328. The Increased Salience of Corruption in East and Central Europe: The Role of the EU and Other International Organizations

By
Alexandru Grigorescu

Alexandru Grigorescu is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Loyola University, Chicago. He spoke at an EES Noon Discussion on October 11, 2006. The following is a summary of his presentation. Meeting Report 328.

Over the past decade, corruption seems to have become an issue dominating political discourse in East and Central Europe (ECE). Every day, the press offers multiple stories about high-level corruption scandals as well as petty street-level corrupt practices. It, covers statements, studies, and decisions regarding the fight against corruption that emerge from the government, opposition parties, or international organizations. This increased anti-corruption rhetoric has led some observers to argue that the region has become "obsessed with corruption."

Unlike the vast majority of problems confronting ECE countries (where actions are more important than words), in the case of corruption, merely talking about the issue can sometimes have as great an impact on political developments as the issue itself. This is, in part, because of the secret nature of corruption. In most cases, the parties involved in a corrupt act—those who offer bribes and those who receive them—may perceive the "exchange" as beneficial, at least in the short run. They are therefore unlikely to reveal the exchange to others. We thus lack precise information about the number and magnitude of corrupt acts. This has led even the best measures of corruption (such as the complex ones developed by Transparency International or the World Bank) to be primarily based on perceptions of corruption, rather than actual corruption. Policy makers in domestic and international institutions recognize that they have no other choice but to rely on such surrogate measures when deciding on the appropriate anti-corruption strategies.

Yet, studies have shown that there are important discrepancies between perceptions of corruption and the actual levels of corrupt practices. Perceptions are shaped by an individual's personal experiences with corruption, but also by the information received from the media. The more the press discusses the issue, the more the public will tend to perceive that corruption is spreading. This will happen even if, in fact, there may be fewer instances of corruption than in the past. Conversely, if the press talks less about the issue, public perceptions of corruption may decline even if the number of actual instances of corruption is on the rise.

The understanding that the media may influence perceptions of corruption has led some government officials to pressure the media to ease their coverage of the topic. At the same time, organizations such as the EU or Transparency International have made "awareness-raising" a key component in their fight against corruption and are pushing to maintain the issue in the forefront of public debate. Due to external pressure, ECE countries may be compelled to adopt and implement anti-corruption policies. Thus, within the broader struggle against corruption in ECE, there is a smaller "battle" to maintain the issue in the press and on the political agenda. The scope of anti-corruption policies and the speed with which they are implemented depends on who "wins" this public debate battle.

How much are East and Central Europeans talking about this issue? Has the anti-corruption rhetoric indeed intensified, as most observers believe? To assess the saliency of the corruption issue in the region, I conducted a survey of the press in six ECE countries: Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia. I found that, while in 1994 about 1 percent of all articles from major newspapers mentioned the issue of corruption, by 2005, this proportion grew to approximately 7.5 percent. Although there are slight differences across the six countries, over the past decade press coverage of corruption grew by at least 4.5 times in each country.

There are several possible explanations for the increased salience of the issue. First, one can assume that this is a reflection of the spread of a global "anti-corruption norm" that is widely believed to have emerged in the 1980s. Indeed, previous research, using "global" news sources such as the New York Times, the Financial Times or the Economist, found that from 1980 to 1996 the proportion of articles discussing corruption approximately doubled. Yet, similar tests for more recent periods suggest that the saliency of the issue has not increased since 1996. While the increased interest in corruption in ECE may have been caused initially by some global factors, there appear to be certain additional characteristics specific to this region, which have spurred the press coverage of the issue even after the "fad" had tapered off elsewhere. Also the proportion of news items discussing corruption in ECE is, on average three times higher than for other regions of the world that also have high levels of corruption (Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and the Near East, East Asia and Latin America). Therefore, the extremely high level of anti-corruption rhetoric in ECE does not appear to be a result of global developments alone.

Another plausible explanation for the rapid increase in the saliency of the issue in ECE is that the press may simply be discussing corruption more because there is more corruption in the region. Alternatively, the increased coverage of corruption may be a reflection of the increased press freedom in ECE. As the press has become increasingly independent in these countries, it can take on the issue of corruption, which it had not dared to do in the past. A third argument is that the saliency of corruption is linked to the rapid and intense processes of privatization that ECE countries have undergone. Indeed, privatization is seen to add to already existing opportunities for corrupt practices. We should expect, therefore, that in ECE, the enormous volume of former state properties being transferred to the private sector, have contributed significantly to the likelihood of having visible corruption scandals and, more broadly, to the rhetoric surrounding corruption.

My research shows that, even though all three of the aforementioned factors appear to have contributed to the increased press coverage of corruption, these explanations are not sufficient to account for the highly unusual trends over the past decade in ECE. The increase in press coverage is much greater and much more rapid than the increase in levels of corruption, in press freedom or in privatization between 1996 and 2005. In order to fully understand the growing anti-corruption rhetoric in these countries, one must also look at the role of international organizations (IOs).

Indeed, East and Central Europe is considered to be an area of the world where IOs have had the greatest impact on domestic developments. The region is under the scrutiny of the largest number of organizations. There are multiple IOs simultaneously involved in anti-corruption work there. I have found that it is due primarily to such organizations that the press and the public in ECE have become so interested in corruption.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Council of Europe and the European Union (EU) have been the most active IOs in the anti-corruption realm in the region. They adopted and promoted international conventions, such as the OECD's Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business and the Council of Europe's Criminal and Civil Law Conventions on Corruption. The OECD has created outreach programs, such as the Anti-Corruption Network for Transition Economies, which allow for exchanges among states (and even among non-members) and for the identification of "best practices" and "lessons learned" from the most successful programs. The World Bank and the EU have funded multiple workshops, international exchanges, conferences and programs for government and non-governmental representatives working in this realm. World Bank and IMF officials are responsible for numerous studies and surveys looking into the causes and effects of corruption, including some focusing specifically on the ECE countries. The IMF has encouraged countries to disseminate more statistical information in order to increase the likelihood of exposing instances of corrupt practices. The Council of Europe has developed mechanisms, such as the Group of States against Corruption (GRECO), through which member states can monitor each other and "shame" governments into taking action when there appears to be a lack of political will to adopt or implement anti-corruption policies.

The IOs have each found their own "niche" in the anti-corruption realm and are avoiding the duplication of tasks. Yet, all of them have embraced at least one common strategy: that of awareness-raising. All five IOs discussed here have stated at one time or another that one of their principal goals is to bring and maintain the issue of corruption on the national political agendas. A close study of the press in these countries suggests that their awareness-raising campaigns have been successful. The number of articles in the ECE press that discuss corruption in the context of international organizations has increased substantially over the past decade. Presently, about two-thirds of all articles that discuss corruption (65.9 percent) make some reference to at least one of these IOs. In 1996, this proportion was only 32.1 percent.

Yet, not all IOs appear to be equally "newsworthy" in this realm. In 1996, the number of articles mentioning the World Bank, OECD, IMF and Council of Europe (together) in discussions of corruption was greater than those mentioning the EU. By 2005, the articles mentioning the issue of corruption and the European Union outnumbered by about nine to one the articles mentioning corruption and any of the other four international organizations discussed here. When the ECE press now discusses corruption, more often than not, it mentions the EU in the same breath. This change is significant enough to account, almost alone, for the increase in the ECE press' coverage of corruption since 1996. Overall the European Union may be the single most important actor responsible for the increased salience of corruption in ECE over the past ten years.

The growing impact of the EU on domestic debates in ECE is not that surprising. In the 1990s, ECE governments saw EU accession as one of their top priorities. The EU set down clear accession criteria for these countries before they would be allowed to join. The relevance of the EU to ECE countries has been much greater than that of the other four IOs involved in the anti-corruption realm. Therefore, the EU's recommendations and conditions have been taken much more seriously. The press coverage of the EU anti-corruption stance is, expectedly, much wider than that of the other IOs. The World Bank, IMF, OECD and the Council of Europe acknowledge that the EU's requests and recommendations are more likely to be heeded by ECE governments and they therefore often prefer to work through the EU to promote their policies rather than to always act on their own. For example, the EU has recently begun promoting the OECD and Council of Europe conventions on corruption.

The increased anti-corruption rhetoric in ECE can thus be interpreted as being, to a great extent, the result of a deliberate and concerted effort on the part of an unusually large number of powerful IOs that have become involved in this realm, especially the EU. The ECE press indeed appears to reflect IOs' interests in corruption and has kept the issue in the forefront of public debates, even as some government officials would have preferred that the topic go away. By maintaining the issue on the agenda, there has been great pressure on officials to adopt anti-corruption policies. Such pressures appear to have translated into the creation of institutions and the adoption of laws dealing with corruption. Anti-corruption directorates, offices, councils and committees are now in place in these countries, as part of their presidential institutions, parliaments, constitutional courts, as well as within various ministries of justice, finance, foreign affairs or public administration. ECE countries have also adopted or amended laws to fight corruption. Most have also adopted comprehensive anti-corruption programs that set down additional policies and means of coordination between institutions.

Yet, if most of the pressure to bring about change in the corruption realm has come from the EU, what will happen now that the ECE countries have become member states? Based on the experience of previous waves of enlargement, one would expect that "conditionality" mechanisms will be replaced by weaker mechanisms of peer-pressure from other members. It is likely that over the next few years the EU's interest in corruption in these countries will decline and become just as low as in the older member states. This will lead to a decline in the saliency of the issue in the region because, as the above discussion suggests, there really is no substitute for the EU in terms of projecting an issue on the national agenda.

The EU seems to be aware of its prominent role and of the dangers of neglecting an important issue such as corruption after a country becomes a member. For example, in a report released in late September 2006, the Commission confirmed that Bulgaria and Romania will indeed join the EU in January 2007. But in an unprecedented move, it decided that both countries will continue to be monitored, especially in the anti-corruption realm, even after they become full EU members. The report listed in great detail all the measures the EU will take "unless the countries take immediate corrective action." It set specific benchmarks and threatened that, if they do not make progress, they will face safeguard measures, suspending the recognition of arrest warrants and decisions made by their courts in the rest of the EU. In the next few years, the two countries need to conduct "professional, non-partisan investigations into allegations of high-level corruption" and to "take further measures to prevent corruption in particular at the border and in local government." Bulgaria and Romania will have to report to Brussels every six months on their progress.

The EU decision to remain involved in this realm (at least in two future member states) is an important and timely one. Although ECE countries have adopted laws and institutions to fight corruption, they have yet to prove that such mechanisms actually work and that they have an impact on actual practices. While everyone recognizes that it takes time for laws and institutions to actually function and have an effect, if these measures will continue to be viewed as ineffective, the anti-corruption movement in ECE may be threatened. In many countries in the region, large segments of the public already believe that there is little that can be done about corruption and that governments and international actors are powerless in this realm. If the new anti-corruption mechanisms are perceived to be ineffective, the feeling of helplessness will sink in. Even if the region does not experience reversals of democracy, such apathy, it may nevertheless lead to a continuous erosion of democratic norms and may slow down the political and economic progress experienced so far.
 

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