Yushchenko Bares Almost All After A Year In Office

KIEV, Ukraine -- Just days before the one-year anniversary of his presidency, Ukrainian leader Viktor Yushchenko was standing on the frozen Dnipro River in his swimming trunks, steeling himself to celebrate the Orthodox Christian holiday of Epiphany.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko dives into icy water at sub-zero temperatures in Kiev, to celebrate the holiday of the Epiphany

It was a particularly non-Soviet media moment, even for Yushchenko. His scarred face was without its normal protective make- up, and his moderate paunch was, once he shucked his robe, there for television cameras and the entire nation to see. Yushchenko's predecessor, by comparison, was a man notorious for owning an entire wardrobe of leisure clothes used only for media appearances.

Yushchenko slid into the icy water (along with several members of his cabinet), and after a minute or two of breathless paddling, they emerged, a bunch of middle-aged Ukrainian men, florid and flushed but apparently none the worse for the plunge, their winter ritual of faith complete. Then they all went to work.

Viktor Yushchenko's first year as president of Ukraine has seen a healthy share of failures, and has chalked up a few clear-cut victories. But the biggest success of the Yushchenko presidency was visible, in a small way, on the Dnipro ice. For the first time in Ukrainian history, the country has a leader interested in open and responsible government.

It was clear early on, of course, that wanting to clean up government corruption - one of Yushchenko's top campaign promises before the Orange Revolution propelled him into office - was a lot easier that actually getting the job done. By summer half his administration was accusing the other half of using their public office roles to generate private income.

Yushchenko later admitted he shilly-shallied, waiting until September to sack the worst offenders. Critical time was lost to push reform legislation through parliament.

Efforts to clean up the dirtiest of Ukraine's government agencies, organizations like the customs and traffic police, were initially so feeble, that Yushchenko himself famously was hit up for bribes repeatedly in July, while driving an automobile from Kiev to the Carpathian Mountains.

Tellingly, Yushchenko's response was a departure from the time- honoured approach to Ukrainian corruption, which is to replace the man in charge and then pretend reform has taken place, while in reality the corruption carries on as before, just under the supervision of a new man.

Yushchenko abolished the traffic police to the last cop, and told the nation to drive without supervision until a new corps could be recruited. The purge was one of the worst ever to hit a Ukrainian government agency, with provincial and even district and village traffic police getting the boot. Traffic fatalities are up in Ukraine these days by about 25 per cent, but the replacement agency is up and running, and it's now harder to bribe a Ukrainian traffic cop.

Transparency was the name of the game when it came to the biggest Ukrainian government racket of them all, privatization, which over the last decade has piled up some of the largest personal fortunes in Europe. The biggest prize of the year was a steel mill worth at least 2 billion dollars, but sold by Yushchenko's predecessor to a corporation owned by relatives and friends for 800 million dollars.

Yushchenko's government cancelled the sale, put the mill up on the block on live television, and handed it over to India's Mittal Steel for a cool 4.8 billion dollars. The sale was worth more than the collective value of all of the foreign investment received by Ukraine, in its entire history as an independent state.

And it was the Yushchenko campaign to replace insider deals running on barter into verifiable contracts for countable cash, that sparked the biggest foreign conflict of the year: a fracas with Russia over natural gas prices.

Brinksmanship was used by both sides, including cutting off natural gas shipments to Europe for a day. But when the dust had settled Ukraine wound up with a five-year contract for gas at a price twice what the Ukrainians had been paying, and more than half what the Russians had been demanding. There is no barter, it's all for money.

Parliamentary elections are scheduled for March in Ukraine, and right now the political fashion in the country is to blame the Yushchenko government for all that is wrong with the country, and for not fixing it in its first year in office.

'That's to be expected,' Yushchenko pointed out during a holiday speech to the country. 'We have no more censorship, please, criticize any one you like. So of course you hear more people complaining. In my opinion that's good - bad is when people are unable to complain.'

Source: Deutsche Presse