Corruption is in the Eye of the Beholder

It may be time to recognize that all modern states cultivate native forms of corruption that can lead to authoritarian behavior in clear contradiction with their professed ideals.

Hands passing money under table corruption bribery © Rawpixel.com / shutterstock.com

July 20, 2022 07:39 EDT

A Reuters article this week quoted this public statement by a prominent political leader: “Sufficient evidence has been collected to report this person on suspicion of treason. All his criminal activities are documented.”

Now let’s imagine this quote presented in the form of a multiple-choice question on an examination for a high school history class. It might look like this:

Identify the person in modern history who made this statement to the press: “Sufficient evidence has been collected to report this person on suspicion of treason. All his criminal activities are documented.”

a)   Barack Obama

b)  Joseph Stalin

c)   Vladimir Putin

d)  Volodymyr Zelenskyy

e)  Boris Johnson

Clearly no American high school student would be tempted to answer Barack Obama, despite the fact that, more than all other presidents combined, Obama used the 1917 Espionage Act to arrest and prosecute whistleblowers and journalists. So, let’s move on to the other choices.

Given what everyone knows about history, the obvious choice would be Joseph Stalin. And, indeed, this sentiment correlates with the justification for his notorious show trials. But Stalin, who had no need to explain things to the press, never spoke these words.

With Stalin eliminated, the default answer for most people today would be the third choice, Vladimir Putin. It certainly fits with his image. We have seen headlines in the recent past about Putin’s habit of firing generals and other officials underperforming in the war in Ukraine. But in none of these cases was anyone accused of treason. They were simply “dismissed from their posts.”

The next choice, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is patently absurd. No self-respecting student of current events would choose Volodymyr Zelenskyy. How could they? He’s a war hero, a knight in shining armor, the valiant defender of democracy, freedom and the moral values of the enlightened West. He is our only contemporary politician whom we can compare to Winston Churchill, a comparison Zelenskyy himself, in all modesty, made recently. 

So can it be Boris Johnson? Johnson has never made a statement of great political consequence other than “Get Brexit done.” And he isn’t likely to make any others as his career definitively falters, allowing him to presumably spend quality time looking after at least some of the ten or twelve children he has left scattered along his career path (with more to come?). 

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And so, the surprising truth is that none other than Superhero Volodymyr was the author of that statement. On Sunday, as reported by Reuters, Zelenskyy “announced the firing of the head of Ukraine’s domestic security agency, the SBU, and the state prosecutor general.”

Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Sufficient evidence:

Any suspicion felt by an authoritarian leader.

Contextual note

Reuters conveys the facts in a neutral, objective tone. But some of the facts it reports may sound astonishing to anyone who takes the time to think about their meaning.

Here is how Reuters defines the context: “Zelenskiy said he had fired the top officials because it had come to light that many members of their agencies had collaborated with Russia, a problem he said had touched other agencies as well.”

There’s a wonderful vagueness about the idea that something “had come to light.” Readers will obviously and uncritically sympathize with Zelenskyy’s condemnation of any lost soul who “collaborated with Russia.” The problem here may lie in the definition of “collaborated.” Its meaning ranges from “talked to” to “colluded with.” Zelenskyy has deemed this collaboration to be “treason.” That means that he believes that what “came to light” was clearly collusion.

According to The New York Times, reporting on the same story, “Mr. Zelensky said he was responding to a large number of treason investigations opened into employees of law enforcement agencies.” Later in the article we learn that a “total of 651 cases of high treason had been opened against law enforcement personnel.” Reuters also mentions that “SBU chief Ivan Bakanov” was “a childhood friend of Zelenskiy.” This is beginning to sound like a purge more worthy of comparison with Stalin than Churchill.

The US reaction was somewhat predictable. It reflected the American belief in rational management policies. The NYT reveals that “American officials said the moves reflect Mr. Zelensky’s efforts to put more experienced leaders in key security positions.” Surely a natural, intelligent thing to do. They even give a hint about the process. “U.S. intelligence agencies have been providing huge amounts of information to Ukrainian partners.”

This would appear to indicate that US intelligence provided the evidence for these accusations. A reasoning person might even be tempted to think that the US may have written the entire script for Zelenskyy to play out before the cameras. But anyone aware of how the news has been reported in the past few months by our legacy media should now understand and firmly believe that Zelenskyy is a visionary political leader, not an actor skilled at delivering other people’s texts. The proper reading of events is that the visionary leader is judiciously using the resources provided by his docile partner and supporter, the US, to carry out his strategic vision.

The NYT stresses this point when it explains that even though “U.S. intelligence agencies have worked with the S.B.U. [Ukraine’s intelligence agency], their main relationship during the war has been with Ukraine’s military intelligence service.” In other words, the US is assisting with equipment, and that’s it. It is definitely not getting involved in Ukrainian politics. This should be obvious. After all, there have been no intercepted telephone calls with Victoria Nuland in the past eight years, not since the famous one in February 2014. That should be “sufficient evidence” that the US has given up any attempt to influence the internal politics of the sovereign nation of Ukraine.

Historical note

The NYT article apparently hopes its readers will miss the irony around the fact that in 2020 Oleksiy Symonenko, the acting prosecutor general appointed to replace his treasonous predecessor, “was accused by the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine of ‘illegally’ interfering in a corruption investigation.”

This highlights one of those well-known and obvious though somewhat embarrassing facts about post-Soviet Ukraine: systemic and endemic corruption, no matter who is in power or who has been “democratically elected.” In June, Al Jazeera aptly reminded its readers that “on May 20, 2019, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, with a hint of irony, said in his inauguration speech that his election victory proved that Ukrainians were tired of experienced politicians who over the past 28 years had created a country of opportunities – ‘opportunities to steal, bribe and loot.’”

Like Russia itself, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and a US-supported restructuring of the economy under Boris Yeltsin, Ukraine’s future oligarchs discovered the wonderful “opportunities” provided to anyone capable of learning the ropes in a new version of what may aptly be called the three liberal arts mentioned by Zelenskyy: stealing, bribing and looting.

Russia and Ukraine had become two independent nations ready to benefit from the wisdom of American bankers, capitalists and consultants itching to teach them that a successful economy depends on the motivation of a class of hyper-wealthy people controlling the extraction and transformation of resources as well as being in charge of the distribution of wealth (mainly to themselves). Zelenskyy’s own net worth today is estimated at $596 million, comparable to Jeffrey Epstein’s at the time of his death. It is also three times the estimated net worth of Robert Redford, who most will acknowledge has had a much richer and more productive career in entertainment than Zelenskyy.

Making Sense of Vladimir Putin’s Long Game


Since the Russian invasion in February, and even before, Al Jazeera has demonstrated an uncharacteristic alignment with Western media’s one-sided reporting on the conflict. This despite the pertinent remarks of their senior political analyst, Marwan Bishara, who has condemned the conformist attitude of the media. He was particularly “shocked by the venomous attacks on critics of US foreign policies by their fellow journalists and citizens, accusing them of acting as a ‘fifth column’ on ‘Putin’s payroll.’”

Al Jazeera’s news services, in contrast, have largely followed the dictates of US propaganda, though far less stridently than their American or British counterparts. In the article on Ukraine’s corruption, Al Jazeera uses a classic but rather abject dodge to shield Ukraine from criticism. Citing rankings published in 2021, it notes that as the second-most corrupt country in Europe, Ukraine is nevertheless better than Russia, who holds first place. That is an odd case of whataboutism that should hardly reassure anyone about the capacity of Ukraine to represent a bastion of the ideals of Western democracy.

Critiquing the trend of the media, Bishara sees “a repeat of the disastrous Gulf War coverage of two decades ago, where much of the influential Anglo Saxon mainstream media sided rather blindly and foolishly with the official line.” He then adds this impertinent question: “But why do these ‘opinion makers’ continue to peddle information or rather disinformation from military and intelligence services?”

The answer may simply be that they too are corrupt. It’s just a different kind of corruption, the kind that  Chomsky and Herman analyzed in Manufacturing Consent or that the contemporary columns of seasoned journalist Patrick Lawrence expose. In other words, concerning the existence of corruption—whether in Russia, Ukraine or the US and Western media —there is clearly “sufficient evidence.”

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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