California Forum

Why corruption is good for democracy – but bad for democracies

It may sound a bit odd at first, but these days corruption is actually good for democracy. The more blatant and outrageous the behavior of corrupt bureaucrats, party hacks and official shakedown artists – from police officers to politicians – in authoritarian states, the more they actually move their people toward democratic, participatory demands. And, eventually, toward more democratic, participatory states. Ukraine is the prime example of the moment.

It is only a matter of time – and perhaps warmer weather – before Ukrainians currently protesting against the Kiev kleptocrats succeed at more than just toppling a prominent statue of Lenin in the middle of the capital.

They are fighting against pervasive corruption and for a real voice in their country. The voice of protest started to swell when the current corrupt government made a political decision to dump an opportunity to team up with the European Union.

Instead, the Ukrainian leader turned his back on the West’s liberal economic and political promise. To add insult to popular injury, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych not only sicced his thugs on peaceful protesters, he raced to embrace Mother Russia.

Vladimir Putin’s implicit threat was to cut off needed natural gas (the stick) while at the same time dangling of a generous $15 billion national bribe (the carrot) to join his eastern-oriented, neo-Soviet economic union. That much hot cash would warm any despot’s cold heart.

Extreme corruption in Russia, Ukraine and the other post-Soviet independent states runs rampant, and governing alternatives to date have been no exception.

How does the current regime’s corruption manifest itself? Sometimes in simple, obscenely symbolic ways, like the Ukrainian president’s $100 million Mezhyhirya private mansion on Kiev’s outskirts. Such an extravagance probably wasn’t built on his civil servant’s salary.

Sometimes the corruption appears through blatant, good old-fashioned nepotism, as in the case of the president’s son. Thirty-nine-year-old Oleksandr Yanukovych (aka “The King of Coal”) is a dentist who traded filling cavities for prodigiously filling his personal coffers. Dabbling in private industry and asset management during his father’s time in office has made him one of the country’s richest men.

All this lands Ukraine near the bottom of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index – at 144th out of 177. By contrast, high up on the worldwide rankings is the United States at No. 17. Squeaky-clean Denmark is No. 1.

So how does a deeply, pervasively and grotesquely corrupt, authoritarian regime undermine itself and move a nation toward more democratic institutions and transparency?

First, the corruption has to be extreme and visible. Subtle socking away of kickbacks and cash in Switzerland while showing a public face of austerity makes it harder to rally against a leader or a party. In other words, the corruption has to be obscene. Ukraine? Check.

Second, news and information need to flow relatively freely both from outside and inside the nation. YouTube videos, like the one from George Clooney to Ukrainian protesters, need to be able to find their audience while journalists and others get around the media restrictions with social media and mobile technologies.

A total and effective information lockdown, no matter how difficult, is the only way to fight this democratic pressure. Again, check.

Third, the state has to be unwilling to use extreme violence to suppress its own people. Accidentally killing a protester is a sure way to create a martyr and rally opposition. But mowing down a crowd and showing no mercy or restraint while also jailing political opponents can quell the most virulent protest.

In Ukraine, the extreme violence was targeted but restrained, and not enough to keep people from coming back to the streets in force. Check one more for democratic pressure.

Fourth, can the state redirect its resources and redistribute its wealth to give hope to a populace with not much left to lose? Is there anything the leadership can offer its disgruntled and resigned people? “Let them eat cake!” is a poor argument and a worse policy if there is not enough cake (or bread) to offer people.

Up until he unilaterally halted the EU discussions, the Ukrainian president offered up the hope that those talks were progressing and positive. Snatching away hope for a better future from a people? Check and checkmate.

All of these heavy-handed measures could slow down the Ukrainian regime’s democratic opponents, but ultimately they could bring down the regime itself.

While corruption in democracies has a corrosive effect on democracy, Ukraine’s bad corruption is providing a near-certain path toward a more democratic future for its people.