Why you should care
Because working the land has never been so difficult.
The life of land-working folk, regardless of where they’re based, has never been easy. They’re up before dawn; their impossibly long days are often packed with intense physical labor. That’s in addition to all the challenges involved with running a profitable business in the age of automation.
But in Ukraine — blessed with swaths of soil so richly fertile that it earned a reputation as the breadbasket of the Soviet Union — farmers and other professionals who run agriculture businesses have more to worry about.
More than 70 percent of Ukrainian agrarians say they feel vulnerable to illegal seizures of their property or yield.
That’s according to the Ukrainian Agrarian Council, an advocacy group that commissioned a study last year involving 500 directors of midsize agricultural firms from around the country. They’re referring to a phenomenon called “raiding,” in which an entrepreneur’s business or property is yanked from them, usually by reregistering their business to another entity with the help of crooked bureaucrats, courts and law enforcement officials. According to the Social Monitoring Center, which conducted the survey, 71 percent either agreed or categorically agreed that they’re vulnerable to such attacks. “What’s more,” says Viktoria Kipriyanova, a lawyer for the UAC, “raiders act brazenly and openly, since they’re confident in their impunity.”
While it’s hardly new to Ukraine — or to other former Soviet republics still struggling with corruption — the issue has taken on greater urgency as the country struggles to convince its Western allies that it’s serious about eradicating graft following a 2014 revolution. Raiding isn’t restricted to Ukrainian agriculture either. But the vastness and economic promise of the sector, the country’s largest export industry, means any malfeasance there has a major big-picture impact.
Exact figures are difficult to pin down since the crimes associated with raiding often fall under at least two articles of the criminal code (if they’re reported at all). According to Opendatabot, an open-source platform that collects government data, the number of recorded raider attacks on Ukrainian businesses jumped from 279 in 2014, when the so-called Revolution of Dignity took place, to 724 in 2017 — an increase of more than 150 percent. They dipped slightly last year, to around 650.
But the UAC says that figure is actually higher, claiming that more than 1,000 such incidents against agrarians alone have occurred in just the past 12 months. On average, that would mean several Ukrainian agro-businesses are raided every single day. “With every year, raiders become more inventive and develop new schemes aimed at capturing businesses and land,” Kipriyanova adds.
Yet some analysts are hopeful. Anti-corruption lawyer Oleksandr Lemenov says times under ex-President Viktor Yanukovych and his kleptocratic regime, ousted in 2014, were much tougher. Back then, state-sponsored corruption was so widespread and visible, Lemenov says, that even the son of Ukraine’s then prosecutor general, who served as a national lawmaker, was regularly accused of providing legal cover for such schemes.
Now, Lemenov says the state bureaucracy, while still problematic, has begun opening up. “For us,” he says, “this transparency has allowed us to retain our property rights.” Lemenov and other activists also suggest a newly empowered citizenry is more inclined to report instances of illegal seizure or other forms of corruption and official abuse, creating the impression that crime has spiked when in fact it’s just being reported more consistently.
On the state level, the Ministry of Justice has set up anti-raiding centers in each of Ukraine’s two dozen regions in a bid to help address the problem, though advocates say they have little or no power. And although a draft law designed to crack down on raiding, written with help from the UAC, was submitted last year, it’s yet to be considered more closely by Parliament. Meanwhile, so long as the country’s all-crucial courts remain woefully dependent on shadowy interests, there’s little hope they’ll successfully prosecute cases.
Yet in many ways, Ukraine’s economy hangs in the balance — and its farmers are watching.