When Lina Ratushnyi headed to the hospital in Kiev to have her children, she knew she would have to start lining some pockets.
First there would be $1,000 for the doctor, just to deliver the baby. She'd also have to come up with a decent amount for the nursing team and then buy boxes of medicine she didn't need. Where did the money go? "Into their pockets," said Ms. Ratushnyi, a 42-year-old business consultant in Kiev who has three children.
That kind of corruption is part of daily life in Ukraine, where bribes are required for everything from a place in a kindergarten class to good marks at university and a favourable ruling from a judge. The country is among the most corrupt in the world, ranking 144th on the latest Transparency International index, and it is the collective anger at that corrosive system that has driven the recent popular uprising.
While on the surface the protest movement appears to be about whether Ukraine should join the European Union or have closer ties with Russia, the real issue for many protesters is getting out from under the chokehold of corruption.
"It's so complicated and so oppressive," Ms. Ratushnyi said. "The system is structured so that everyone here is guilty of corruption, because you are forced into it."
On paper, Ukraine has a generous social system, guaranteeing free education through university and free medical care. But the reality is far different. Low pay for many government workers, including teachers, means there are huge incentives to demand bribes.
Ms. Ratushnyi has two school-age children and she pays around $300 a month to the school. Technically the money goes to a "school charitable fund," but in fact most of it is pocketed by some official. She also still pays for books and other school supplies. Other schools are more up front and simply tell parents to hand over a monthly amount to bolster the paltry salary of teachers, which can be as low as $150 a month in some places, roughly 10 per cent of the typical salary in Kiev.
The payments are even higher for university students. When Virginia Dronova wanted to enroll in a Kiev university, she had good grades but was told she'd have to pay $5,000 if she wanted a place. Students in other programs, like medicine, pay up to $10,000. And once in the program, it is not uncommon to pay professors bribes for grades.
"As one of my colleagues said, 'We encounter corruption starting from the hospital when kids come to life, and on to the cemetery,'" said Ms. Dronova, who works in the non-profit sector.
For businesses, the extent of the payola can be bewildering, and deals routinely run up against a palm that needs greasing.
Ms. Ratushnyi has seen it time and again in her career. She recently worked with a group of investors who wanted to start an orchard and tried to lease roughly 1,000 hectares of land. Then they found out they'd have to pay more than $100,000 in bribes, and the amount was going up. "You could go to the courts and appeal this, but it would take, first of all, time – about a year – and then the judges themselves are expecting to get paid," she said. She has had one deal fall through because of her husband's political sympathies and backed out of another land transaction after finding out that the same property was being offered to other investors, for the same bribe.
Companies often pay employees an official salary, with deductions for taxes, and then add on some extra undeclared cash. Some pay straight cash, with no tax deducted at all.
Corruption has been part of Ukraine since it won independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. But what started out as something of an irritant has become, under president Viktor Yanukovych, an oppressive way of life. Payments are built into almost every transaction, with money moving up the channel to ever higher officials. One look at Mr. Yanukovych's mansion on the outskirts of Kiev, with its luxury cars, zoo and replica Spanish galleon, raises questions about where the money came from. (His son, a dentist, has also become a multimillionaire during his father's tenure.)
There was hope for some change after the Orange Revolution in 2004, when a popular uprising over a fraudulent election led to a new government being formed under Viktor Yushchenko, who promised to clean things up. The corruption remained, which is one reason why Mr. Yushchenko lost the 2010 election to Mr. Yanukovych.
The failure of the Orange Revolution to deliver change is one reason so many people are skeptical about the current political leadership, and why no one expects the protesters to stop even though parliament has relieved Mr. Yanukovych of his duties and there is a warrant for his arrest.
"We don't know who to trust at this point," Ms. Ratushnyi said.
Still, there is hope that lasting change will happen. Take 28-year old Ievgen Mykhailemko. He returned to Kiev this past week after spending five years in the United States, where he trained to become a chef. He is hoping to open a Mexican restaurant in Kiev, something he believes would have been impossible under Mr. Yanukovych's regime because of all the bribes and hassles he would have encountered.
"This is not about getting into the EU," he said, standing in Independence Square, where the protest movement began this past November. "This is about justice. And justice is something that this country hasn't seen in a long, long while."
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