Thursday, May 22, 2008


This with many thanks to my excellent colleagues in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic Poland, Romania, Slovakia, who contributed screeds of excellent material that sadly could not be squeezed in to the story

Corruption in eastern Europe

Talking of virtue, counting the spoons
From The Economist print edition

Now that they're in the club, new European Union members are failing to deliver on the promises they made to fight corruption

FOR corrupt officials in central and eastern Europe, life has seldom been better. Joining the European Union has produced temptingly large puddles of public money to steal. And the region's anti-corruption outfits are proving toothless, sidelined or simply embattled.

The biggest problems are in Romania and Bulgaria, the EU's two newest members, whose apparent inability (or disinclination) to deal with high-level corruption has led to increasingly acerbic public warnings from Brussels. But other countries have done badly too. “Before accession, governments were under close scrutiny. Now the fight against corruption is not a priority,” comments Drago Kos, president of GRECO, an anti-corruption outfit affiliated to the Council of Europe, a human-rights organisation. “The Europeanisation of political elites was largely taken for granted,” says Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, a Berlin-based Romanian academic.

Even in Slovenia—once seen as a paragon of good government—lawmakers are trying to close down the commission for the prevention of corruption, run by Mr Kos, arguing that it is expensive and unnecessary. The real reasons may be disdain for all public watchdogs (where staff salaries have been cut by a third) and the commission's repeated attacks on the government's anti-corruption credentials. The mooted shutdown has attracted outside protests, including one from the OECD, a Paris-based club of rich countries.

In Latvia, the head of the anti-corruption agency, which had been investigating the financing of the former governing party, narrowly fended off a bid to unseat him. In Slovakia, the justice minister called the special anti-corruption court, which has highly paid, security-vetted judges, a “fascist institution”. His party, a junior member of the ruling coalition, is trying to have it deemed unconstitutional. Another minister wants bribing foreigners to become a legitimate part of public spending.

But the most spectacular cases are still in the Balkans. Barely three months after it joined the EU in 2007, the Romanian government fired Monica Macovei, a doughty justice minister who had attacked corruption head-on. Her successor tried to fire the anti-corruption prosecutor for investigating his political sponsors. The incumbent is a former lawyer for Russia's Gazprom. Procedural snags have held up all high-level corruption cases. Investigation of former ministers now requires parliamentary approval, sending every case back to square one. Although Romania comes out lowest in the EU in the rankings by Transparency International, a lobby group, the government seems determined to attack its critics rather than corruption.

Bulgaria, similarly, prefers talk to action. Multiple new anti-corruption agencies are poorly co-ordinated or have never got going. No case of high-level official corruption has led to a successful conviction, just as not one of more than 120 gangland shootings since 2001 has been cleared up. EU officials (and most Bulgarians) believe that organised crime reaches the highest levels of government. The forced resignation of the interior minister, Rumen Petkov, in April, has made little difference. Brussels is considering cutting billions of euros in aid and withdrawing recognition of Bulgarian court decisions.

Gimmicky special agencies cannot make up for a justice system filled with crooked, timid or inexperienced judges and prosecutors. Indeed, in badly run countries, a powerful anti-corruption agency can aggravate the problem: special powers and privileges can be abused for venal reasons or to settle political scores. This happened in Poland, where the zealous sleaze-hunters of the Law and Justice Party squandered their election win in 2005. Although most Poles seem to believe that wealth is a sign of past lawbreaking, they disliked even more the heavy-handed, selective and publicity-hungry doings of the new anti-corruption agency. The new government downgraded it, and is trying instead to cut back the bureaucracy.

That may be a more promising approach. Corruption crackdowns work only if the public administration is simplified to the point where bribe-taking becomes either unnecessary or highly conspicuous. That has been the secret of success in Estonia, probably the cleanest country in the region. But most east European countries have yet to reform their bureaucracies, creating lots of opportunities for peddlers of lucrative short cuts.

As its economic competitiveness erodes, eastern Europe can ill afford bad government. Voters are generally disillusioned with post-communist politics. Yet from the Baltic to the Balkans, even politicians facing the most startling accusations of corruption seem not to suffer at the polls. A bit like Italy, really.


MalkoKrakow said...

Since, as you say, the political elites in Eastern Europe are by far more corruption-prone than it has been imagined, the question arises: How can the situation be improved without "heavy-handed" upsetting of political balance? The present Polish prime-minister's policy of "general love", heavy political marketing and conflict-avoidance ofetn boils down to the policy of ALL POWER TO LOCAL MAFIAS !

Hansken said...

Here I would finally like to engage in a discussion with Mr. Lucas. I think you are a fine analyst, I have been a grateful reader of your blog for a long time and in most cases I have been agreeing with you in your analysis. But here I would like to ask a question that had been disturbing me for a long time: how long, do you think, are you going to have your job as a 'correstpondent for Central and Eastern Europe'? In other words, how long, do you think, will this concept of CEE endure? Clearly, especially in the context of this particular topic of corruption to put Estonia into the same pot with Slovakia, or what have you, is simply wrong. The differences between these countries are increasingly bigger and for my taste talking about CEE is hence also ever more problematic. Estonia is too Nordic, both culturally, but increasingly also in terms of its governance, for including it into CEE. What really connects Baltic region (increasingly I run into texts where this term is used for all countries around the Baltic Sea) to the Balkans? Seriously? Ok - you can find topics that are usually connected to socio-economic issues of transition societies. But it is even easier to find topics that establish the essential difference between these countries - and that is even in regard to these same topics of socio-economical development. And I think for a correspondent of the 'region' it is about the time to start addressing these. What about 'killing the CEE', Mr. Lucas?