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Grappling with Graft – Civil Society and the Fight against Corruption in Central Europe

{” It was veritable fireworks of corruption that accompanied the demise of the Polish government”} Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung*

{{Greasy Palms}}
One of the most pressing problems in the countries of Central Europe today remains the question of corruption, which despite more than a decade of reform bedevils and distorts both economic transformation and the consolidation of democracy. Yet it is far from a new phenomenon. The roots of corruption across the region can be traced back to the era of one-party rule, when democracy, the market and civil society were non existing. In those days, graft bred on many of the practices common under communist rule, especially on the networks of party comrades, informal agreements, cash payments for transactions and a general absence of accountability.

When the old system collapsed at the end of the 1980s, the emerging power vacuum allowed corrupt practices to proliferate and to invade virtually all spheres of public and private life, but especially law enforcement agencies, customs services and business transactions. As a result, the countries of the region soon became notorious for greasy palms, a reputation which they have not managed to shake off to this day.

Bribery flourished particularly in the conditions prevailing during the early transition phase, due to the legal vacuum at the start of the reforms and the associated interest of both the state and businesses in keeping operations ‘going’. As a result, corruption took hold and remains the single largest problem in most accession countries today.

The deep roots of corrupt behaviour in Central Europe make it extremely difficult to rid society of this cumbersome scourge, especially when it is facilitated by conditions typical of transition states, such as low salaries, bureaucratic controls, weak services, and bloated government.

A particular worry in the accession countries is the rampant corruption in the allocation of public tenders and contracts which heavily distorts the efficient functioning of the market, as well as the high levels of corruption observed in specific government agencies, such as the police and customs services.

The upcoming accession to the European Union has provided some incentive to reduce the excesses of corruption in the candidate countries. Yet although the EU has put pressure on the region’s governments to cut down on graft, the Union is unfortunately not a good example of how to combat corruption efficiently : many EU countries themselves lack efficient anti-corruption legislation, only about half have signed the EU’s 1995 anti-fraud convention and only a few have so far ratified the Council of Europe’s Criminal Law Convention on Corruption. Another concern largely gone unnoticed so far is the impact enlargement will have on the accession countries’ administrations when several hundred Central Europeans (some with less then clear records) will become European officials with salaries several times those of their ministers back home.

{{Civil Society and the fight against Corruption}}

In the triangle of modern democracy’s key actors (government, business and civil society), efficient action can only be taken and reform implemented if all three sectors collaborate and address outstanding issues jointly. This holds particularly true in the fight against corruption. No campaign against graft can succeed if one of the three sectors does not cooperate. However, it is civil society that plays a preponderant role, given that it is government and businesses which are most affected by bribery and corrupt practices, making them indeed part of the problem. As a result, the reach and willingness of government and businesses to effectively reduce corruption are usually rather limited.

This means that even in countries with a national anti-corruption campaign, state run initiatives against graft are bound to lack efficiency and credibility. A similar thing can be said about businesses, for whom ‘moving first’ often constitutes a competitive disadvantage. The leading role against corruption therefore clearly falls to the nongovernmental sector, especially in collaboration with international organisations such as Transparency International, the OECD and the OSCE.

Only civil society with its independent institutions and grass-root contacts can credibly raise awareness about the doubtful practices of government agencies and businesses and bring them to wider public attention by means of the press or the internet. Independent information about corruption and its effects is one of the crucial elements of any anti-corruption campaign, given that the lack of objective public information inevitably perpetuates corruption.

A free press is therefore the key instrument in any anti-corruption campaign, providing the channel for information on corrupt practices to circulate. Drawing public attention to misbehaviour and bad practices by both government and businesses, e.g. about the treatment of individuals by government agencies such as the police and customs, is a key function which only civil society in association with a free press can perform efficiently.

Yet the fight against corruption is no easy task. It is a long-term exercise and cannot be won without the know-how and experience of international non-governmental networks. Their participation in activities, such as information campaigns, conferences and workshops provides important support to the actions undertaken by national NGOs. They also help civil society monitor developments and organise initiatives such as ‘islands of integrity’ which are a first step towards eliminating corrupt practices in activities such as public procurement.

Efficient action also requires an independent judiciary as well as stringent legislation and efficient law enforcement, which usually take years to evolve. Yet in the case of Central Europe, the influence of EU accession has already started a reform process which is likely to reduce corruption. Pressure from EU governments and potential investors are also expected to have a positive impact.


Corruption is one of the key obstacles to successful economic reform and the transition to democracy in Central and Eastern Europe. It distorts economic development, misallocates precious resources and has an important impact on the social cohesion of transition countries. Given the scale of graft in many excommunist countries, rooting it out will be a long fight, expected to last several decades. Yet a mature democracy, based on a strong civil society is the best remedy against corrupt practices. Civil society must lead the combat in cooperation with governments and businesses, drawing on the experience of international organisations and networks specialised in good governance. Finally, the income-distorting influence of EU salaries on accession countries with its potential for luring away the best and brightest to Brussels should not be forgotten.


*Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 5 November 2001}

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