Corruption and Crumbling Roads in Ukraine

Leave the city and drive along Ukraine’s rural roads and you’ll come away with a heightened appreciation of the everyday heroism of the country’s drivers. Although the vast majority of Ukraine’s roads—with the notable exception of the nicely paved thoroughfares leading up to Regionnaire palaces—are a complete mess, the people who have to negotiate these roller-coasters on a daily basis actually manage to survive their experiences and retain their good humor.

So there you are, just outside some city, and you’re coasting along at some 50 mph until, all at once, everybody, both you and the oncoming traffic, comes to a snail’s pace. For there, spread out before you like a World War I moonscape, are holes and craters of various sizes and depths. As a friend of mine said as we were driving south of Lviv: “This isn’t a road. It’s a direction.”

Cars and trucks, including twelve-wheelers, weave their way among them, moving from right lane to left and from left to right with a motion reminiscent of the English waltz. In the United States, this would be an excellent opportunity to engage in some serious road rage. Not in Ukraine. No one honks, no one lets loose with a string of curses, no one bumps the other guy’s vehicle. They just weave in and out, rocking back and forth and up and down as they maneuver their way in and around and through the shallowest potholes.

(Here’s something I learned. If you’ve got to go through a hole, go through the widest one. The bumps are likely to be less jarring than what you’d encounter if maneuvering through a smaller pothole. Don’t ask me why: that’s just the way things are. Here’s another thing I learned. Avoid at all costs driving on such roads in the rain. The holes fill up quickly and, because the road glistens evenly thanks to the rain, you can’t tell where the holes are and where the road is.)

Everyone agrees that the roads have gotten significantly worse in the last year. Which, at first glance, is odd, since the Yanukovych regime spent big bucks fixing roads in preparation for the Euro 2012 soccer championship last summer. Part of the answer for the bad roads is the exceptionally severe winter that battered the country. Another part of the answer is that Ukraine’s roads were mostly built more than 50 years ago and have been neglected since then. But another, perhaps the largest, part of the answer is Regionnaire theft.

It’s been estimated that the roads, airports, and soccer stadiums the Regionnaires built last year were significantly more expensive than their counterparts in other countries. That’s obviously not because Ukrainian labor is that much more expensive. It takes little imagination to conclude that the cost overruns were due to the fact that regime theft of government resources has skyrocketed since Viktor Yanukovych became president in 2010.

So when they say they’re building or fixing roads, don’t believe it. All expenditures in Ukraine and especially expenditures on infrastructure are, first and foremost, Regionnaire self-enrichment schemes. Only after everybody’s gotten his cut will whatever remains be spent on what the entire amount was supposed to be spent on. And since the remaining amounts tend to be measly, the efforts that go into construction tend to be correspondingly measly. Naturally, the roads will be built and the potholes will be filled—but with inferior or stretched materials that quickly crumble after a few poundings by storms or trucks.

After all, in Ukraine as elsewhere, “ya gits what ya pays fer.” The Ukrainian state pretends to fix Ukraine’s roads and the result is multiple “directions,” and not roads. In contrast, the Ukrainian state paid real money for Yanukovych’s palatial playground north of Kyiv and, unsurprisingly, the presidential estate has not been reported as having any problems with the quality of its infrastructure.

Ukraine’s Regionnaire vice premier, Oleksandr Vilkul, reported on June 7th that the state would be investing heavily in road building and repair in the next five years. Vilkul’s promise is obviously part of Yanukovych’s 2015 campaign strategy and, given the president’s abysmally low ratings, it will convince only die-hard Yanukovych supporters. Even if the government really intends to disburse some money for roads, Ukrainians know that only a portion will actually be spent on concrete projects. The Yanukovych Family reportedly takes a cut of every big deal. The president’s cronies, pals, and ministers take a cut, too. As do the various lower-level Regionnaire power-holders. The Regionnaire-controlled construction firms that win the rigged tenders will skim off some more. At the end of the day, only a portion of the original amount will be left for the projects. The asphalt will hold up until the presidential elections and then crumble. With any luck, so will the Yanukovych regime.


Photo Credit: Silar

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