I hadn’t been in Ukraine for 10 minutes before I was forced to bribe its officials.

“You don’t have the necessary paperwork,” the border guard said. This was a lie and we both knew it, but we also both knew that truth was beside the point: it was six in the morning, we were somewhere between Rostov-on-Don and Kharkiv, and I wasn’t yet properly awake. I had gotten out of bed to go and see the guard and was wearing untied business shoes without any socks. He was holding our passports and all the cards. “I’ll have to send you back,” he said.

“Can’t I get the paperwork in Kharkiv?” I asked. The train would be leaving the border zone soon and I was stalling for time. “Perhaps I could go to a police station and …”

“You shouldn’t go to the police with this,” he said. “Don’t go to the police with this.”

“But I could explain to them that I wasn’t given the paperwork when I received my visa in Australia,” I said.

“There’s a form you need to fill out,” he replied. “The police won’t have it.”

“They might,” I said. It was clear that he didn’t want me to verify what he was telling me. “What’s the form called?” He couldn’t say. He decided to change his argument instead.

“I am suspicious of your reasons for coming here,” he said. “You had a business visa for Russia, but have a tourist one for Ukraine. How do you explain that?”

“I was in Russia on business and am in Ukraine on holiday,” I said. This was broadly but not entirely true — I had been in Russia to cover the presidential election and was planning to write at least something about this country, too — but it was obvious that he was less concerned with why I was there than he was with what he could say to put the fear of God into me.

“That’s suspicious,” he said. “It’s all very suspicious.”

“You’ve never gone somewhere for business and then tacked a holiday onto the end of it?” I asked.

“I’ve never travelled on business,” he said. We were in silent agreement that it was a stupid question. “It will be better for you if you just go back. You’re going to have trouble when you leave the country if you don’t have this paperwork, you know.”

That seemed unlikely: if we were to have any trouble at our point of departure, it was going to be because the guard’s subordinates had deliberately pocketed the departure half of our immigration cards. I was just beginning to cotton onto the fact that passport officers across the country were probably in kahootz with one another when the border guard dropped his chin to his chest, levelled with me from underneath his bushy eyebrows, and silently closed the cabin door. “If you get in trouble on that end, I’ll get in trouble on this one, do you understand? The border guards there might ask you for a present. To avoid such trouble.”

There was a long silence in the tiny room. For the first time, it occurred to me that we were standing in the provodnitsa’s office. Like most train attendants on the post-Soviet rails, our provodnitsa on this journey was a short, improbably round older woman, and she clearly hadn’t had time to deal with the pile of passengers’ soiled bedsheets that lay crumpled on her floor before this guy had commandeered her workspace for reasons his own.

“Are you asking for a present?” I asked eventually.

“Oh, no,” he said. “I’m not asking for one.” He paused. “Though that would be very kind of you.”

“He wants a bribe,” I told my long-suffering girlfriend back in the cabin. The Ukrainian on the lower bunk was watching a video on his laptop. The Belarusian on the upper one was snoring loudly again after the inconvenience of the passport check. “How much cash do we have?”

“Well, we’re going to need money for a taxi,” she said, “and for the hotel.”

We had just spent 2½ weeks in Russia’s beleaguered North Caucasus on my behest and my girlfriend was looking forward to a holiday in Ukraine after the near-constant anxiety of that period. That the country was already milking us didn’t exactly thrill her.

“I’ll only take a thousand roubles,” I said and folded the note, the equivalent of about $32, in half in the palm of my hand. I was beginning to get into it.

“I’ve stamped your passports,” the border guard said and handed them to me when I returned to the office.

“Thank you,” I said, “I’ve got …”

“Not here.” He took me by the elbow and ushered me into the space between carriages.

It was suitably dark and dingy, I thought, and so extended my slightly cupped hand for him to shake it. I was in a maroon collared shirt that needed a wash, black-and-white floral board shorts, and the still-untied shoes. He had a semi-automatic weapon. And yet for some reason I still expected him to take my hand and tap his nose. I still hadn’t quite woken up yet.He cocked an eyebrow slightly and extracted the note with his thumb and forefinger, as though to actually touch me would be beneath him. He looked at it incredulously for a moment.

“A thousand roubles?” he said. “For two passports?”

For a moment I stood dumbfounded. He wanted more? I stuttered something incomprehensible about not knowing what the going rate was.

“What about American dollars?” he said. “I can accept American dollars.”

Before he could whip out the credit card console that I was increasingly convinced he had hidden in his holster, I was saved by the train’s whistle and a flurry of lower-order passport control officers, who brushed past us in their rush to alight the train, taking the border control guard and his illegitimately earned but paltry gains with them. As he disappeared down the steps to the platform, and as the providnitsa stuck her head through the door to tell me that I wasn’t allowed to be there, he called out with a slight but discernible hint of concern in his voice.

“Don’t tell anybody about this!”

“Don’t worry, I won’t,” I lied.

I shouldn’t have been surprised by my encounter on the train. Since Viktor Yanukovych assumed the presidency in February 2010 — his illegitimate victory six years earlier may have inspired the Orange Revolution, but the subsequent failure of that revolution’s leaders ensured his legitimate victory the next time he ran — Ukraine’s star has fallen. In 2010, according to the internet newspaper Ukrayins’ka Pravda, the country’s average bribe was 24,000 grivna, or $3034, with a total of nearly 28 million grivna in bribes being paid over the course of the year. The majority of those exposed for soliciting such payments were service personnel employed by governmental bodies and those employed by regulatory agencies.

The Ukrainian Centre for Cultural Studies’ Mykola Riabchuk, writing recently about last month’s hostile takeover of the Kyiv-based literary journal Vsesvit, has described the country as a “raiders’ state” in which people regularly bribe or blackmail the courts to enforce false claims against businesses and organisations, particularly within the agricultural and small business sectors. Václav Havel last year described Russia, Belarus and Ukraine as “dictatorships in gloves”.

But where Russia last year saw a 50% increase in the amount of bribe money recovered in corruption cases involving government contracts — about 4.5 billion rubles, or $147 million — and where it climbed nine places on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index to 143rd out of 183 countries, Ukraine’s situation only worsened.

As Bernard Keane noted in these pages recently, in a piece about the Yanukovych government’s decision to sue Canberra over its plain tobacco packaging laws, Ukraine was ranked 153rd on last year’s CPI. What he didn’t note is that it was ranked 134th out of 179 in the 2010 index — a massive drop of 18 places — and has been declining more or less steadily since 2006. (Russia’s situation is still far from perfect, of course. In 2011, the average cost of a bribe more than tripled, according to the Russian Interior Ministry’s economic security department, to nearly $8000.)

That I contributed in my own, rather ignorant way to lowering Ukraine’s average bribe for the year is cheering, and rather makes up for the fact that I nevertheless contributed to the overall total of such money taken. But my efforts will doubtless be in vain. In less than three weeks, European football fans will be descending on Ukraine for the Euro Cup, which the country is co-hosting with Poland.

Not that Ukrainian officials and border guards will be able to fleece every foreigner who comes their way, of course, or indeed that all of them will even want to. But in a country where between 30-50% of the local population is believed come up against such corruption, you can be sure that more than enough of them will be willing to give it the old college try.

Peter Fray

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