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Culture and Corruption in Ukraine

Peter Zalmayev is director of the Eurasia Democracy Initiative, member of the board of the NY Chapter of the American Jewish Committee, and international outreach coordinator for the Babyn Yar Project for the Ukrainian-Jewish Encounter.

Motyl: You just returned from the Bruno Schulz festival in Drohobych. How did a Russian-speaking Jewish Ukrainian from Donetsk become interested in a Polish-Jewish writer from Galicia?

Zalmayev: I came upon Schulz in an article by the prominent Israeli writer David Grossman, published in 2006 in The New Yorker. When I picked up Schulz’s stories, I felt just like Grossman: “You open a book by an author you don’t know, and suddenly you feel yourself passing through a magnetic field that sends you in a new direction, setting off eddies that you’d barely sensed before and could not name.” Soon, I set to collect everything connected with Schulz. I realized that I was not alone in my Schulzian obsession. His many enthusiasts include Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, John Updike, Salman Rushdie, and Isaac Bashevis Singer.    

A few weeks ago, I attended the VII International Bruno Schulz Festival, which is held biennially in Drohobych, where Schulz was born, lived, and died from a Gestapo officer’s bullet in 1942. I went there to present the book I published: Schulz’s major story and, in my opinion, the pinnacle of his art—“Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass”—with new illustrations by a talented young Kyiv-based artist. Published as a signed, numbered, and limited edition, the book was distributed free of charge to Festival-goers and fellow Schulzians, as my modest contribution to the great master’s legacy.

Motyl: How does Schulz fit into the cultural relations among Jews, Poles, and Ukrainians?

Zalmayev: Just like his native Drohobych, Schulz and his work are located at the crossroads of Polish, Jewish, and Ukrainian cultures. Although embodying each of them in their interiority and universality, he and his work do not fully belong in any one culture. Schulz’s importance to Polish literature is similar to that of his friend Witold Gombrowicz. Likewise, Israel deems him a big enough part of the Jewish patrimony to have justified the commando-style operation (the infamous “Schulz-gate”), in 2002, to cut out walls with his frescoes and transport them to Yad Vashem.

Ukraine’s acceptance of the artist has been far from straightforward. Though the first Ukrainian translations of Schulz’s stories started appearing in the early 1990s, they were published in modest print-runs, while their author remained a virtual unknown outside literati circles. Finally, in 2013, the prominent “A-BA-BA-GA-LA-MA-GA” publishing house released a wonderful edition of Schulz’s entire fictional oeuvre in what some consider to be the definitive translation into Ukrainian by Yuri Andrukhovych, a major contemporary Ukrainian writer.

This year’s Festival was covered by Channel 5, which belongs to Ukraine’s President, as well as by several nationwide and local publications. Furthermore, in a welcome demonstration of the city officials’ willingness to go beyond the narrow partisanship of the “divide” between Shulz and Ivan Franko (a major Ukrainian classic writer from Drohobych) and to give the former his due, the mayor’s deputy addressed the participants at the opening session.

I hope that these developments will help cement Schulz’s legacy as the unifying, universalizing, cross-border artist that he was and lead to a greater cross-pollination among the three cultures.

Motyl: You’re involved in the preparations for the forthcoming commemoration in Kyiv of the Babyn Yar massacre. What’s being planned?

Zalmayev: The Ukrainian-Jewish Encounter, a Toronto-based NGO committed to promoting stronger and deeper relations between the two peoples, in cooperation with Jewish and Ukrainian civic leaders and with scholars and cultural figures from Ukraine and abroad (including Timothy Snyder, Bernard Henry-Levy, Charles Bronfman, Ronald Lauder, and Viktor Pinchuk), is undertaking four discrete programs: 1) a youth conference, which will bring together 150 young people from Ukraine, North America, Europe, and Israel for a week-long program to deal with issues of historical memory and civic responsibility; 2) a 2-day public symposium dealing specifically with the September 1941 Babyn Yar massacre in Kyiv, at which a multi-authored book on the tragic event will be presented; 3) a symphonic memorial concert to be held at the Kyiv Opera; and, finally, 4) the announcement of the top three submissions of the UJE-sponsored international competition for a landscape design that will transform Babyn Yar into a historic preservation site.

Separately, UJE and Ukrainian-Jewish leaders plan to honor Ivan Dziuba in a special ceremony. Dziuba is a famous literary critic who in 1966 was one of the Ukrainian non-Jewish intellectuals who had joined an unofficial commemoration broken up by the Soviet police and KGB, giving a famous speech at Babyn yar on Ukrainian-Jewish solidarity. The speech was clandestinely published as samizdat and circulated in the Soviet Union and abroad.

Motyl: As a former Donetsk resident, how do you view the ongoing war in the eastern Donbas? Are you still in touch with friends and relatives in the region? 

Zalmayev: Witnessing my native region torn apart by war has been a personal tragedy. To have the topography of your childhood family sojourns turn into a map of battles is probably what is meant by the Chinese curse: “may you live in interesting times.” These have, indeed, been “interesting” times, for my native region, and for Ukraine as a whole, situated betweеn an increasingly weak Europe and Putin’s revanchist Russia. I am unhappy by the “choice” in favor of the latter, which has been foisted on the people of the Donbas. Alas, that is what they have to live with for the foreseeable future, and I am skeptical as to any quick solution to the problem. Indeed, the “frozen conflict” scenario modeled after Transnistria is already a fact of life and can persist for many years. 

I do try to stay in regular contact with my former classmates and relatives in Donetsk: those among them who never left and those who have had to return from whichever part of Ukraine they had originally fled to. People are capable of infinite adjustments to levels of the “normal”. Non-stop artillery fire on the periphery notwithstanding, Donetsk has by now established its own new “normal,” which, though largely limited to the city center, reportedly bustles with cafes and bars, mothers with strollers, teenagers necking on park benches.

Motyl: You've been involved in a variety of anti-corruption efforts in countries of Central Asia, and, specifically, Kazakhstan. Could you discuss these activities in greater detail?

Zalmayev: The Eurasia Democracy Initiative (EDI) has been an active participant in transnational initiatives fighting corruption in post-Soviet countries. We have organized high-level briefings on the issue in a variety of international fora, such as OSCE Parliamentary Assembly sessions, and, most recently, took part in a panel of experts on corruption in Kazakhstan, which was hosted in May by Chatham House, in London.

Nothing has personified the rottenness of Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s regime as vividly as his former son-in-law, the once all-powerful deputy chief of the Kazakhstani KGB and chief of tax police, the now late Rakhat Aliyev. For many years, while in presidential favor, Aliyev acted as the regime’s thug-in-chief, personally torturing opposition leaders and business opponents and hounding them into exile. He would then take over their businesses to add to his own mushrooming business empire, which at its height included a monopoly on the sugar industry and large market shares in the banking and telecommunications sectors.

Then, when his lucky star burned out, in 2007, and he was accused of masterminding a plot to overthrow his father-in-law, Aliyev went into exile in Austria (where he had served as Kazakhstani ambassador to Austria and the OSCE prior to his fall from grace), and then Malta. While on the run and in order to evade accountability, Aliyev tried to don the mantle of a principled fighter for democracy and against Nazarbayev’s dictatorship. Having siphoned off and stashed away hundreds of millions of dollars, Aliyev was able to lawyer up and game the EU’s justice system for years, fighting off lawsuits by his former victims and now fellow-exiles on the one hand, and the extradition demands from the Kazakhstani government on the other. Aliyev went from Austria to Malta, then, via Cyprus, to Greece, where he was denied refuge, and so had to give himself up to the authorities back in Vienna, having thus come full circle. In February 2015, he hanged himself in his prison cell, while awaiting trial on murder charges.

EDI has since its founding in 2008 partnered with Kazakhstani (and other Central Asian) political exiles, victims of their respective regimes, to bring public scrutiny in the West to figures such as Rakhat Aliyev and Viktor Khrapunov, former mayor of Almaty, and their attempts to game the European financial and judicial systems in order to safeguard their ill-gotten gains and evade responsibility for their crimes. Our argument has been simple: once you give them shelter on your soil it becomes your responsibility to investigate them, try them, and bring them to requisite justice.

Motyl: How does corruption in Ukraine compare with corruption in Russia andKazakhstan?

Zalmayev: On Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions index for 2015, the three countries cluster close together, with Russia being 119th, Kazakhstan 123rd,and Ukraine 130th out of 169.

All three post-Soviet states have inherited communist apparatchik old-boy networks, which quickly found their footing in the days following the break-up of the Soviet Union. Having orchestrated rigged privatization schemes for the purpose of plundering their countries’ resources, former party bosses-cum-newly-baked-crony-capitalists laid the ground for the sad socio-economic stratification that persists to this day, albeit with some fluctuations: the tiny minority of oligarchs and the merely super-rich, the fledgling, vanishing middle class, and the vast majority of have-nots.

All three now find themselves at the mercy of buffeting winds of popular (and populist) rage caused by a severe economic downturn and the perception that the “system is rigged” to benefit the rich, especially in the wake of scandals such as the “Panama papers” leaks. The differences among the three lie in their respective response to this discontent: in Russia and Kazakhstan—both authoritarian, statist, increasingly sclerotic political systems—any genuine debate on corruption has been muted, relegated to isolated bloggers and fledgling, small print-run opposition newspapers. In Ukraine, where each major and minor oligarch seems to possess his own TV channel, even minor scandals or non-scandals involving a politician invite a storm of recriminations and soul-searching, often, alas, of populist hue. 

Hence, anti-corruption crusader Alexey Navalny’s investigation of the Russian Prosecutor General’s and his sons’ apparent links to organized crime garnered almost 5 million views on Youtube andin a western democracy, would have been sufficient toland him in jail and possibly unseat the head of state. This being Russia, the Prosecutor remains firmly in his job. Similarly, the “Panama papers” leaks indicating that Putin’s cronies have stashed away at least $2 billion have been explained away as outlays for the purchase of “musical instruments.” In Kazakhstan, the revelations from the same “Panama papers” point to serious graft on the part of members of the President’s family, including his eldest grandson. With the Kazakhstani opposition having been largely emasculated or run out of the country, it has been left to exiled former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin to cry in the wilderness. Kazhegeldin has urged Western powers to apply the policy of “cryptonomics” when dealing with corrupt third-world regimes like Kazakhstan: freezing stolen assets with their eventual repatriation to the source, once conditions warrant.

In post-Euro-Maidan Ukraine, by stark contrast, the same Panama leaks revealed a very modest story of President Poroshenko’s registration of his legitimate offshore accounts, committed with only apparently minor, largely symbolic improprieties. Yet what a storm of indignation and mud-slinging that caused in Ukraine’s media!

Motyl: So what’s the solution to endemic corruption?

Zalmayev: The fight against corruption has no quick-fix solutions, contrary to whatpolitical figures like the Radical Party boss Oleh Liashko and the Odessa governor and former President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili seem to offer. The latter’s thuggish ways and extortionist prescriptions backfired against him during his second presidential term in Georgia, and Saakashvili has been demonstratively ineffective in his current stint in Odessa, where his list of accomplishment is paltry to non-existent.

Fighting the hydra of corruption is a slow and painful slog. How long it will take for Ukraine to catch up even to such EU laggards as Bulgaria or Romania I do not profess to know. But one thing is certain: straightjacketed as Ukraine is by obligations to its Western defenders against Putin’s aggression and caught on the IMF tranche-disbursement hook, there is simply no going back to business as usual, to the Yanukovich-era free-for-all, in Ukraine. In that sense, it’s definitely turned a corner.

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