Last week, Vladimir Belonog, a military-supplies salesman in Kiev, Ukraine, put a new item up for sale, not on his usual website, where he deals in everything from camouflage jumpsuits to paintball guns and ninja stars, but on an Internet auction site he hadn’t used before. The new items were U.S. army rations — known as a meals ready to eat, or MREs — and right on the packaging, alongside the seal of the U.S. Department of Defense, each one said, “U.S. Government Property, commercial resale is unlawful.” In the days before Belonog started selling them, the Pentagon had begun delivering about 300,000 MREs as military aid to help Ukraine defend itself against a Russian invasion. How Belonog got his hands on such items is unclear.
Reached by phone on Tuesday, he admitted that he was the seller, but denied that they were the same MREs that the U.S. government is providing to Ukraine. (A few minutes after Belonog spoke to TIME, he deleted the MREs from his sales page.) Asked about the label forbidding their resale, Belonog says, “What can I tell you? These things are easy to get, and they’re for sale all over the place.” That seems to be the case.
As Ukrainian and Russian media have been quick to point out, several Ukrainian websites started hawking American MREs by the caseload — and on the cheap — just as the U.S. government began delivering them to Ukraine as part of a nonlethal-military-aid package. It has been impossible to confirm whether this aid was simply taken out the backdoor of Ukrainian army warehouses and sold. Alexei Mazepa, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Defense Ministry, denies that this was going on. “The meals are safe and sound at our warehouses in Kiev,” he says. “They have not even been distributed to the bases yet.” But the coincidence of the online MRE bonanza has raised an urgent question for Ukraine’s new leaders: Can they guarantee that U.S. and European assistance will not simply be pilfered?
In the past few weeks, Western governments have pledged billions of dollars in loans and financial assistance to Ukraine after Russia invaded and annexed the region of Crimea last month. On March 27, the very day that Belonog put the American MREs up for sale, the U.S. Congress approved a $1 billion loan guarantee to Ukraine with a huge bipartisan majority. The same day, the International Monetary Fund, a global lender in which the U.S. is the single biggest contributor, pledged up to $18 billion in loans to prop up Ukraine’s nearly bankrupt economy. The E.U. has meanwhile approved an aid package worth an additional $15 billion.
Pooled together, all of that assistance could be just enough to help Ukraine avoid defaulting on its national debt, but only if that money is properly spent and accounted for. Ukraine’s ability to do that will depend on its willingness to root out flagrant and widespread government corruption, which was the main reason the country’s former President Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown in a revolution two months ago. “Nothing has really changed since then,” says Stefan Meister, a Ukraine expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. “We have no guarantees that this money will not go in other channels, as we’ve seen in the past. The system in Ukraine has not changed. We still have oligarchs in key positions.”
Petro Poroshenko, the front runner in the presidential elections that are scheduled for May 25, is a billionaire confectionery magnate and longtime government insider. He has served in ministerial positions and as head of the central bank under two presidential administrations going back nearly a decade. His main rival in these elections will by Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Prime Minister who was released from prison only a month ago, where she was serving a seven-year sentence for abuse of office.
Her ties to shady Ukrainian businessmen are well documented. In the 1990s, the fortune she made in Ukraine’s natural-gas trade earned her the nickname “gas princess.” Her close associate at the time, Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko, wound up on trial in a U.S. federal court in San Francisco in 2004 for alleged money laundering, wire fraud and extortion, and he was eventually sentenced to serve nine years in a California prison.
Ukraine’s current Prime Minister and its interim President are both members of Tymoshenko’s political party, and her close associates. “These are the same people we know for a long time,” says Meister. “So to be honest, I’m pretty sure that we still have a corruption problem in Ukraine … Even worse, we have a very nontransparent situation at the moment. We don’t know who exactly is in charge of what, who decides what.”
If she is elected President, Tymoshenko has pledged to fight corruption, as have most of the candidates who have put forward a platform for the vote. But even in accepting her party’s nomination on Saturday, she seemed aware of how difficult that would be in Ukraine. “I don’t believe that the authorities will ever start fighting their own corruption,” she told a crowd of her supporters in Kiev. Instead, she assured them, regular citizens would be given the means to take this fight to the courts themselves. But over the years, her electorate has long grown disillusioned with such promises. Yanukovych made them as well, most recently in November, just a few months before he was overthrown amid allegations of rampant corruption himself.
Even the leaders who emerged from that revolution have quickly fallen into the practice of self-enrichment. Dmitro Yarosh, the leader of a radical right-wing party who is also running for president, has admitted to riding around in the armored cars that were taken from the Yanukovych’s mansion right after he fled to Russia. Yarosh’s ultranationalist party, Pravy Sektor (Right Sector), later explained the confiscation of those cars in a statement: “Excuse us, but is Pravy Sektor supposed to pay for cars at a time of revolution? That’s the first thing. And the second, to drive Yarosh around in cars without armor would be criminal negligence.”
On his social-networking page, Belonog, the army-supplies salesman, is a member of Pravy Sektor’s fan group, but he says he is not one of the party’s activists. “Of course not,” he says. “I’m just a fan.” That’s a fine fan to have. The gear he sells on his website was just the kind favored by Ukraine’s revolutionaries this year, especially the paramilitary troops of Pravy Sektor. So the winter of rebellion must have been good for business, and if American MREs prove as popular as camouflage helmets, this political spring looks pretty promising for the people who sell them.
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