians have sacrificed much more for a free and dignified country.
Tatiana R. Zaharchenko, a former a law professor in Ukraine, is a lawyer on environmental matters and government reform, working mainly in Eastern Europe. Patrick Breslin, a writer and photographer, has written extensively on grass-roots development in Latin America.