Corruption for and against
Aug 7th 2008
Why Daniel Morar deserves the West’s support
CORRUPTION in Romania is a hot topic as the government decides whether to renew the mandate of the prosecutor-general, Daniel Morar. His supporters see him as a valiant scourge of high-level corruption; his opponents think he is an incompetent stooge pursuing political vendettas. These are the five common—but flawed—arguments against him.
First: the West is no better and its criticisms are hypocritical. Certainly since the collapse of communism the ethical underpinnings of the western system have steadily crumbled. The Europe of Gerhard Schröder and Silvio Berlusconi has little authority to condemn anybody.
But the worst features of old Europe should hardly be a model for anyone. Italy’s economy is in a terrible mess; Germany has been nobbled by Russia. And Romania, as a much poorer country, cannot afford bad government. It has a once-in-a-lifetime chance to catch up the lost decades of communist rule and that depends largely on billions of euros from the taxpayers of the richer part of the continent. Corruption endangers that.
The second argument is that Mr Morar has made no difference. Corruption is just as bad as it always was. Again, there is a grain of truth in that. Bribery in schools, clinics and the like is endemic. But to be fair, dealing with that is not Mr Morar’s job: his prosecutors are supposed to go after high-level corruption, not day-to-day sleaze. His lack of results is notable, but hardly his fault: courts hand down derisorily lenient sentences and parliament preserves the immunity of his top targets. Even if Mr Morar is just scratching the surface of the problem and if some or even many of his prosecutors are incompetent, it is hard to argue that things would be better if nothing was happening at all.
Third: the real story is a battle of political clans, one of which is using the “anti-corruption issue” to attack the other. This has a large element of truth, in that the political grouping headed by President Traian Basescu has indeed used the corruption issue to bash its opponents.
And the president’s deplorable way with advisers, plus unexplained parts of his communist-era personal history, when he had a plum job abroad, certainly give his critics some serious ammunition. But that does not mean that anti-corruption fight is a sham. Politics in a free society often involves parties pushing good causes for opportunistic reasons. At the very least the past couple of years have seen an end to the climate of impunity that long characterised Romanian politics.
Fourth: the corruption issue is exaggerated. Most Romanians don’t pay bribes and the non-corrupt bit of the economy is what matters. Certainly growth has boomed and foreign investment has been flooding in. Yet those same foreign investors lament the damage corruption does. In particular, corruption in the education system devalues the “currency” issued by schools and universities—they will eventually become meaningless. And it is hard, if not impossible, for public administration to produce a modern infrastructure in a system plagued by corruption. Without that, growth will be throttled.
Five: this isn’t about morals. Corruption is just a symptom of bad government. True. It would be insane to start an anti-corruption drive by locking up all the doctors and teachers who take under-the-desk payments. But that is no excuse for leaving things as they are. Better salaries in the public sector are a necessary condition for ending corruption. So is more transparency. But it is also essential to punish flagrant wrongdoers, particularly at the top. Without that, no anti-corruption drive will have any credibility.
Thursday, August 07, 2008