Corruption in Eastern Europe

Corruption in Eastern Europe

Bulletin article
Liz Barrett
01 February 2000

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to the integration of Eastern Europe into the European Union - but the least discussed - is corruption. The problem is not absent in Western Europe or the EU institutions, of course, but in many parts of Eastern Europe bribery is endemic.

One cost of corruption is economic: the region depends on foreign capital and know-how for sustainable growth, yet corruption deters inward investment. Furthermore, corrupt administrations find it hard to administer the many EU aid programmes which - if well-handled - could boost prosperity.

Privatisation programmes have fed corruption throughout the region. These programmes are now almost complete in the more advanced countries, such as the Czech Republic. But in many countries of the former Soviet bloc the governments have used privatisation as an opportunity to distribute favours to their friends. Thus control of the main economic assets has remained in the hands of the few. Furthermore, the new owners who acquired companies via patronage have tended to be very slow to restructure them; many such enterprises have had to be bailed out by the friendly state. This problem put a great strain on the Czech budget in the mid-1990s, and it is arguable that numerous irregularities in the Czech privatisation programme effectively brought down the government of Václav Klaus in 1997.

Corruption also undermines fragile democratic systems, by fuelling popular disillusionment with politics. Political apathy is widespread in most liberal democracies, but it is far more destructive in Eastern Europe where the growth of an active civil society is crucial to ensuring that democratic norms take root. Klaus's successor in the Czech Republic, Milo_ Zeman, is running a "clean hands" campaign in an effort to restore public faith in politicians, but the damage will be hard to repair.

One cause of the problem is that few East European states can afford to pay their civil servants, judges, police or border guards an income which the recipients deem adequate. For example, in Hungary the traffic laws are complex and can be easily exploited by the police. They invent "fines" for certain actions. The ordinary member of the public is unable to tell whether such fines are legitimate. The scope for corruption could be reduced by simplifying the traffic laws.

What is needed throughout the region is legislation which sets standards for proper conduct, and civil service reform, so that politicians and officials have less scope to abuse the system. Governments need to find new ways of increasing the prestige of public service jobs and the integrity of those who hold them. The EU can offer concrete assistance, through drafting legislation and giving financial support and technical assistance for training and civil service reforms.

Some West European countries have prestigious civil service training programmes, which help to boost the status of their public officials. For good historical reasons, East Europeans tend not to respect people who are seen as instruments of the state. But the civil servants of the new democracies could be taught to feel proud of the part they can play in consolidating democracy. More of them should be offered places in West European civil service colleges. The EU could give these colleges the resources to set up training joint ventures in Eastern Europe.

Such indirect investment in personnel (for the EU does not have the budget to top up pay packets) would improve the administrative and legislative capacity of these countries to cope with the rigours of EU membership. This need will become all the more apparent as Brussels engages in accession negotiations with inexperienced politicians and officials.

But although the EU can help, the real transformation of attitudes must come from within Eastern Europe - not only among public servants but also in the wider population. In the rapidly evolving political systems of Eastern Europe, there is no well-established framework of democratic norms, against which behaviour can be judged and recognised as corrupt. Voters are generally inexperienced in checking the conduct of public officials and calling them to account. This is a legacy of Communist times, when the people had no say in the appointment of government officials and tended to assume that they would abuse their position for their own benefit. In the former Soviet bloc, corruption and other petty crime against the state was justified on the basis that the state was in some way dysfunctional or lacked legitimacy.

In many Eastern European countries people are unaware of attempts to clamp down on corruption and have had no chance to discuss why it might be necessary. But in Estonia the recent introduction of anti-corruption measures has sparked a lively debate. As a result, the public has been primed to question the behaviour of the politicians, who can no longer claim to be unaware of the standards the public expects of them.

Most East European governments, driven by their enthusiasm to join the EU, are making efforts to tackle corruption. The EU must ensure that they do not stint in those efforts. It has not formally declared the tackling of corruption to be a condition of membership. But the dozen candidate countries should be left in no doubt that any state with a corrupt administration will not be welcome.

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