That Kid Again

KIEV, Ukraine -- The controversy concerning President Viktor Yushchenko, his allegedly wayward son Andriy, and the media is a bit of a tempest in a teacup. The 19-year-old First Son’s alleged sins, while obnoxious, are venial in a Ukrainian context in which members of ruling-class clans have been known to steal whole industrial sectors from the commonwealth. At the same time, the fire around the controversy keeps getting stoked by a media that recognizes good copy when it sees it.

Andriy Yushchenko (4th from the left) with Viktor Yushchenko (C) During Orange Revolution

That said, the media has a point when it comes to one thing: President Yushchenko’s behavior during this uproar has left a bit to be desired.

If you’re not up on l’affaire Andriy Yushchenko, here’s the back story. Last week the popular Internet news site Ukrainska Pravda ran investigative pieces detailing the misbehavior of the president’s teenage son. The kid seems to be a bit fast. He drives a stunningly expensive BMW M6, lives in a huge apartment, uses a cell phone worth the price of a unit in a left bank high-rise, and is protected by private security guards who shoo away the police when they object to his alleged outrageous violations of traffic laws. The Beemer is reportedly borrowed. The apartment is paid for – depending on what story you believe – either by the Yushchenko family or by Andriy himself. He can afford it, the Yushchenkos claim, because the kid has a high-paying job at a consulting firm.

It’s worth separating what’s outrageous about the above from what isn’t. Listening to some of the journalistic rhetoric, you’d think young Andriy was an outrageous decadent in the mold of the Marquis de Sade, squandering the national wealth on ceaseless orgies. In fact, his lifestyle is not atypical of that of young people in positions analogous to his. It might be unfair, but the kids of powerful politicians tend to be showered with gifts and offered opportunities the rest of us don’t get. They get offered high-paying sinecures. When Ukrainska Pravda editor Olena Prytula says in a recent interview that Andriy’s lifestyle raises corruption issues, because Andriy’s unnamed benefactors might be trying to influence the president, she’s mistaken. There’s nothing that says a First Child has to take a vow of poverty, and there’s nothing illegal about a private citizen – which is what Andriy is – accepting gifts or a high salary for doing too little work. Without proof of a quid pro quo involving his father, what Andriy owns – or borrows or uses or accepts as a gift – is no one’s business but his own and his family’s. Unseemliness is no crime. This is a free country.

What is outrageous, however, is Andriy’s allegedly loutish behavior. No one should be able to park illegally in the middle of the street; no one’s bodyguards should be able to warn off the police. This speaks to an old Ukrainian problem: that there have been two sets of laws in this country, one for the guys in the black luxury sedans, and another for everybody else. If young Yushchenko gets to break the laws everyone else lives under, then this is absolutely a matter for a watchdog press.

This brings us back to President Yushchenko’s behavior throughout this hullabaloo. It hasn’t been good. When an Ukrainska Pravda reporter questioned him about his son at a press conference this week, Yushchenko exploded in dudgeon. In a rambling response, he insisted on his son’s flawless morality, weirdly brought up the specter of threats of violence against his family, adjured journalists not to disgrace their profession, offered conflicting versions of who’s paying for his son’s luxuries, and – most startling of all – told Ukrainska Pravda’s reporter not to be a “hired killer.” That’s a loaded thing to say in a country where journalists have indeed been long for hire, and where they’ve too often been killed.

If Yushchenko’s going to be the leader of a European country, he should try to sound like one. Do we believe Yushchenko has the same contempt for a free press that his predecessor in office did? No. But the trouble with this sort of ranting is that it sets a bad example for officials down the food chain. If a newspaper cameraman has his equipment smashed by an Interior Ministry cop next week, we’ll wonder whether Yushchenko’s effusion didn’t have something to do with it.

Instead of lashing out at the press, Yushchenko should have simply addressed the issues at hand. First, he should have affirmed his underage kids’ right to privacy. Second, he should have acknowledged the (yes) unseemliness of a spectacularly luxurious lifestyle for the young son of a reform politician in an impoverished country. Third, he should have pledged to look into his son’s allegedly illegal behavior, to punish it severely, and to punish moreover the policemen who let Andriy slide, if they can be identified.

Finally, he should have reiterated his respect for a free media. By doing this especially, he would have set the sort of example a good leader should set, and at the same time have disarmed his journalistic critics.

The president missed an excellent chance to strengthen democracy and the media environment here, and to affirm that the days of well-connected Ukrainians being above the law are over.

Source: Kyiv Post