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Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

From Bolshevism to backhanders

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Corruption has replaced communism as the scourge of eastern Europe

Juta Strike won’t say where she has spent the past few weeks. But the fact that Latvia’s best-known anti-corruption official had to leave the country for her own safety, amid political attempts to nobble her agency, is evidence of a rising tide of sleaze in ex-communist Europe, and of the troubles, and even dangers, facing those who try to tackle it.

A corruption scandal that links a political party to a private security agency is rocking the Czech government. In Bulgaria brazen attempts to rig a nuclear-power tender seem to have left politicians helpless. In Romania and Slovakia attempts to reform the judiciary have stalled. Even starry-eyed outsiders who win elections on anti-corruption tickets seem to be captured by the system within months.

Corruption is hard to measure and varies widely. Estonia is cleaner than some west European countries; few easterners have a reputation worse than Greece. But it is striking that even hardened warriors in the war against sleaze are so gloomy. Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, a Romanian campaigner and academic, likens the corrosive effects of rent-seeking from corrupt governments to the curse of easy money from oil and gas in Russia. Anti-corruption efforts have failed to engage the wider public, she says, so activists soon become dispirited.

Jan Urban, a doughty Czech ex-dissident turned clean-government campaigner, agrees. “You need at least a bit of success”, he says. Activists in Czech groups with such names as “Defenestration” and “Change the Politicians” gleefully ousted much of the old guard in an election last year. But the new government has descended into squabbling, shown itself to be in hock to business interests and failed to deliver on its sleaze-busting promises.

The causes are manifold. The financial crisis has made people readier to cut corners. Whistleblowers are ill-protected. Firms not willing to pay bribes lose out to those that are, such as Russian, and increasingly Chinese, competitors. Businesses fear that taking a stand will bring retribution: bureaucratic harassment, arbitrary tax demands or missing out on public contracts. Leverage from the European Union loses its force once countries have joined. Indeed, the billions of euros flooding from Brussels to modernise infrastructure and public services often prove a fount of corruption. Companies, politicians and officials collude to rig tenders, usually with impunity: legal scrutiny is weak, and voters seem apathetic and cynical.

The media are given to indiscriminate barking but little biting. Puny editorial budgets mean that investigations fizzle out. Advertising campaigns associated with publicising EU contracts and rules give great power to officials and politicians wanting to reward favourable coverage. The biggest advertiser in Lithuania, for example, is the agriculture ministry. There is scant critical scrutiny of its activities. State-owned industries often play a similar role.

Profitability in the media has plunged since the financial crisis. That has made many foreign owners eager to unload their ailing assets; influence-hungry local tycoons have found plenty of bargains. The Swedish owners of Latvia’s main daily, Diena, sold it via an obscure chain of transactions to an unknown owner. Many of its senior journalists, including those involved in anti-corruption investigations, have left or been fired. Read more in The Economist.


Written by Theophyle

April 15, 2011 at 7:49 am

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