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22 October, 2012

Face Control

When yet another acquaintance of mine asked me, for the fourth time this week, why I am not running for a seat in parliament, I had to stop and think. Is the career of a politician so attractive in the view of so many people that it is worth abandoning your profession (which you may happen to love), competence, previously acquired practical experience, an established mode of life and, finally, your circle of friends? (The milieu of which inevitably changes in the upper stratosphere.)

Let me stop beating around the bush – everyone knows what it is all about. To the majority of average and above-average citizens, politics means a drastic change in their financial condition. This somewhat naïve view is, by and large, adequate.  I say “naïve” because the sources of enrichment differ from case to case. For one, MPs receive a relatively high official salary and various financial bonuses, privileges, and so on. Some charge for their lobbying services, individually or collectively, while others siphon money from their party’s coffers. Still others are rewarded for defection, and a large number of MPs simply use parliament to lobby for their businesses in various ways, from security matters to landing lucrative deals. The everyday thinking of the average Ukrainian is not inclined to make such fine distinctions. There is a reluctancy to distinguish between sources of someone else’s profits and divide them into legal and illegal gains. Essentially, they are both condemned: it is enough to see that the material manifestation of this welfare – clothes, cars, houses and various accessories – is clearly above the average level. This evokes hatred and envy at the same time.

The indispensable marks of a post-Soviet politician are precisely the things that would be disqualifying faults for their European or North American counterparts. We all remember the worn-out soles on Barack Obama’s boots in a famous picture that made the rounds, the modest flat in which Angela Merkel lives and the poor backyard of David Cameron on 10 Downing Street. We have all seen the unforgettable pictures of the New York mayor in the subway and the London mayor on a bike. The public opinion in the West is that a politician must meet the criterion cemented, ironically, by the Soviet bureaucratic cliché: “Modest in everyday life”. What buried Sarkozy’s career? He was an incompetent manager and failed to make good on his pre-election promises, but what really burned him was certain consumer excesses, such as trips to expensive health resorts paid for by his friends.

The opposite political culture is unambiguous. In Russia, they openly say: “If you made a trip to the government and came back with less than 50 million, you wasted your time.” The figure may differ for Ukraine, but the aspirations are the same. The system of values prevalent in the Ukrainian establishment is rotten to the core. It cannot fail to make an imprint on certain representatives who, at one point in time, became part of it either under the pressure of circumstances or lured by an irresistible temptation. The transformations that happen to former intellectuals, journalists and public activists after they become MPs or government officials are evident at the level of physiognomy. The sample consisting of the key figures in the government and pro-government forces would, no doubt, merit the attention of Cesare Lombroso, but even the opposition is dominated by people with bleak, effaced visages whose expression bears eloquent testimony to all the compromises they have made or tolerated. There are just a handful of personalities who can be watched without discomfort or pity. They do exist, but in critically small numbers and consequently have little impact on the overall landscape.

No, I am not itching to make a laughingstock out of myself and call on politicians to serve the common weal, i.e., that which obtained the status of le bien publique during the French Enlightenment. But as a first step in the direction of this currently unattainable ideal, it would be good for the ruling class not to be so primitive! Say what you may, but it is offensive at best. You would expect the actors to at least be aware of the complexity of their functions, complexity that is on par with the challenges faced by the country. Anything but money should  lure those who are getting ready to sit behind levers or buttons (literally) and rule the country.

What drug is stronger than money? Power, of course. It can be understood primitively, in the spirit of ancient pharaohs or modern-time dictators, or it can be construed as the ability to make a difference and change the order of things. It takes a certain level of education and, forgive me, imagination. True, power as it is contains the inherent danger of abuse to the point of allowing various sociopolitical experiments, from the “red” to “European integration” – but that is at least in line with the nature of these types of relationships. But I would sooner agree to have a maniac, rather than a lackey, for an opponent.


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