The Fight Against Corruption – from Zero to Hero to Zero? Europe’s bad habits

Veronica Anghel, Bukarest
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Photo: Octav Ganea / AP / Scanpix

EU citizens who responded in the last EU report on corruption are most likely to say they have experienced or witnessed corruption in Lithuania (25 %), Slovakia (21 %) and Poland (16 %). The same report tells us that 99% of companies in Greece, 97% in Spain and Italy and at least nine out of ten companies in the Czech Republic, Slovenia (both 94%), Slovakia (92%), Hungary, Romania (both 91%), Portugal and Croatia (both 90%) consider that corruption is widespread in their countries.

Estonia is one of the top EU performers in terms of transparency and control of corruption, together with older members such as the Nordic countries, the Netherlands etc; while in Austria a relatively large proportion of respondents (1/3) would find it acceptable to do a favour or give a gift in exchange for a public service.

Although corruption is usually associated with new members of the EU, just a few figures from this report show that the phenomenon is inescapable. Like a virus, you can’t get rid of it no matter how good are the medical services at your disposal. You can just try to boost your immunity and constantly check for its reappearance. 

For the countries barely starting this long fight with corruption, two main ideas are worth pursuing.

When former Romanian PM Adrian Năstase was sentenced to prison in 2012, a highly publicized affair that made world headlines, he tried to commit suicide. The whole ordeal that followed - the rushing to the hospital, his family’s sorrow and opinions - was broadcasted on live TV. Did it help the Romanian people?

Firstly, while putting ministers or parliamentarians in jail makes us feel we are watching superheroes “fighting crime”, this is hardly the main function of anti-corruption strategies overall. What happens in the pause between two high level arrests is what matters.

Corruption is a means for fast private gain that any person in any country could feel incentivized to use. The difference in the rates of success of anti-corruption measures is how strong these incentives remain. In other words, how many people feel they have to resort to petty bribery, influence peddling, abuse of power or calling in favours to solve private problems because “there is no other way”?

People have to get richer, better educated and their governing institutions stronger so that informality in the economic and public service can be replaced with good, better paid standardized services. But here is the vicious circle. Getting richer, earning an education and setting up legal frameworks in post-communist states through the same corruption infused means provides states with weak foundations. When chosen from among a corruption prone society, politicians act similarly for their private gain, only at a different level and with shinier toys.

Citizens’ protests, international pressure, the right recipe for oversight institution – all these are useful tools and necessary reinforcement for the fight against corruption. But if a critical mass of political elites doesn’t participate in the process, everyone else is fighting a losing battle.

And how could present battles stand to be lost? In Hungary, informal relations between businesses and political actors at local level, favouritism in public administration, gratitude payments in the healthcare system remain widespread. Slovakia deals with a perceived lack of independence in the judiciary system and similar close ties between political and business elites.

Slovenia has issues with accountability standards for elected officials and little oversight of the privatisation process of state owned and state controlled companies. All these countries, plus Bulgaria and Romania, also have to deal with the eradication of political influence of anti-corruption institutions. In the meantime, political parties take issue with the democratic advancement of their states. This goes on indifferent to the VIPs currently under prosecution.

Secondly, anti-corruption work cannot only be carried under the spotlight with great pomp and dazzle. Corruption is a widespread phenomenon that only an extraordinary amount of informed public debate can make us aware of how evil and present it actually is. Media highlights are distractions, not actions.

When Pablo Escobar, the Colombian wealthiest drug dealer the world has ever seen, was killed in 1993, the news became an instant sensation, complete with worldwide romanticized stories about the local and American forces that intervened and thrilling tales about him, his business and his family. 

Did it help the people of Colombia? Not this public display. His loud disappearance permitted the creation of more silent, fragmented gangs and cartels which continue to terrorize the nation while increasing their level of sophistication when it comes to bribing government officials. Authorities make slow progress in this post-conflict society. The comparison with local European mafia in, for example, Italy, Romania, Russia or Serbia, is surprisingly easy to make, minus the all-out violence.

Happily, open war is not part of European daily life. But the organisation of political parties as cartels, complete with the leadership of charismatic leaders and media frenzy about their actions is.

When former Romanian PM Adrian Năstase was sentenced to prison in 2012, a highly publicized affair that made world headlines, he tried to commit suicide. The whole ordeal that followed - the rushing to the hospital, his family’s sorrow and opinions - was broadcasted on live TV. Did it help the Romanian people? Perhaps in the absence of televised hysteria everyone could have looked much closer at other matters such as retrieving the unlawfully earned money. Or at the excuses found by high level politicians in all political parties for the whole of the PM’s behaviour. Or question how massive was the support he still had from the general public. These remain a work in progress while the former PM has, in the meantime, been released from prison.

It is a painful thing to say, but change that includes an upgrade of standardization of daily habits and sources of income of entire nations takes time. The kind that the passing of only a quarter of a century after a democratic regime change cannot fix.

But things that start bad cannot end well. Widespread corruption makes states weaker, less secure and provides feeble, easy to blackmail politicians. Politicians that don’t like the competition characteristic of liberal democracy that will make poor investments in our defence systems or bad decisions in prioritizing matters of national security. Sounds familiar? It does on this side of Europe.