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“Our Society Creates a Tremendous Amount of Opportunities for Corruption”

The online roundtable organized by CEU Democracy Institute sought answers to questions like how democracy can serve voters rather than elites when corruption is systemic, or how democratic institutions can be maintained in the face of opposition from corrupt elites.

By Emese Dobos

The discussion, entitled The Hyper-Resistant Corruption: How To Fight It in New Central-East European Democracies? has brought together distinguished panelist to discuss the relationship between democracy and corruption, Romania and Bulgaria in particular. Alina Mungiu-Pippidi (Professor at Hertie School), Alexander Stoyanov (Director of Vitosha Research) and Dimana Trankova (journalist at Vagabond) with moderator Mihaly Fazekas (Central European University) talked about the countries’ progress towards transparency, and how their history affected the anti-corruption strategies, the question of electoral accountability and party funding and additionally about whether we can say that people don’t vote out corrupt politicians.

Watch the discussion:

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Corruption in Romania

Alina Mungiu-Pippidi differentiated the trajectory of anti-corruption in Romania into three phases: “One model what I call the democratization without decommunization is that Romania is different from other Central-European countries as it had a totalitarian regime.

The new one was not formed by the victory of the anti-communists, there was continuity and commitment of the old elite.

And there is the Europeanization without decommunization as Romania never really finished the transition,” she said. According to her, the third phase, the anti-corruption strategy of Romania was powered by the European Union and only had a little bit of internal drive. “During President Băsescu the anti-corruption was so effective because they used the old methods: the National Defense Council basically gave roughly free hands to the service of information to intercepts all the politicians,” she said.

She visualized a mixed picture: there were progress made towards transparency, but the rule of law is in worse shape when the anti-corruption strategy was launched, and the ombudsman was fired because she was simply critical to the government. She also pointed out that anti-corruption can work against economic development.

“I see that governments want to get rid of constitutional courts. The worst is yet to come,”

she warned.

Corruption in Bulgaria

“Bulgaria practically stagnates even if there were different governments,” summarized Alexander Stoyanov how Bulgaria performed by scores on the Transparency International’s list.

“Bulgaria’s anti-corruption can be associated with reforms of different sectors to reduce corruption, instead of the court-based Romanian-style,”

he pointed out the difference between the two countries’ strategies as there is allegedly a lack of judiciary input in Bulgaria.

According to the expert, until Bulgaria became member of the EU in 2007, we could associate corruption with two main areas: privatization and that low level officers – like doctors, police and custom officers – extracted rents wherever they could, and nothing has been done with that behavior. “The higher levels have not been targeted at all,” Stoyanov said, adding that very small progress had been made before joining the EU.

“Since 2007, the main source of corruption has been the income of rents at the high political and business level.

Companies try everything to pay as less as possible and raise money as much as possible,”

he continued. This is done through the exploitation of public and EU funds. Both countries have been richer since the start of the membership, he said: one major source is the procurement, the second the EU funds and the third the enforcement of tax and custom collection.

“Every party has a circle of companies around it. Oligarchs and beneficiary companies come with every government, and they can block taxation laws,”

he emphasized. Corruption can take form once a state company is established and then private companies are hired to do the job and pay “500 hundred – 1 billion euros” in advance. The current interim government is investigating some cases, but there is a need for a fundamental reform of the judiciary, prosecutor system, according to the expert. “Even the current minister of interim has publicly told that he does not trust the prosecutor,” he said.

Dimana Trankova is also optimistic about the new elections and put the focus on ordinary Bulgarian people: “There was a feeling of prevailed corruption at the late 90s, beginning of the 2000s because of the privatization. Bulgarians hoped that the European Union will help the country to fight corruption,” she said. But then they becamee disappointed in the EU:

“Corrupt politicians also used their EU connections to hide corruption. Europe was aware of Bulgarian corruption, but they decided not take action against it.”

She also emphasized that many Bulgarians thought that Romania was an exemplary case of the anti-corruption fight, but then came the similar reports on the progress.

Electoral accountability

Mihaly Fazekas asked about electoral accountability: what has gone wrong as, according to political scientists, people in general vote out corrupt politicians and vote for “clean” parties.

“There is a gap between scientific disciplines and practice,”

reflected Mungiu-Pippidi. According to her, even if oversights and blacklists are made during every election, sometimes there is no clear alternative on the table. In Romania, under the presidency of Băsescu there was even a ‘competition’: while officially the government was fighting against corruption, it also made people and a whole group beneficiary and even untouchable at the same time. “The Supreme Court can clear anyone. You cannot control who is appointed to the head of the anti-corruption agency and the head of the anti-corruption agency can be arrested by the other anti-corruption agency. And none of that was in the reports,” she added.

Stoyanov also quoted statements about corruption: ‘There is corruption, but we are not corrupt, you have to prove it’; ‘corruption is just a feeling of perception’; ‘it is always the opposite side that is corrupt’. According to the expert, there are two types of anti-corruption strategies:

“The first is just the imitation of real investigation. And the second is when an anti-corruption agency uses its power against the opposition, and it is a form of oppression or punishment,”

he emphasized.

Mihaly Fazekas then asked about party finances and whether democracy corrupts parties as winning an election is risky and expensive. According to Mungiu-Pippidi, it is not the theories that are wrong, people do vote out the corrupt ones. However, there is something wrong in thinking that “electoral accountability is a sufficient condition. Who controls corruption?,” she asked.

“Corruption works as a theory of crime when an opportunity exists. You need sufficient constrains to balance them.

Our society really creates a tremendous amount of opportunities for corruption,” she continued and noted that for example the EU recovery funds offer a potential huge opportunity. According to her, the question is not party funding as there are variety of links and power asymmetry, and parties are not less corrupt if they rely on public funding. “As long as they have power over companies, it does not really matter, how they are funded. Companies will find their way. The real question is that

if we have electoral accountability, why don’t we manage to reduce this power asymmetry,”

she said, pointing out the importance of the civil society as well.

Alexander Stoyanov referred to a global trend that does not help anti-corruption: the growing involvement of governments in the economy and society. He also mentioned the practice of purchase-voting: “People are often paid to vote for a certain party or people vote for a certain party because they don’t want to lose their job.”

Dimana Trankova also reflected on public funding of political parties:

“People think that public funding is bad, but it is not. People want to eliminate it, but it is bad for democracy,”

she pointed to the controversary. She also highlighted the fact that in terms of society, there is a part of it who wants to feed corruption: “They also want a piece from the cake.”

Cover: Unsplash / Markus Spiske