Last year, when Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski went to Kiev for talks, his Ukrainian counterparts reportedly laughed at him because he was wearing a cheap Japanese watch. Several Ukrainian ministers had watches that cost more than $30,000.
In a column I wrote about this incident, I pointed out that quartz watches perform a watch’s function — telling the time accurately — better than mechanical “prestige” watches that cost hundreds of times as much. Sikorski has had the last laugh. Those who mocked him were speedily dismissed by the Ukrainian parliament in the wake of President Viktor Yanukovych’s flight from Kiev.
Nor were the expensive watches irrelevant to the fate of Yanukovych and his cronies. Corruption is a key issue in the Ukrainian revolution, as it has been in many popular uprisings, including the Tunisian revolution against President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, which triggered the Arab Spring, and the “People Power Revolution” in the Philippines that ousted President Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.
In each case, the overthrow of the corrupt leader has been followed by revelations about the lavish lifestyle he led at the expense of his people, many of whom were desperately poor. Yanukovych, we now know, had a private zoo, his own restaurant shaped like a pirate ship, and a collection of contemporary and antique cars. A document recovered after his flight shows that Yanukovych paid a German firm €1.7 million for wooden decor for his dining room and tearoom.
In Tunisia, the notorious extravagance of Ben Ali’s extended family included a caged tiger and the use of a private jet to fly in ice cream from St. Tropez. And who can forget Marcos’ wife Imelda’s 3,000 pairs of shoes?
One visitor to Yanukovych’s estate told The New York Times that everything had been stolen from the people. There was the same anger when Ben Ali and Marcos fell, and ordinary people saw how their rulers had lived.
Though one marble-tiled bedroom in a Ben Ali mansion soon acquired graffiti saying, “The rich get rich and the poor get poorer,” the issue is not simply one of economic inequality. Arguably income inequality is justified, because it provides incentives for entrepreneurs to provide goods and services that are better, or cheaper, than the goods or services that others are providing, and this competition benefits everyone.
By contrast, it is not remotely arguable that political rulers should be able to acquire immense personal wealth through bribery or by distributing public resources to their family and friends. This is stealing from the people. Moreover, its impact goes beyond the amounts stolen.
In cables made public by WikiLeaks, Robert Godec, the U.S. ambassador to Tunisia before the revolution, warned that the level of corruption stemming from Ben Ali and his family was deterring investment, and thus contributing to the country’s high unemployment.
It seems likely that a less corrupt Ukraine would also have been more prosperous.
In these situations, the public’s anger is easy to understand and entirely justifiable. It is more difficult to explain why some political leaders behave so poorly. To become the president of one’s country is an extraordinary achievement.
How could anyone think that the best one can do with that achievement is to pursue personal enrichment?
The oft-repeated quote from George Santayana — “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” — is apt for Yanukovych.
Did he really forget what happened to Ben Ali and Marcos? Was it not obvious that illegally amassing immense personal wealth would increase the likelihood that he would be overthrown and spend the rest of his life in prison or, at best, in exile? Even if Yanukovych had died in office at a ripe old age, his excesses would eventually have been exposed and would have tarnished whatever positive reputation he might have achieved. Did he not care about his legacy?
There is also something even more important than one’s reputation. A political leader has greater opportunities than almost anyone else to help people, and that should have been Yanukovych’s highest priority. But even if Yanukovych was thinking primarily of his own interests, his quest for personal enrichment was irrational. Imagine that he had stopped to ask himself what would make him happier.
Imagine that, with this question in mind, he had compared the alternative of a lavish lifestyle (with a private zoo and pirate-ship restaurant) with that of living comfortably on the substantial salary to which he was entitled while knowing that he was governing with integrity and doing his best to improve the lives of Ukraine’s citizens.
No matter how self-interested a person might be, I find it inconceivable that anyone with a modicum of common sense, pausing to reflect on this choice, could choose as Yanukovych chose.
There is now hope that in May the people of Ukraine will have the opportunity to elect a new leader. But how can they avoid electing another politician whose priorities are as misguided as those of Yanukovych?
I suggest the following test: Look at the candidate’s watch. If it costs more than $500, find someone else to vote for.
This test will not select the best candidate, but it will eliminate at least some candidates with priorities that no decent political leader should have.
Peter Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University and a laureate professor at the University of Melbourne. His watch cost less than $100. He is the author of several books, including “Animal Liberation” and “The Life You Can Save.” © 2014 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)