Ukraine: Race Against The Machine In the country on the other side of the impeachment hearings... A comedian runs for president of Ukraine and wins in a landslide, with a parliamentary majority to pass any law he wants. So now what? Our host, Gregory Warner, reports from Kyiv.
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Ukraine: Race Against The Machine

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Ukraine: Race Against The Machine

Ukraine: Race Against The Machine

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GREGORY WARNER, HOST:

Hey. It's Gregory Warner, and you're listening to ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR.

Before we start the show, we have a survey for you. It's our chance to hear from you - why you listen, what you're listening for, what you want to hear more of. It only takes 10 minutes to fill out. We'd love it if you would. We'll have a link at the end of this episode and in the show notes. And thanks.

President Trump shares a few things in common with the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKIY: (Speaking Ukrainian).

WARNER: Both are outsiders to politics. Both made their name by starring in a TV show. Zelenskiy starred in a Ukrainian sitcom called "Servant Of The People." In the sitcom, he plays this mild-mannered, precariously employed high school history teacher whose fortunes shift one day when he delivers a curse-filled rant to another teacher all about thieving politicians.

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

ZELENSKIY: (As Vasyl, speaking Ukrainian) [Expletive] (speaking Ukrainian) [expletive].

WARNER: What he does not know is that one of his own students is secretly filming him through the classroom window. The video goes online. The teacher's nearly fired. But in a twist, the video is so popular that the teacher runs for president and wins, which gets to one more connection between Zelenskiy and the American president. Both made a campaign pledge to get rid of political elites, to drain the swamp.

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

ZELENSKIY: (As Vasyl, speaking Ukrainian).

WARNER: In Ukraine, that pledge came most memorably in the form of a trailer for season two of the sitcom. The schoolteacher-turned-president comes up with a big plan for reform.

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

ZELENSKIY: (As Vasyl, speaking Ukrainian).

WARNER: And then he has a dream - an anxiety dream - where he presents his plan to parliament, and parliament laughs in his face. Zelenskiy's eyes blaze with anger. He screams...

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

ZELENSKIY: (As Vasyl, speaking Ukrainian).

WARNER: "The people of Ukraine have nothing to eat."

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

ZELENSKIY: (As Vasyl, speaking Ukrainian).

WARNER: "They're afraid to walk in the streets." This isn't ha-ha comedy. This is comedy as fury. It's bottled rage against the political elites that Zelenskiy and everyone his age had grown up with. And parliament responds by pointing fingers. You - you - you're to blame. And then they physically brawl, which is also not quite fiction. In real life, Ukrainians had gotten used to watching parliament the way some people watch hockey - to see who would hit who that day. So then Zelenskiy, in the dream, pulls out two machine guns, aims them at parliament.

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

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in Ukrainian).

WARNER: What happens next looks like a scene from a Tarantino film.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

WARNER: It's a stylized massacre, but it's a massacre.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: This is ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR, the show that takes you to far-off places with stories that hit close to home.

I have lived in Ukraine, and I have reported in Ukraine. Government corruption - it's just something everyone there knows about and - I hate to say this - but everybody expects. Ukrainians regularly rank themselves the most corrupt country in Europe. And then, this year, they elected that comedian with the smoking semiautomatics in his hands. That's how badly they wanted to put an end to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARIE YOVANOVITCH: Which countries' interests are served when the very corrupt behavior we have been criticizing is allowed to prevail?

WARNER: This is former ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch testifying on the Hill. In the impeachment hearings going on in Washington right now...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YOVANOVITCH: How could our system fail like this?

WARNER: We're hearing a lot about corruption in Ukraine and how it's affected American politics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YOVANOVITCH: How is it that foreign, corrupt interests could manipulate our government?

WARNER: But all this comes at a time when Ukrainians are right in the middle of what is a very unorthodox experiment to try to fight corruption, starting with the election of President Zelenskiy. And the thing I kept wondering about is, how is that fight coming along?

DMYTRO HURIN: Hey, Gregory.

WARNER: So I went to Kyiv, and I met a guy who might be the perfect person to watch that fight with.

So if it's OK if I start your story with cancer...

HURIN: (Laughter).

WARNER: His name is Dmytro Hurin. Everyone calls him Mitya (ph).

Is it OK to talk about that period?

HURIN: Oh, it's totally OK. I'm talking about it freely. It was fun.

WARNER: Mitya uses two English words a lot. One is the word fun, which usually means some version of, I can't believe this is happening to me. The other is the word strange, which is often something that should never have been allowed to happen but was.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: Last December, when he was 36 years old, Mitya woke up to find that one leg was twice the size of the other. And the lab report - he calls it his Christmas present - said he had cancer.

HURIN: Frankly speaking, I wasn't happy.

MASHA SALTYKOVA: (Laughter).

WARNER: That's his wife, Masha, laughing in the background.

HURIN: Because in Ukraine, cancer is still something deadly. We don't have this idea of cancer survivors.

WARNER: Mitya found himself a patient at the National Cancer Institute in Kyiv. But he noticed something - something strange.

HURIN: You just go to hospital. And where is my button for nurse?

WARNER: There was no call button by the bedside. If a patient needed a nurse, you just have to scream and hope someone heard you.

HURIN: It's very simple, but there are not.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: There were actually a lot more problems with this hospital than just the call buttons - widespread corruption. But Mitya is nothing if not practical. He's spent most of his career in advertising, and he knows what'll get people's attention. So Mitya wrote a Facebook post from the hospital explaining about this problem, and he even found a manufacturer who could outfit the whole hospital with call buttons for $500.

HURIN: They said that if you want to give some money for this buttons for National Institute of Cancer, you can send it here. I thought that I want, like, $500, and people gave me, like, $12,000.

WARNER: It was enough not only to buy new call buttons but a new bone saw and new flooring.

HURIN: Because people have to understand the belief that they come to the hospital to live longer not to die.

WARNER: During the months Mitya was getting his cancer treatment, the TVs in the hospital were all tuned to the election of Volodymyr Zelenskiy...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZELENSKIY: (Speaking Ukrainian).

WARNER: ...Who stood in front of parliament and pulled out, not a machine gun, but a quote from Ronald Reagan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZELENSKIY: (Speaking Ukrainian).

WARNER: "Government does not solve our problems. The government is our problem."

(APPLAUSE)

WARNER: Parliament applauds, but then he announces he's got them in his sights. He is dissolving parliament and holding snap parliamentary elections. His party will run their own candidates. And suddenly, Zelenskiy's team was tapping all kinds of unlikely non-politicians to run, like his fellow actors and entertainers and civil advocates and schoolteachers and an ad man who, at that moment, was in his hospital bed...

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

WARNER: ...On a chemotherapy drip.

HURIN: They said I cannot fight right now. You see it's dripping.

WARNER: Do you know the movie "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington"?

HURIN: No.

WARNER: Well, anyway...

Mitya is an idealistic guy. Even his parents warned him.

HURIN: Because they was, like, what? - parliament?

WARNER: And Mitya could not blame them.

HURIN: I have seen what parliament do with people.

WARNER: He'd worked with parliaments in the past and noticed a pattern - didn't matter who you elected.

HURIN: In time frame, the most active third is, like, half of a year.

WARNER: Six months - that's how long he felt it took for a critical mass of lawmakers to be on the take - for the disease of corruption to take hold and the normal functions of governing to cease.

HURIN: And after this, all the previous Ukrainian parliaments - they dropped down to the hell of corruption.

WARNER: Think about that for a second. The way Mitya calculates it, a parliament sworn in in August might be useless by Christmas. So he had to think really hard. With those odds, was it worth running for parliament at all?

ROUGH TRANSLATION continues just after this break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: To understand Mitya's thinking about running for parliament, he and his wife wanted to take me on a tour of the city where they live - the city of Kyiv.

SALTYKOVA: On the courtyard of that house over there, there's (unintelligible).

WARNER: Mitya's wife, Masha Saltykova, starts the tour in the famous Independence Square. She points up to a beautiful 19th-century building with graceful details. It's about seven stories high. And perched right on the shoulder of that lovely, old building...

My god. It's so ugly.

SALTYKOVA: (Laughter) It's very ugly.

WARNER: Can you imagine that?

What we are looking at is cinder blocks and mortar. Someone was apparently trying to build a private apartment on top of this historic landmark.

SALTYKOVA: Doesn't fit - it's rude. It's violent.

WARNER: I get what she means about the violence. In New York, where I live, people freak out about any new construction. But this was on a totally different level. Mitya says no one could even find out who was building this private penthouse.

HURIN: On the historical building, it's strange.

WARNER: Strange as in normal for life in Ukraine - a park might be demolished without any warning. A hotel will go up in someone's backyard. No neighbors are asked. Mitya's own neighbor got so fed up with city workers trying to cut down this beautiful avocado tree in their courtyard that he started guarding the tree with a gun.

HURIN: Nobody understands what's going on.

WARNER: That seems to be the last line of every story.

HURIN: Yeah, that's true - because people will write petitions. People will write requests. They're trying to understand what's going on. That's fun.

WARNER: Mitya sometimes gets criticized by his friends for fighting so hard about these things. Ukraine has bigger problems, they tell him - widespread poverty and a war with Russia. But for Mitya, this uncertainty that Ukrainians are forced to live with...

HURIN: How it can be changed...

WARNER: Maybe, he thought, as a parliamentarian, he could do something about that.

HURIN: That we can build the city of our dreams, and we have this chance.

WARNER: If this sounds like a stump speech, it was. It was Mitya's speech on the campaign trail.

HURIN: We don't have power. We don't have city. It's not ours.

WARNER: He went around the city talking about this stuff.

HURIN: We just have to get back. It's very easy.

WARNER: But unlike urban activists in other countries, he couldn't exactly campaign about illegal development because the laws in Ukraine are pretty vague on what is legal and what's not.

HURIN: And this is corruption. Corruption is always when a bureaucrat can make a decision.

WARNER: As Mitya saw it, the problem was not that some city official took a bribe to bend the law and build a penthouse. The law was flimsy to begin with.

HURIN: And when in the law you have this lacks of regulations or, you know, spots, hidden spots or something else, there is always corruption around it.

HURIN: I heard this again and again in Ukraine. Corruption is not just about the people. It's about the laws. There's an expression that people say. The law is an ox cart. It goes where you lead it - which also, by the way, makes for a kind of mistranslation when you talk to Ukrainians about that famous phone call - the one where Trump asked Zelenskiy to do him a favor and investigate the case of Hunter Biden and the energy company where he served on the board. The way a lot of Ukrainians see it, that energy company might have broken lots of laws. It might have broken no laws. The way the laws are written, both can be true. It's one reason that one of the most powerful offices in Ukraine is the one that's in charge of prosecuting corruption.

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

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

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

WARNER: Daria, I should say, watched the election of Zelenskiy with mixed feelings. She'd seen that machine gun scene in the sitcom, and she felt you could not fight corruption in Ukraine just by cleaning house.

KALENIUK: They have to shoot with bullets from the criminal code.

WARNER: It was hard to have decent lawmakers if you didn't have the rule of law.

OK. I am entering the Verkhovna Rada, which is the Ukrainian Parliament.

Mitya won his bid for parliament. In fact, a lot of people who ran on the president's ticket won - an unprecedented majority and the most number of first-timers to parliament. So I went there one afternoon...

Walking up the steps - up the marble steps.

...And ran into a reporter for an English-language paper...

VITALY TYSYACHA: Oh, how are you? Vitaly.

WARNER: ...Who kindly agreed to show me around.

Tell me your full name.

TYSYACHA: Vitaly Tysyacha. (ph).

WARNER: Tysyacha is actually the Russian word for a thousand.

TYSYACHA: Yeah. Tysyacha, yeah - it's one thousand.

WARNER: So Vitaly one thousand - he's covered the previous parliament and this one. He tells me this parliament - big difference.

TYSYACHA: I think that this members of parliament are more open.

WARNER: They're younger, more approachable. Vitaly will meet a parliamentarian on the street or the metro, which never happened before. And another thing - these lawmakers actually show up.

TYSYACHA: Yeah, because a lot of members of parliament in the last parliament - they didn't go for work.

WARNER: They didn't show up to work.

TYSYACHA: No, they didn't show up to work.

WARNER: So one of the laws the new parliament passed was a fine for not showing up. You can be docked a month's pay if you miss enough votes. They also passed a law that parliamentarians and other officials have to declare their income and their spending. It's a way to see if people are on the take - and a law that the president can be impeached. In fact, another thing the parliament did is speed up the process for passing a new law.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

WARNER: That is the sound of a vote happening as Vitaly and I are watching.

You've really got to get in fast.

TYSYACHA: Yeah. And, like...

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

TYSYACHA: ...Yeah, more than 300.

WARNER: There's this big screen in front of parliament. The vote tally is shown.

So who won? Oh wait - unanimous.

TYSYACHA: Yeah.

WARNER: Unanimous votes are pretty common these days. Someone dubbed this parliament the mad printer parliament for how many laws they're amending or writing so quickly. One thing that Mitya has discovered, though, is that writing his dream bill is not a rush job. His law - it's called the law of the capital - will affect 3 million residents in Kyiv, billions of dollars in investment, he says.

So he's been holding these long public meetings to get feedback. He's received hundreds of amendments. In fact, he's spent so much time rewriting this new law that he's missed too many days in parliament, and he lost his month's salary, which taught him this - the one law you can't change is the law of unintended consequences.

HURIN: We wrote it fast, and oh. Oh (laughter), we didn't pay attention.

(LAUGHTER)

HURIN: It's normal situation for this parliament.

WARNER: Punishing people for not voting on laws apparently prevented people from finding the time to write the laws to begin with. But surprisingly, Mitya does not make a big deal of this. The more I talked to him, the more I realized how differently he and I were seeing what his job was. I was seeing this story as a fight against corruption. He was seeing it as a race.

HURIN: It's a little bit frightening - the speed, you know? I understand. It's when you go in with a car on a very high speed. It's just frightening because it's fast.

WARNER: He tells me there's a game that his new colleagues have already started playing on their downtime - swapping stories of the latest offers. He tells me about one colleague who was offered a monthly bribe by a local business leader just to stand up each month in parliament and bad-mouth a rival.

TYSYACHA: At first, was, like, 30,000 per month.

WARNER: U.S. dollars.

HURIN: Yes.

WARNER: More money than most parliamentarians make in a year - when he refused, the offer rose.

HURIN: Higher and higher and higher - and then the last was 70.

WARNER: Another colleague of Mitya told this story. A businessman offered him a position as a university lecturer.

HURIN: But he would be the only teacher in this university.

WARNER: And no students.

HURIN: No students, no - it was the proposal.

WARNER: They share those stories with you.

HURIN: My colleagues.

WARNER: Your colleagues.

HURIN: Yes. Yeah. They - of course, everybody is sharing. You never know is - did somebody agree?

WARNER: Did they agree to the proposal? In other words, how much time does Ukraine have left?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: Stay tuned for the next episode in our Ukraine series, where we dig into the serious uses of Ukrainian comedy. That's in two weeks.

Today's show was produced by Autumn Barnes with help from Mitchell Johnson and Jess Jiang. Julia Barton edited the episode. Thanks to Ukrainian journalist Alex Kleminoff (ph) as well as Jacob Goldstein, Jenny Lawton, Sana Krasikov and Sergei Leshchenko (ph). The ROUGH TRANSLATION high council is Neal Carruth, Chris Turpin and Anya Grundmann.

And again, we have a survey for you. It takes 10 minutes to fill out. The link to that survey is npr.org/roughtranslationsurvey.

Mastering by Isaac Rodriguez; John Ellis composed music for our show. Mike Cruz helped score the episode, and Erin Register is our project manager.

If you'd like more stories like this in your podcast feed, give us a rating or review on Apple Podcasts - helps people find the show. And, of course, we love to hear from you. Reach us on email at roughtranslation.npr.org on Twitter at @Roughly.

I'm Gregory Warner; back in two weeks with Part II of our Ukraine series on ROUGH TRANSLATION.

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