Ukraine kicks off corruption clean-up - with a ban on baths

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The Independent Online

Only in Ukraine would you think that the way to start a clean-up campaign is with a ban on baths. But the country's new leaders believe they can stamp out sharp practice by discouraging their underlings to steer clear of a centuries-old Slavic pastime, the banya or bath house.

Only in Ukraine would you think that the way to start a clean-up campaign is with a ban on baths. But the country's new leaders believe they can stamp out sharp practice by discouraging their underlings to steer clear of a centuries-old Slavic pastime, the banya or bath house.

It may be the place where Ukrainians, and indeed Russians, go every week to wash away their sins and grime but Ukraine's new "Orange" government thinks it is also the place where many an official is "nobbled" by corrupt businessmen. Viktor Yushchenko, the country's crusading President, has therefore informally banned regional governors and other officials from going to the banya - traditionally a sacred part of Ukrainian and Russian culture.

"It's all about showing the new face of Ukraine," Irina Geraschenko, Mr Yushchenko's spokeswoman, told The Independent on Sunday. "It's no secret that you get all kinds of unsavoury types there, and they are not the people with whom government officials should be mixing." Though she conceded that there was no way Mr Yushchenko could physically prevent his officials from frequenting banyas, she said that he had made it clear that banya-goers will be frowned upon.

In neighbouring Russia, banyas remain a staple of business culture - often replacing a business dinner or a boardroom meeting. Indeed, many legitimate business transactions are concluded amid the hot steam and beery atmosphere, where men traditionally wash themselves once a week.

However, stamping out corruption is Mr Yushchenko's No 1 priority. He has banned officials from accepting gifts worth more than £12 and from having any business interests, and has ordered them regularly to declare their outgoings as well as their income. Cronyism, fraud and corruption are Ukraine's biggest ills, he has declared, a legacy he blames on his predecessor, Leonid Kuchma.

Mr Yushchenko has pledged that things will be different now. His task is Herculean. According to Transparency International's latest ranking of corrupt nations, Ukraine came 128th out of 146 - nestling between Sudan and Cameroon.

Mr Yushchenko's government has already started the process of reversing the privatisation of Ukraine's biggest steel producer on the grounds that it was "bare-faced robbery". A further 3,000 privatisations are set to be reviewed, and there have been flamboyant gestures. Yevhen Chervonenko, the new Transport Minister, promised to auction off a luxury Maybach limo worth £250,000 bought by the former head of the country's cash-starved railways.

However, there are signs that the corruption drive will not be plain sailing. At least one prominent government minister responsible for the campaign has complained of coming under "undue pressure" from outside interests.

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