Is fighting corruption in Eastern Europe compromised?

Is fighting corruption in Eastern Europe compromised?

The European Union summit planned for 28-29 November in Vilnius, Lithuania was supposed to see four eastern European countries embrace a reform process that leads to greater integration with western economies and progress in the fight against corruption.

In Vilnius, Moldova and Georgia will initial association agreements with the EU, and could sign in 2014. However, Ukraine and Armenia, which were also due to move forward with association agreements, will not. This could jeopardise the fight against corruption in these countries and represents a worrying return to the politics of the Cold War.

The Eastern Partnership is a unique platform to leverage anti-corruption reforms in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The offer of closer political and economic integration with the EU aims to provide incentives for Eastern Partnership countries to undertake significant reforms in the area of governance and broader political and economic transformation.”

– Transparency International EU Position Paper

Russia, which wants to block the EU extending its sphere of influence over its near-neighbours, successfully bullied Ukraine and Armenia into reneging on what the EU thought was a done deal. In the run-up to the summit, Russia cut off wine imports from Moldova and chocolates from Ukraine to make its point. It also threatened to limit gas exports to chilly Ukraine this winter. The EU, for its part, talked of more economic incentives and visa liberalisation.

Armenia will now join Belarus and Kazakhstan, the founder members of Russia’s new Customs Union. Ukraine is as yet undecided. After the pullback from the EU, thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets to protest, the biggest demonstrations since the Orange Revolution nine years ago.

The association agreement is part of the wider European Neighbourhood Policy, which at its core demands political and economic reform, including anti-corruption efforts.  Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia and Georgia have all fared poorly in our Corruptions Perceptions Index over the past three years, although Georgia’s crackdown on petty corruption has seen some progress. 

Transparency International urges that with or without the association agreements, all eastern European countries should commit to tackling corruption. By turning toward Moscow and away from Brussels, Kiev and Yerevan are not only snubbing the 28-nation bloc, but also shying away from their anti-corruption commitments.

Eastern neighbourhood countries and the association agreement:

  • Moldova is likely to sign in Vilnius despite Russian pressure.
  • Georgia is likely to sign following a series of corruption scandals.
  • Armenia pulled out in September.
  • Ukraine pulled out a week before the summit.
  • Azerbaijan has not agreed to sign.
  • Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei will attend.

Ukraine

Transparency International Ukraine is concerned that postponing the agreement with the EU will cause the country to stumble in its anti-corruption efforts, something it can ill afford to do. Ukraine scored just 26 out of 100 in the 2012 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, signalling a serious problem with corruption.

Memories of the Orange Revolution are still fresh, but people see that nothing has changed … corruption is as rife now as it ever was.”

– Oleksii Khmara, the executive director of Transparency International Ukraine

With the spectre of an EU agreement, however, there had been some overtures towards creating anti-corruption mechanisms. The government set up the National Anti-Corruption Committee three years ago; however the committee has not convened in eight months, and has not had any tangible or visible impact.

Procedures have been put in place to train border guards, customs officials and other civil servants in how to resist and combat bribery, however there has been little in the way of supporting policy to facilitate these procedures.

The pressure to de-politicise the judiciary, for example, has been at the heart of the negotiations with Brussels, with the continued imprisonment of the former president Yulia Tymoshenko a symbol of how political influence distorts justice.

For Transparency International, the separation of powers between the executive, judiciary and legislature is fundamental to the fight against corruption.

According to Oleksii Khmara, the executive director of Transparency International Ukraine, the government’s decision to reject the EU agreement does not reflect the will of the people. 

“There is a general disconnect between the official rhetoric and how people feel. A recent poll cites 45 per cent of Ukrainians favour joining the EU association agreement over only 14 per cent preferring the Russian-led Customs Union. The people understand that not signing in Vilnius is a great pity, not just for economic and political reasons, but also as an opportunity to tackle some of the inherent problems of corruption in the country. Public trust in politicians is as low as it could be.”

This explains the quick reaction in the streets. “With the ongoing protests, unlike nine years ago, the use of social media has mobilised the people much quicker. Memories of the Orange Revolution are still fresh, but people see that nothing has changed, that they are back to a similar position they were in before and that corruption is as rife now as it ever was.”

Armenia

Armenia, which scored just 34 out of 100 in the 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index, also surprised Brussels by shying away from the association agreement in favour of the Moscow-led Customs Union. Although President Serzh Sargsyan repeatedly claimed that corruption is the number-one obstacle facing the country’s development, the government has now distanced itself from the provisions in the European agreement and has done little to stop the increasing danger facing anti-corruption civil society activists in the country.

According to Sona Ayvazyan, the deputy director of Transparency International Armenia:

“Corruption runs to the highest levels of government and until there is a more legitimate democratic regime in place, Armenia will continue to try and balance proximity to Russia with the prospect of European trade. It is unfortunate that the government chose the path of a Customs Union with autocratic states, rather than the path of European values of human rights and the promotion of democracy. Europe should support Armenia, but call for greater budgetary transparency and space for civil society to operate.”

Transparency International calls on the Eastern Partnership Summit to:

  • Make negotiations for association agreements and other partnership agreements more transparent.
  • Ensure a consistent and principled approach towards eastern partners.
  • Enhance EU support for building the capacity of governmental watchdogs.
  • Promote and support democratic oversight for governmental agencies such as special forces and intelligence agencies.
  • Support civil society and provide a space for them in which to operate.
  • Increase EU funding opportunities for civil society and activists.

Moldova

The Moldovans are still set to initial the accord in Vilnius despite the fact that in September Russia announced a ban on Moldovan wines, which accounted for 15 per cent of exports.

This was seen as a blatant attempt to use commerce to coerce the government into rejecting the EU. Brussels reacted by ending restrictions on Moldovan wine imports.

According to Lilia Carasciuc, the executive director of Transparency International Moldova:

“The prospect of signing the association agreement with the EU is a great motivation for the Moldovan government to implement actions in the field of democracy, transparency and accountability: the main ways to prevent corruption.  

Showing concrete results in combating corruption, reforming the judicial system and ensuring transparency in the decision-making process are the main conditions given by the EU to the government of Moldova before signing the Association Agreement.”

For any press enquiries please contact press@transparency.org

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