The Last Laugh in Ukraine

Read Time:4 Minute, 50 Second – Last year, when Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski went to Kyiv
for talks, his Ukrainian counterparts reportedly laughed at him because he was
wearing a cheap Japanese watch. Several Ukrainian ministers had watches that cost
more than $30,000. In a column I wrote about this incident, I pointed out that
quartz watches perform a watch’s function – telling the time accurately – better
than mechanical “prestige” watches that cost hundreds of times as much.

Sikorski has had the last laugh. Those who mocked him were speedily dismissed by the
Ukrainian parliament in the wake of President Viktor Yanukovich’s flight from Kyiv.
Nor were the expensive watches irrelevant to the fate of Yanukovich and his

Corruption is a key issue in the Ukrainian revolution, as it has been in many
popular uprisings, including the Tunisian revolution against President Zine
el-Abidine Ben Ali, which triggered the Arab Spring, and the “People Power
Revolution” in the Philippines that ousted President Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

In each case, the overthrow of the corrupt leader has been followed by revelations
about the lavish lifestyle he led at the expense of his people, many of whom were
desperately poor. Yanukovich, we now know, had a private zoo, his own restaurant in
the shape of a pirate ship, and a collection of contemporary and antique cars.

A document recovered after his flight shows that Yanukovich paid a German firm €1.7
million ($2.3 million) for wooden decor for his dining room and tearoom. In Tunisia,
the notorious extravagance of Ben Ali’s extended family included a caged tiger and
the use of a private jet to fly in ice cream from St. Tropez. As for Marcos, who can
forget his wife Imelda’s 3,000 pairs of shoes?

One visitor to Yanukovich’s estate told The New York Times that everything had been
stolen from the people. There was the same anger when Ben Ali and Marcos fell, and
ordinary people saw how their rulers had lived. But, though one marble-tiled bedroom
in a Ben Ali mansion soon acquired graffiti saying, “The rich get rich and the poor
get poorer,” the issue is not simply one of economic inequality.

Arguably, income inequality is justified, because it provides incentives for
entrepreneurs to provide goods and services that are better, or cheaper, than the
goods or services that others are providing, and this competition benefits everyone.
By contrast, it is not remotely arguable that political rulers should be able to
acquire immense personal wealth through bribery or by distributing public resources
to their family and friends.

This is stealing from the people. Moreover, its impact goes beyond the amounts
stolen. In cables made public by WikiLeaks, Robert Godec, the US Ambassador to
Tunisia before the revolution, warned that the level of corruption stemming from Ben
Ali and his family was deterring investment, and thus contributing to the country’s
high unemployment. It seems likely that a less corrupt Ukraine would also have been
more prosperous.

In these situations, the public’s anger is easy to understand and entirely
justifiable. It is more difficult to explain why some political leaders behave so
poorly. To become the president of one’s country is an extraordinary achievement.
How could anyone think that the best one can do with that achievement is to pursue
personal enrichment?

The oft-repeated quote from George Santayana – “those who cannot remember the past
are condemned to repeat it” – is apt for Yanukovich. Did he really forget what
happened to Ben Ali and Marcos? Was it not obvious that illegally amassing immense
personal wealth would increase the likelihood that he would be overthrown and spend
the rest of his life in prison or, at best, in exile?

Even if Yanukovich had died in office at a ripe old age, his excesses would
eventually have been exposed, and would have tarnished whatever positive reputation
he might have achieved. Did he not care about his legacy?

There is also something even more important than one’s reputation. A political
leader has greater opportunities than almost anyone else to help people, and that
should have been Yanukovich’s highest priority.

But even if Yanukovich was thinking primarily of his own interests, his quest for
personal enrichment was irrational. Imagine that he had stopped to ask himself what
would make him happier. Imagine that, with this question in mind, he had compared
the alternative of a lavish lifestyle (with a private zoo and pirate-ship
restaurant) with that of living comfortably on the substantial salary to which he
was entitled while knowing that he was governing with integrity and doing his best
to improve the lives of Ukraine’s citizens. No matter how self-interested a person
might be, I find it inconceivable that anyone with a modicum of common sense,
pausing to reflect on this choice, could choose as Yanukovich chose.

There is now hope that in May the people of Ukraine will have the opportunity to
elect a new leader. But how can they avoid electing another politician whose
priorities are as misguided as those of Yanukovich? I suggest the following test:
look at the candidate’s watch. If it costs more than $500, find someone else to vote

This test will not select the best candidate, but it will eliminate at least some
candidates with priorities that no decent political leader should have.

Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate
Professor at the University of Melbourne. His watch cost less than $100. He is
the author of several books, including Animal Liberation, Practical Ethics and
The Life You Can Save. A version of his Princeton University course in Practical
Ethics will be available online, free to all, through Coursera, beginning in

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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