Europe and Central Asia: more civil engagement needed (Part I)

Europe and Central Asia: more civil engagement needed (Part I)

Declines across Eastern Europe and Central Asia

Regional analysis by Cornelia Abel, Nacho Espinosa and Svetlana Savitskaya

In 2017, authoritarianism rose across Eastern and South East Europe, hindering anti-corruption efforts and threatening civil liberties. Across the region, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and independent media experienced challenges in their ability to monitor and criticise decision-makers. For example, in Poland, government bodies took over the management and distribution of vital funds for non-government organisations. Similarly, in Romania, the government put forward a bill which imposes disproportionate reporting requirements on NGOs. Comparable laws directed at curbing NGOs also passed in countries throughout the region.


Stigmatisation of civil engagement in Hungary

Hungary, which saw a ten-point decrease in the index over the last six years, moving from 55 in 2012 to 45 in 2017, is one of the most alarming examples of shrinking civil society space in Eastern Europe. Recently, the country drafted legislation that threatens to restrict NGOs and revoke their charitable status. Equally troubling, the government also passed a law that stigmatises NGOs based on their funding structures and adds burdensome reporting requirements. As a result, more than 20 NGOs filed legal proceedings against the government in both the Hungarian Constitutional Court and European Court of Human Rights.


Anti-corruption activists under attack in Ukraine

With a score of 30, Ukraine continues to see attacks against anti-corruption activists, NGOs and journalists exposing corruption. Smear campaigns, illegal inspections, lawsuits, harassment and beatings are all instruments sometimes used by the powerful elite against those who drive anti-corruption efforts. Currently, civil society organisations working on anti-corruption issues are forced to fill out cumbersome e-declaration forms that make daily operations very difficult. Despite calls to end this practice, as well as subsequent promises made by the government, these requirements still exist.   

Efforts to establish an independent anti-corruption court were also delayed despite pressure from international and national stakeholders. While an independent anti-corruption court is urgently needed, an independent judiciary is similarly important. Without this, civil liberties and freedom of the press are an illusion. A legal system that is independent of political influence is a prerequisite for safeguarding the rights of all citizens, including those pushing anti-corruption reforms.


Public sector curtailed in Turkey

For the past 19 months, Turkey, which received a score of 40 on the 2017 index, has been governed under a state of emergency that suspends all separation of powers and establishes decision-making by statutory decree. During this time, about 120,000 public officials and legal professionals lost their jobs, making it nearly impossible for the public sector to perform effectively. According to Transparency International Turkey more than 40 per cent of public procurements are not subject to the public procurement law and 28 per cent of those subject to the law are not open tenders. As a result, open and fair public procurement has become the exception, rather than the rule. In addition, the rights of journalists and civil society organisations also decreased. In the last year alone, more than 70 journalists and civil society activists were imprisoned.

Equally alarming, a lack of transparency in budget spending has reached new heights. In Turkey, all public enterprises with a total value of more than US$40 billion are concentrated under the Turkish Wealth Fund which has not published any figures or activity reports in the last two years. In addition, a discretionary fund for the president and prime minister, who have no obligations to report the details from that account, also increased by nearly US$800 million.


Some progress in Italy

With a score of 50, Italy increased its score by eight points in 2017 compared to 2012, however, the country is still 16 points below the regional average for Western Europe. While corruption remains a serious issue in Italy, institutional and legal structures are being built to combat it. Four relevant laws were recently approved on whistleblowing, transparency, undue influence and anti-money laundering. Although it will take time before any of these laws lead to real change these steps represent some progress. 


Former best-performer Finland loses ground

One of the most worrying cases in Western Europe is Finland. Traditionally viewed as the bastion of good governance and one of the top performers on the index, this year Finland’s score dropped by four points from 89 in 2016 to 85 in 2017. This could be attributed to indistinct borders between public and private interests, where some people holding public office are not always maintaining a proper culture of recusing themselves from decisions that may affect them. With no regulations placed on financial disclosures or conflicts of interest for the head of state, this too may have a significant impact. An unwillingness of the Finish prime minister to respond to journalists’ inquiries about assets and investments caused a crisis situation and seriously damaged relations between the media and the government.

Call to action

Looking at lessons from across the region, our regional analysis confirms more civil engagement is needed to hold leaders and governments to account. We cannot fight corruption if there is limited civic space for people to engage. Nor can we move forward if a repressed media cannot report cases of corruption. To truly turn the tide against corruption, a change in mind-set and behaviour is needed. At their core, governments should serve communities and be transparent in their activities, and communities should be able to hold governments to account and have a means to offer constructive input.

This is Part I of our regional analysis of Eastern Europe and Central Asia - you can find the second part here.

Image: Tudor Stanica

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