Fighting corruption in emerging Europe

Man giving money in envelope to businessman at table. Corruption concept

Emerging Europe speaks to Lidija Prokic and Altyinai Myrzabekova, regional coordinators for Europe and Central Asia at Transparency International, about the region’s most recent trends in the fight against corruption.

The latest edition of the Corruption Perceptions Index, published by Transparency International, paints something of a mixed picture for emerging Europe: while Estonia, Lithuania and Slovenia continue lead the regional ranking, only seven states from emerging Europe make it to the world’s 50 most transparent countries, with almost half of the region scoring lower than the global average.

Ukraine ranks as the most corrupt country in emerging Europe, and saw – according to Transparency International – a slowdown in its anti-corruption efforts in 2018 and the beginning of 2019. A new president, and a new government, installed last year, have made the fight against corruption a key part of their programme.

According to Altyinai Myrzabekova, the efforts of Ukraine’s new presidential administration and government will be reflected in the next Corruption Perceptions Index, and that there are encouraging signs, including the reboot of the National Agency for Corruption Prevention (NACP), increasing the powers of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU), restoring criminal liability for illicit enrichment and adopting a new law on public procurement.

“However, there have also been some questionable decisions such as abolishing the immunity of MPs on paper only,” she says, noting that there have also been attempts to concentrate more power in the hands of the president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and appoint friends and partners to positions on public bodies.

“All this has happened over the past three months, so it will take us another year to see the outcome of these changes,” she adds, arguing that despite recent political changes, political power remains concentrated in the hands of the president and his party, jeopardising the system of checks and balances.

Azerbaijan made some moderate improvements last year to its transparency score, which Ms Myrzabekova describes as the result of fighting against “petty corruption.” She argues that the country remains challenged by what she calls “grand corruption” and corruption in Azerbaijan’s political system where power is heavily concentrated in the hands of Ilham Aliyev, the country’s president.

Civil society has faced an extensive crackdown and the political opposition is subject to persecution.

“Whilst businesses might be experiencing fewer corruption challenges, state capture and the concentration of power in private hands remain the biggest impediments in fighting corruption in Azerbaijan,” she says.

Neighbouring Armenia has of late taken a completely different approach, and the country’s government led by prime minister Nikol Pashinyan is in the middle of a massive anti-corruption drive.

“This strategy takes a serious and systemic approach to formulating the anti-corruption policy of the country, more so than previous strategies,” she says, noting that this strategy includes, amongst much else, corruption prevention, detection, education and involving the public. To tackle corruption, the Armenian government has established a Corruption Prevention Commission and will establish a specialised anti-corruption law-enforcement body from 2022.

“At the same time, the strategy still lacks an effective and efficient monitoring and evaluation mechanism. This was also a crucial shortcoming of all previous three strategies [of the former governments],” adds Myrzabekova.

Belarus has maintained a stable increase in its Corruption Perception Index score since 2012, but nevertheless remains “one of the most authoritarian regimes” in the world. “Without access to data, the publication of all court orders or information about budget spending, and regulation of conflicts of interest, we cannot talk about positive changes,” Ms Myrzabekova says.

Other countries in the region do offer some hope, and provides examples of best practice that other emerging European countries could learn from.

Ms Prokic highlights Slovak and Czech mechanisms that ensure transparent contracting and political campaign financing.

“Government contracts have to be published online before they become valid and political parties must have open banking accounts for all types of elections where all donations and expenditures are made visible to the public,” she says, adding that publicly available registries of beneficial ownership such as that introduced in Slovakia can also be replicated as a way of addressing conflicts of interest.

Another positive example of fighting corruption comes from a region that by and large continues to score poorly: the Western Balkans.

“In North Macedonia, members of the State Commission for Prevention of Corruption are selected according to legally prescribed criteria, in a very transparent procedure with the participation of civil society and the media. This has contributed to commission’s integrity,” she concludes.