Can Europe Make It?

Keeping the West honest on corruption in eastern Europe

Western support can be a critical force for good in civil society building in eastern Europe – but only in cases where geopolitical interests and good governance align.

Leon Aslanov
23 March 2017
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Ukraine: Nasirov Case In Ukraine. NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. Press Association images. All rights reserved.In what’s been heralded as a turning point in the fight against corruption in Ukraine, a Kiev district court ruled on March 7th to place Ukraine’s chief of Fiscal Service, Roman Nasirov, under arrest pending embezzlement charges. His downfall is the latest example of how civil society can successfully challenge corrupt politicians in post-communist states, especially with support from the US and EU. While Brussels and Washington have often claimed bragging rights for these kinds of developments, simply portraying the West’s role as “positive” gives too much credit to the sometimes-hypocritical nature of American and European action (or lack thereof) in the region.

The arrest of Nasirov marks the first time such a powerful government figure in Ukraine has been held accountable on corruption charges, but this success wouldn’t have been possible without sustained grassroots pressure. When no judge could be found to oversee the hearing on Nasirov’s detention, hundreds of protesters surrounded the courthouse to prevent him from leaving before a judge arrived. This mobilization ultimately led to the historic March 7th decision that signalled the fall of an official long seen as untouchable due to his friendship with Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko.

Fresh off this victory, anti-corruption activists now hope to apply more pressure on the government and set up an independent court to handle graft cases. To be clear, civil society is probably best placed to tackle “the cancer of corruption”. Multiple sociological studies have shown time and time again that Ukrainians harbour deep distrust of all political institutions, severely limiting those bodies’ legitimacy. NGOs and activists on the other hand have gained popular trust, due to their active involvement in hashing out laws and in holding off the Russian invasion.

Keen to strengthen Ukraine’s governance in the face of relentless Russian aggression, Kiev’s allies in Washington and Brussels have supported these initiatives.

Keen to strengthen Ukraine’s governance in the face of relentless Russian aggression, Kiev’s allies in Washington and Brussels have supported these initiatives. Earlier in March, the US Embassy and the EU Delegation to Ukraine published a joint statement emphasizing the need for a special court to handle cases like Nasirov’s, adding that Kiev’s success in the fight for clean and transparent governance is critical to “attracting the foreign direct investment that is needed to support Ukraine’s economy” in a nod to the financial stakes of rooting out systemic corruption. These developments signal that the Ukrainian government is likely to keep giving ground in the fight against corrupt officials because it needs support from both its civil society and western backers.

The main downside is that Ukraine’s civil society is still in its infancy and is fairly atomized, organized in huge amorphous networks that are struggling to coordinate. Ukraine’s southern neighbour Romania, though, offers proof of just how powerful a well-organized civil society can be when it physically takes over the public sphere. Last month’s massive street demonstrations in Bucharest against the government’s proposed legislation to weaken corruption laws offered a textbook example of civil society challenging to political elites and force them to back down. Had it passed, the draft law would have rolled back a number of checks on bribery and similar offenses, essentially legalizing official corruption. Liviu Dragnea, head of the governing Social Democratic Party (PSD), was among those who would have stood to gain from the bill’s amnesty provisions: it would have cleared his own way to a coveted premiership.

The protesters’ successful collective action against the law partly results from skills they honed in a number of movements since 2012. That year, anti-austerity protesters took to the streets in the first major episode of civic mobilization in Romania since the anti-communist demonstrations of 1989. The following year, protesters staged weekly demonstrations to help stop a mining project in the village of Rosia Montana. Later, independent media and activist groups continued to grow and mobilize against issues ranging from deforestation to shale gas exploitation to electoral law reform. Most recently, Romanians had taken part in massive protests that toppled the PSD government of Victor Ponta after a nightclub fire in Bucharest killed 64 people in 2015. Far from coming out of nowhere, last month’s demonstrations were the result of years of sustained civic action.

Of course, unlike Ukraine, Romania has been firmly embedded in the “western” sphere for over a decade, as a member of the EU since 2007 and a member of NATO since 2004. Romania’s membership in those bodies has helped raise public expectations of accountability, with poor governance pushing educated young Romanians to move elsewhere in the EU and the public as a whole reacting more forcefully to the political elite’s betrayals of those standards. The EU helped build momentum against the government’s plans more directly by backing the protesters and warning Romania against “backtracking” in the fight against corruption.

Western support can be a critical force for good in building civil societies, but seemingly only in cases where geopolitical interests and good governance align. In South-eastern Europe, a region that once figured prominently in the minds of American and European diplomats, conflicting policy priorities have instead served to undermine them. One telling example is EU and NATO candidate country Montenegro, where civic groups have had little success stamping out a time-honoured tradition of official corruption relative to their Ukrainian and Romanian counterparts. This is partly due to continued restraints on political pluralism, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly: the most recent round of elections last autumn were tarnished by accusations of voter intimidation, cyber-attacks, and threats of violence, resulting in instability that has been heightened by the government’s attempts to jail opposition figures.

Institutionalized corruption, though, is only half the story.

Institutionalized corruption, though, is only half the story. Long-ruling strongman Milo Djukanovic, accused of facilitating corruption and organized crime in Montenegro for decades, has been successful  at keeping the lid on civil society thanks to his pro-western stance. Fearing Russian activity in the Balkans, NATO and the EU have kept quiet about Montenegro’s on-going corruption issues to avoid undermining a friendly leader. As a result, neither have engaged in a meaningful way with civil society actors. That reticence has helped Djukanovic maintain his power base despite stepping down from his position as prime minister, and he is likely to continue pulling the strings as chairman of his party.

That western powers would avoid overtly antagonising cooperative partners should come as a surprise to no one, but civic efforts do still have avenues of applying pressure on corrupt officials (and their outside backers) even in cases where they initially lack support from the United States or the EU. In both the Ukrainian and the Romanian cases, grassroots efforts gained enough momentum to change the calculus of the powers that be and force Washington and Brussels to take harder lines when they would have perhaps preferred not to. Petro Poroshenko is an important example: while he may be a close ally and partner to both capitals, concerns over the (clear and highly public) impact of corruption on the Ukrainian government’s ability to govern nonetheless pushed the US and the EU to apply pressure on Kiev in turn. Romania’s anti-corruption movement has already proven how effective this roadmap can be, and it’s up to others in the region to follow suit.

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