What has been the experience of political corruption in Central and Eastern Europe?

It is common knowledge that today corruption is one of the most dangerous threats to the rule of law, economic and democratic development of nations around the world. Corruption attacks the system from within often supported by people, who should create conditions for overcoming it. Corruption is a key threat to good governance, democratic processes and fair business practices.

Eastern and Central Europe are among the most corrupt regions of the world. Particularly high levels of corruption remain in the countries of former Soviet Union. Many politicians openly admit that corruption has become endemic, and express their political will to fight it.

However, these claims are often not backed by concrete action. But even when measures are taken, they rarely lead to immediate and tangible reduction in corruption.

Corruption has penetrated into all spheres of life in Eastern and Central Europe. It is widely spread in the sphere of interaction between individuals or businesses and public administration and among senior officials and politicians. National strategies and programs of fighting corruption in these countries often recognize that corruption is endemic and systemic, which is the political base for anti-corruption activity in the region.

According to the World Bank, countries with transitional economies show a slow but steady progress in the fight against corruption. The results of these activities in Eastern and Central Europe are different: the countries, which recently joined the EU, have reached the biggest success, while the countries of former Soviet Union – the CIS countries – show less successful results. According to a study conducted by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, 67% of citizens of CIS countries believe that the current corruption has become worse compared with the beginning of the transition period in 1989 (OECD 13-15).

Global Corruption Barometer, which has been recently published by Transparency International, indicates that under the level of demand for bribes the countries of former Soviet Union rank second in the world after Africa followed by the Asian Pacific countries, Latin America and South Eastern Europe. The countries of Eastern Europe, where the corruption situation has been investigated, have obtained less than 5 points out of 10. This indicates that corruption is widespread in these states (Transparency International).

The number of cases of official corruption in Eastern and Central Europe – both proven and alleged, is great since 1990s. They occur at all the levels of government hierarchy and in all state bodies. Either way, corruption threatened or negatively affected the careers of a number of post-communist presidents (such as Aleksander KwaÅ›niewski), several prime ministers (Fatos Nano in Albania 1991, Waldemar Pawlak in Poland 1995, Václav Klaus in Czech Republic 1997, etc.), many high-ranking officials managing privatization process (including Polish Minister for Privatization Janusz Lewandowski in 1993, the head of the Czech privatization Jaroslav Lizner in 1994, all the Privatization Office of Hungary in October 1996), police officers (in Poland in the mid-1990s, in Yugoslavia in 1998), military men (in Estonia in 1995, in Russia in 1996, in Bulgaria in 1997, in Romania in 1998, etc.), as well as many other civil servants. Even after they left office, they could be accused of corruption, as exemplified by the situation with the former Ukrainian Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko and the former Prime Minister of Belarus Mikhail Chigir (Holmes 2003, 193-204).

Although corruption has been charged to relatively large number of officials, the percentage of completed cases, compared with the West, remains very small. Thus, despite the numerous corruption scandals in Poland for seven years from 1990 to 1996, only four officials were convicted. Similarly, in Bulgaria, only 17 people were convicted of bribery in 1995, despite the fact that a coalition which based its campaign on fighting corruption came to power only in 18 months. And only 12 officials (ten of which were policemen) were accused of bribery in the Czech Republic in 1994 (Holmes 1997, 275-97).

All these figures are sharply differ from public opinion. A survey conducted in Poland in July 1991 showed that 71% of respondents considered corruption a major problem, while 94% of them thought so in 1995. Survey in April 1997 showed that the percentage of Poles, who believe the top officials are corrupt, has increased by half over the past few years. Surveys conducted in Slovakia during the 1990’s showed that Slovaks considered corruption one of the three major problems. In November 1997, 41% of the Bulgarians call the corruption of state officials the most serious problem. Thus, many leading politicians in post-communist countries, seeking to increase their popularity, paid particular attention to fighting corruption in their election campaigns, e.g. Constantinescu in Romania, Lukashenko in Belarus, Yeltsin in Russia, Kostov in Bulgaria (Holmes 2003, 193-204).

Besides, a recent research by the University of Glasgow in Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Ukraine, which are quite different in development levels, political culture, religious traditions, and proximity to the West, etc., showed that attitudes towards corruption in most countries of Eastern and Central Europe are quite similar.

Despite the fact that international standards require the criminalization of corruption, in many countries of the Istanbul Action Plan, there are alternative systems of administrative and criminal responsibility for corruption-related offenses, which often leads to duplication and generally weakens the effectiveness of measures to combat corruption. Moreover, the general laws against corruption, adopted in many countries, make an impression of a solid legal base, but often do nothing, because their position is not supported by the provisions of criminal or administrative law (OECD 11-17).

All the countries of the Istanbul Action Plan introduced criminal liability for giving and receiving bribes, but many of them are not identified an offer, promise, request and demand of bribes as separate crimes. Instead, they use the concept of “attempt” and “preparation” for active or passive bribery, which does not meet international standards.

Most of other corruption related crimes, which are obligatory under the UN Convention against Corruption, are defined as criminal in the Istanbul Action Plan, including money laundering, crimes in the area of accounting and embezzlement. Optional provisions are regulated in the following way: abuse of power is criminalized in all countries of the region; political leverage trade is criminalized in only two countries so far; none of the countries in the region has introduced criminal liability for illegal enrichment.

In general, there are no specific and clear provisions for the inclusion of intangible benefits in the definition of “undue advantage” as the subject of a bribe. Definition of “public official” should be streamlined and clarified in all countries of the region. Despite the fact that in general the legislation provides quite severe maximum penalty for passive bribery, in practice, courts apply a much less stringent and weaker penalties (e.g., insignificant fines). In many countries, bribe giving is considered less serious than bribe taking, and punishment for active bribery are not proportionate and dissuasive (OECD 11-17).

Despite the fact that the legislation of many countries provides some preliminary measures for detecting, search, seizure and confiscation of proceeds and instrumentalities of corruption related crimes, they are rarely used as tools for investigation. Broad immunities protecting some officials and the lack of clear procedures for lifting immunities continue to impede effective investigation, prosecution and adjudication of corruption crimes in the countries of Eastern and Central Europe.

Despite the fact that some countries have improved the provisions of their laws on extradition and mutual legal assistance, it is necessary to conduct further analysis in this area in order to identify existing problems and to solve them. In particular, it might be useful to examine the quality of agreements and legislation of the Istanbul Action Plan in the sphere of international cooperation. In addition, it would be advisable to consider the extent to which certain aspects of legislation may hinder such cooperation, for example, provisions on “mutual criminalization.” A major concern is caused by the lack of legislation on mutual legal assistance in cases involving the proceeds of corruption.

In the context of corruption fighting, creation of legislative framework seems to be the easiest part of the task. Certainly, in this respect Europe has achieved more than other continents. European anti-corruption conventions provide a complex system of standards, which should at least prevent the commitment of criminal acts of corruption. On the other hand, such important anti-corruption initiatives as ensuring transparency of financing political parties and electoral campaigns, are not fixed in documents of conventional level.

Proper introduction of international standards can only be achieved through appropriate monitoring mechanisms. The first international organization, which introduced such a mechanism, is the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Later, the Council of Europe established the Group of States against Corruption (GRECO). Today it is the only international organization to monitor anti-corruption standards in 46 states. GRECO has stimulated changes in constitutions and laws of separate states and contributed to the establishment of anticorruption bodies and the development of their activities.

Despite numerous attempts to create a monitoring system on the basis of the UN Anti-Corruption Convention, this work is, unfortunately, far from completion. The level of interest in carrying out active anti-corruption measures still depends on the domestic political forces, while active local corruption fighters are exposed to serious threats and risks (OECD 11-17).

Despite successful efforts of the Council of Europe and similar organizations, the potential to overcome corruption is still not fully utilized in Europe. Therefore, the corruption situation will never change as long as the European Commission and each European country do not realize that this phenomenon threatens themselves and other countries, and the goals and ideals of the Europeans are threatened not so much due to corruption as due to the neglect of need to develop a common pan-European anti-corruption policy.

Leave a Reply