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'Rough Translation': A Check On The Corruption Fight In Ukraine

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has stayed silent about President Trump and also about Ukraine's role in the impeachment hearings. But when Trump called Ukraine a corrupt country, President Zelenskiy fired back. He told Time magazine the accusation undermines his central goal to clean up and rebuild Ukraine's reputation. Gregory Warner, host of NPR's Rough Translation podcast, went to Ukraine to find out how that fight against corruption is coming along.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Like a lot of current members of the Ukrainian parliament, Mitya Hurin never imagined himself in politics.

MITYA HURIN: I have seen, what's parliament do with people?

WARNER: His path actually began in an odd place. Last December at the age of 36, he was diagnosed with cancer. And in the hospital in the capital, Kyiv, he noticed something. There was no call button for a nurse. You just had to scream, hope someone heard you.

HURIN: You just understand that it has to be. It's very simple, but there are not.

WARNER: Hurin spent a career in advertising, and he's a practical guy. From his hospital bed, he picked up the phone and managed to find a maker of call buttons who could outfit the whole hospital for $500. Then he fundraised on Facebook.

HURIN: And people gave me, like, 12,000.

WARNER: And that kind of solution-minded approach to problems - it was about to get him noticed.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SERVANT OF THE PEOPLE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking in non-English language).

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking in non-English language).

WARNER: Now, while all this was going on, the televisions in the hospital were showing Volodymyr Zelenskiy campaigning for president. They were also showing episodes of Zelenskiy's sitcom, where he played a fictional Ukrainian president. And there is one well-known scene from the trailer of Season 2 of the sitcom. Zelenskiy's character has an anxiety dream. He comes to parliament with a big plan for reform.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SERVANT OF THE PEOPLE")

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKIY: (As Vasiliy Petrovich Goloborodko, speaking in non-English language).

WARNER: And parliament laughs in his face.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SERVANT OF THE PEOPLE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, speaking in non-English language).

WARNER: Zelenskiy's eyes blaze with anger.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SERVANT OF THE PEOPLE")

ZELENSKIY: (As Vasiliy Petrovich Goloborodko, speaking in non-English language).

WARNER: "The people of Ukraine have nothing to eat," he says. "They're afraid to walk in the streets."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SERVANT OF THE PEOPLE")

ZELENSKIY: (As Vasiliy Petrovich Goloborodko, speaking in non-English language).

WARNER: This isn't haha comedy. This is comedy as fury. It's bottled rage against the political elites that Zelenskiy and everyone his age had grown up with. The scene ends with Zelenskiy pointing machine guns at parliament...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SERVANT OF THE PEOPLE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in non-English language).

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

WARNER: ...Which is played like over-the-top Tarantino violence. Hurin, in his hospital bed, deplored the bloodshed but understood the impulse.

HURIN: Ukraine is ready for a reboot. And the Ukraine wants to become a new country.

WARNER: In real life, Zelenskiy won. And he did not shoot at parliament, but he did dissolve it. He called for snap parliamentary elections. And his party chose all kinds of unlikely nonpoliticians to run - fellow actors, teachers, journalists, farmers, a wedding photographer. Hurin, who is well-known for his Facebook campaigns, got the call in the hospital.

HURIN: My colleagues went to the hospital and said, let's go to parliament.

WARNER: But Hurin was not at all sure he wanted to join them. Parliament had always been the symbol of corruption. And so to understand why he decided to run, he and his wife, Masha Saltykova (ph), wanted to take me on a tour of Kiev.

MASHA SALTYKOVA: We were actually going that way (laughter).

WARNER: On the tour, they show me this historic building where, perched on one shoulder, someone tried to build a private apartment. My God, it's so ugly.

SALTYKOVA: It's very ugly.

WARNER: Can you imagine that? Hurin says there are illegal developments like this all over Kiev, except he can't call them illegal because the law is so vague on what is legal and what is not. Corruption, he says, is not just about people taking bribes to bend the law. It's when the laws are intentionally vague to begin with. There's an expression people use here. The law is an oxcart. It goes where you drive it. And that vagueness in the law is one reason that one of the most powerful offices in Ukraine is the office that's supposed to prosecute corruption.

DARIA KALENIUK: For a certain bribe, they could open the case for a certain bribe. They could close the case.

WARNER: Daria Kaleniuk runs the Anti-Corruption Action Center in Kyiv.

KALENIUK: They could seize accounts of certain businesses and extort bribes in exchange.

WARNER: Kaleniuk watched the Zelenskiy phenomenon with mixed feelings. On the one hand, he was talking about corruption, and people were listening.

KALENIUK: He was able to communicate simple solutions in simple messages to complex problems. So he promised hope.

WARNER: But she says people didn't really know much more about Zelenskiy than the role he played on TV. And fighting corruption, she knew, is a lot more complicated than firing the old lawmakers and bringing in new ones.

KALENIUK: We need strong institutions. They have to shoot with the bullets from the criminal code.

WARNER: I am entering the Verkhovna Rada, which is the Ukrainian parliament.

One afternoon in Kyiv, I visited the parliament building.

Up the steps, up the marble steps.

And I met Vitali Tysechni (ph). He's a reporter for Kyiv newspaper called The Observer. He's covered the last parliament and this one.

VITALI TYSECHNI: I think that these members of parliament are more open.

WARNER: This is the youngest and greenest parliament ever in Ukraine. And he'll meet some of them taking the metro instead of going by luxury car. And this parliament actually shows up.

TYSECHNI: Yeah, because lots of members of parliament in the last parliament - they didn't go for a walk.

WARNER: They didn't show up to work.

TYSECHNI: They didn't show up for work.

WARNER: How did Zelenskiy's party fix this? They fined parliamentarians for not showing up to vote. Zelenskiy's party has such a huge majority, it can pass almost any law. So they also passed a law that parliamentarians have to declare their income and their spending to try to see who's on the take. Another new law is that the Ukrainian president can be impeached. There are, in fact, so many new laws that they've sped up the process for passing a new law.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPS)

WARNER: This is actually the sound of a vote taking place. People are calling this the mad printer parliament for how fast they're making new laws.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPS)

HURIN: We just speed up the procedure.

WARNER: Mitya Hurin, who went in one year from his hospital bed to a parliament seat - he tells me the time is already running out.

HURIN: The time frame, the most active period is, like, half of a year.

WARNER: That's how long he says the previous parliaments have lasted before a critical mass of lawmakers are on the take, and the normal functions of governing cease.

HURIN: And after they sold previous Ukrainian parliaments - they drop down to the hell of corruption.

WARNER: As a cancer survivor, Mitya looks at life as a clock. But he's not the only Ukrainian lawmaker coming to work with a stopwatch because Hurin does not see himself in just a fight against corruption. It's also a race, a race to get some good laws in place to counterbalance the other laws - the laws of influence and money and might makes right that, in Ukraine, have always held sway.

GREENE: That was Gregory Warner, who hosts NPR's Rough Translation podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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