Corruption in Eastern Europe can’t be solved easy

Recently we have witnessed occasional waves of anti-corruption protests in Eastern Europe. These protests brought a promising breeze of improvement in Eastern Europe. Now we are asking to what extent is the corruption a problem for the development in these countries and to what extent can anti-corruption protests be successful?

Corruption in Eastern Europe

Without a doubt, corruption is a negative phenomenon. Corruption has much a wider impact than just the direct loss caused by an unfair redistribution of funds. Corruption is actually one of the main root causes/indicators of a weak economy in a country. Corruption in a wider perspective causes demotivation in building a healthy economy. For example, unhealthy European funds for support of local businesses. On paper, the balancing of regional inequality looks good and is promising. In reality, in many Eastern European countries such as Romania, Bulgaria or Slovakia, political representation sees this money as free money to support their local structures and individuals. Let’s look at the case study of the financial support for a local wellness hotel. The scheme is simple, the Ministry creates a fund that is managed by a state agency. Consequently, a private agency related through various financial or friendship relationship(s) with the state agency starts offering support to apply for the funding of projects. Implicitly, if you want to be successful, you must go through the agency with the right ties to the political representation or in other cases, the fund is directly made for the fund recipient with the right contacts. Usually they ask for 30% of the “success fee” from an applicant. Because of their ties to the state agency, an applicant going through them is successful. The first loss is that someone in this corruption scheme will take 30% of EU taxpayers money. But the biggest harm done is to the economy by creating an unfair business environment. If someone can secure extensive funds of “free” money to finance his business through corruption, he also gains a big competitive advantage of price above quality. He can easily beat and remove competition via price dumping or by other bureaucratic bullying that he can maintain through the same corrupt channels. Harm is done to the local employment and economy where people will lose motivation to do business that will result in less employment opportunities. That means less work and consequently a poorer region.

Another example could be found among education projects for socially excluded minorities that could be extensively supported with a low control mechanism. This scheme would work in the same way, a private agency will maintain through a corrupted relation support for such a project to improve for example, the “Internet skills” for excluded minorities with a goal to improve their opportunities in the labour market. The price could be easily 700EUR per participant per day. Thus, three rounds of a 10 days’ project for 10 participants can reach above 210 000 EUR . In reality, this project might have very poor quality or even not have taken place, with supposed participants signing attendee lists for a small fee. Direct loss is around 210 000 EUR from the EU citizens’ taxpayers pocket that has funded a criminal activity. But the indirect impact is even worse. The 210 000 EUR is missing, when it could have really improved the excluded minority. On top of that, the expenses are perceived by the majority as a waste of money and increases anger towards the minority since they do not see any improvement.

People’s perception towards corruption

There are many examples and cases of how corruption is influencing everyday life much deeper than people realise which leads us to the next question; to what extent are citizens realising this relationship and what are the chances that occasional anti-corruption activities will be successful and that they will change the discourse of corrupted society.

Public polls in these countries place social problems and the unemployment rates on the top among topics that are worrying citizens. [1] Criminality and particularly corruption are far behind the economic problems.

Standard Eurobarometer 83 / Spring 2015 — TNS opinion & social

The question is, do the citizens realize a connection between their economic situation and corruption or do they have a different reason not to see corruption as a problem? The answer in my opinion is both. People in Eastern Europe have a strong history of individualism. They lack the perception of the “collective good”. They don’t think along the lines of, “if I miss something in the short term but in the long term the whole society will benefit from it, thus it will be good for me if everybody will behave the same way”. One example is littering. If a person gets rid of her trash in a forest, it has a negative effect on the whole society, but she gains in the short term by solving her problem with trash. And this is what matters for individuals in Eastern Europe. Simply put, Eastern Europeans are led to be egoistic and first look at their own needs. It is OK if they cut the line, but they are aggressive if somebody else cuts the line. The negative consequence is a lack of empathy that has been exposed during the migration crisis.

Unfortunately, the same mentality influences a person’s perception towards corruption. Corruption and “contacts” become undividable part of life. It is natural to rely on corrupted behaviour. People are happy to have an advantage by using their contacts for a small favour like a construction permit even if it is against the regulation. Or to have an opportunity to get back a driving licence that was seized for speeding from “a friendly” police officer. If the corruption of elites causes outrage among citizens it is very often from egoistic reasons of envy because it is them who gained something not us. In most of the cases the apathy is caused by the logic that abandoning corruption would mean loss of a personal advantage.

A way out

The situation in Eastern Europe is not the same in every country in this region. The corruption in each country has a different strength, level, type and density. It is different in Russia, where the whole society is built on corruption, and a fight against it, would mean the probable collapse of the state. The root cause of corruption is deeper and that is the egoism of the general public and that is where the change should start. Elites must lead by example and explain to the general public what would be gained in the society if they abandon corrupt behaviour. The education system must include a humanism subject to build empathy that is missing or started to be shame. Without removing the root cause, we will still have just occasional small anti-corruption activities with only limited improvements in the overall environment.

[1] Standard Eurobarometer 83 / Spring 2015 — TNS opinion & social