Since 1989 and the fall of communism, corruption has been a significant hurdle to overcome for South East European states in their drive to establish well functioning societies. With time, the fight against organized crime and corruption became part of these countries drive for EU membership. Looking back, it has been a feeble fight, if it was ever a fight at all.
Fortune-seeking politicians, enjoying their short time in the sunshine of executive power, mixed seamlessly with crooked administrators, business oligarchs and thick-necked men in tight black t-shirts. Together they turned democracy and the democratic process into a prostitution ring.
The business motto of this public-private partnership of was/is: “Everything and Everybody for sale”.
The privatization wave of the 1990’s meant a rapid and shady re-distribution of wealth and assets from the collective to the very few and well connected. It was a rigged system benefiting only the insiders and the forceful. Under new management, productive assets were sold off in pieces. Factories closed all across the Balkans leaving hundreds of thousands of citizens without regular income. With their windfall of easy money, new elite settled in London or South Africa, or they invested in further cementing their political power networks at home. Few were those who invested their own money to develop productive, export-oriented industries capable of competing internationally and employing thousands of compatriots. In fact, the hope for new and more employment were linked to an influx of foreign investors, rather than the re-vitalization of existing locally owned productive assets and resources.
In the wake of mass lay-offs, and the weakening of state’s social functions, the unlucky majority of the population was left out in the cold, to make ends meet the best they could. Millions of people left for Western Europe. Others emigrated to far away places like Australia and the USA. Resourceful human capital was lost. Societies in South East Europe suffered further as people became too busy with their daily survival to engage actively in the political process. With a weak civil society, political power was further strengthened and centralized to the executive, and the small political elite that systematically took turns in leading the flock.
In this playground of the rich and powerful, the judiciary quickly fell under the control of the executive and/or forces outside of the framework of a democratic society. Bad guys walked free and grew rich on the back of the mass population and next generation. It was (is) a cynical partnership between public servants and private businessmen driven by greed and short-term economic interests. Their joint business mission was (is) quite simply to steal state assets. Their methods involve controlling yet continuously weakening the state. A weak state was (is) a pre-requisite for this partnership to function and flourish unchallenged.
It’s never a good sign for democracy when the media is in the hands of oligarchs who finance the political game.
With civil society smashed into infancy, only a free media could defend the light of liberty in the face of the fraudulent public private partnership, which has ruled South East Europe for the last 25 years. Unfortunately, investigate journalism is a scarce resource in the Balkans. Together with a large dose of self-censorship, the local media has created a wall around the political elite within which they play their games with the public good. As a result, the public is starved of a productive political discourse. Romania is ranked 52nd out of 180 countries in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index, making it the best ranking country in the Balkans. Bulgaria, Balkan’s other EU member state, is ranked 106th.
In the Balkans, creativity has no limit when it comes to graft and fraudulent practices. No wonder the cafés are full. This is the neutral territory where public and private interests meet, discuss and make their deals. Citizens carry fully loaded plastic bags into public buildings (chocolate, whiskey, perfumes) and leave empty handed. Deals are made on all levels in society. Get the kid into the ‘right’ kindergarten? You pay. Get out of that speeding ticket? You pay. You want your child to play on local football team? You pay the coach. Win that public procurement tender? You pay.
It’s never a good sign for democracy when political parties sell parliament seats (immunity included) to the highest bidder.
Enter Mrs Laura Codruta Kovesi, the Chief Prosecutor of the Romanian Anticorruption Body (DNA). Under her leadership a small group of prosecutors have taken on corruption – the curse of the Balkans – head on, Eliot Ness style and on a massive scale. The scoreboard speaks for itself. In 2014 alone, DNA forced the return of over €300 million to the state! Which state in the Balkans would not welcome that kind of boost to the national budget? Over the last 8 years over 5000 graft related cases have been brought to court with a conviction rate of 90%! In 2014 alone almost 1200 convictions were achieved by DNA, including 24 mayors, five parliamentarians, two former ministers and even one former Prime Minister! This is incredible stuff anywhere in the World, and totally unbelievable in the Balkan context.
The story of Mrs Kovesi and DNA should be all over the front news in other Balkan countries. But it is not. Coincidence? Hardly. A person with the integrity and professionalism of Kovesi is yet to emerge in other South East European countries. Kovesi’s fight is about so much more than corruption. It is a fight against the systematic destruction of democratic institutions and the trust people have lost in democracy as a political system best equipped to care for the majority of the population. This has been a deliberate process of destruction, on-going since 1989, and one in which key democratic cornerstones, such as an independent judiciary and responsible government have been systematically undermined and weakened.
Corruption, the compromise with your personal and societal ideals, is the destroyer of civil values and norms. As more people chose the tainted road to riches, more people spend time justifying criminal acts. Stealing public funds become a new societal norm. As an act, corruption becomes acceptable behavior. Suddenly, in a perverse twist of morality and civility, to misuse your public position for the benefit of yourself, relatives and friends became expected. In turn, this means that if you don’t misuse your authority, your relatives will be disappointed and others will think you are crazy! Why take that risk. You act, and you get your hands dirty. (For more on corruption’s negative effect on people and society, see earlier article: https://jakobmodeer.com/2010/10/24/corruption-–-destroyer-of-values/)
It is perhaps symbolic that on the same day that Mr Ioan Niculae, the richest man in Romania, was sentenced to 2,5 years in prison for his involvement in illegal financing of the 2009 presidential campaign, in neighboring Bulgaria, the Government announced its latest move to fight organized crime and corruption…wait for it… a new Strategy and a new Agency to go with it! It reminded all Bulgarians about the anecdote about the stray dogs:
The stray dogs hear a rumor that the villagers are planning to deal with them. To find out more, the strays send one dog over to listen in on the humans as they gather at the city hall. Returning to the flock, the dog calls on the other stray dogs not to worry – the humans have decided to establish a committee.
In the Balkans, the role of a committee is far too often, deliberately or not, to ensure that nothing really happens. Rather, the committee’s role is to create an illusion among the general public that the state is on the case. It’s about momentarily taking the heat off a sensitive issue and kicking the proverbial problem long and hard into the future.
Few countries in the Balkans today are, if any of them, mature enough to move beyond committees and like Romania face up to the evil of corruption before it’s too late.