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‘Grand’ Corruption Grips East Europe

PRAGUE, Jun 22 2013 (IPS) - A deeply-engrained culture of graft across Eastern Europe is destroying bonds between politicians and the people as populations lose faith in what they see as a self-serving elite “enriching” themselves at their expense, anti-corruption campaigners have said.

A series of corruption scandals have seen three prime ministers forced out of office in recent months in the region.

While much low-level corruption has been rooted out of society, large-scale corruption connected with politics has actually got worse, experts say.

“The devastating thing is that while Eastern Europe has seen a fall in some of the petty corruption that was a legacy of the communist era when people used bribes to get things because everything was in short supply, ‘grand’ corruption has got worse,” Miklos Marschall, deputy executive director of Transparency International told IPS.

“There is a perception that the new political elite are using the state apparatus to enrich themselves and their circle of friends with massive state resources being channelled where they should not.”

Within the last few months, corruption scandals have forced the Prime Minister in Slovenia out of office and the Bulgarian government to step down.

“There is a perception that the new political elite are using the state apparatus to enrich themselves and their circle of friends..."

And just last week Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas was forced to step down after a massive police raid on the government headquarters and the arrest of eight high-ranking civil servants and politicians. Millions of euros in cash and dozens of kilos of gold were seized by hundreds of law enforcement officers.

Corruption and bribery continue to claim the scalps of junior ministers and senior civil servants in other countries while scandals connected with controversial processes for obtaining multi-million or multi-billion euro funding streams or public procurements occur with almost monotonous regularity.

The situation has become so bad there is a widespread perception among people in the region that most public officials are corrupt.

“This is of course not true, not all of them are, but this is the perception that has been created,” said Marschall.

Experts say that this lack of trust creates an opportunity for populist politicians to come to power on the back of false pledges to deal with corruption. This in turn stifles the passage of much-needed reforms to improve the situation, entrenches the culture of graft at the highest levels and further severs any positive links between the population and a country’s leaders.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” says Marschall.

But this perception is not limited to just the electorate. Corrupt governments are seen as a risk for foreign investors who are vital to developing the economies, and through that the living standards, of countries in an already poor region.

Speaking at a conference in Paris last week, Suma Chakrabarti, president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), which has engaged countries such as the Ukraine on programmes and measures to reduce corruption, warned of its effects on Eastern Europe’s economies and people.

He said: “Corruption squanders talent and precious resources. It means a much higher cost of doing business, and, at the same time, greater uncertainty as regards the outcome of the investment… purely and simply it scares most investors away.”

Economic experts say that Russia, whose own National Anti-Corruption Committee estimates that graft accounts for 300 billion dollars a year and that the average bribe is 10,000 dollars a year, is struggling because of endemic corruption to gain the foreign investors it needs as its energy wealth fades.

Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index for 2012 ranked Russia 133 out of 176 countries while in the World Bank’s Doing Business Survey, the country came 112th out of 185 for “ease of doing business”.

The arrests in the Czech Republic have been praised by anti-corruption campaigners as a welcome sign that graft is being tackled.

But the need for law enforcement bodies in other parts of the region to follow the lead of their Czech counterparts is evident, they say.

Radim Bures of Transparency International in the Czech Republic told IPS: “This kind of action (against politicians) is needed in other countries in Eastern Europe. It sends out a strong message that corruption will not be tolerated and that politicians cannot, and should not think they can, act above the law.”

 
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