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To Kill a Briber

In an interview with Hromadske, policy expert Alina Mungiu-Pippidi assesses the success of Ukraine's anti-corruption reforms.

by Mariia Ulianovska 11 May 2018

Ukraine’s fight against corruption has been a long and stony one. Four years into the reform process, the officials and anti-corruption activists still don’t see eye to eye. The support of the West highly depends on the country’s success in fighting corruption and nepotism, which are considered to be its greatest burden.


Hromadske spoke to Head of the European Research Centre for Anti-Corruption Alina Mungiu-Pippidi about people’s perception of corruption and the best way to fight it.


Alina Mungiu Pippidi. Image by Hromadske.



After Euromaidan Ukraine had a complicated story of reforms. Some were successful, others not so much. What do you think is an indicator of successful reforms? And what is the best way to communicate this effectiveness to the public?


Firstly, I think that it is very difficult, not just for Ukraine, but for any other country to achieve control of corruption, governance reforms and general change in the short run. These are things that take quite a lot of time. And the way to appreciate them is to notice that one day things that used to work in a certain way, a way you didn't like, suddenly work better. Let's say, you couldn’t get a passport, or you couldn't get a driver's license without paying a bribe. And then you notice that somebody, who just got this, let's say you got it 5 years ago, and somebody who got it these days didn't have to pay anything. And this is how people perceive change. People underestimate change. So each time something like this happens, it has to be communicated a lot. I think it also helps to communicate because it tells people they should stop doing things. Sometimes, nobody asks people for a bribe, but people just continue [to give it], because they think that this is what is expected of them. They think: “everybody else does it, so why shouldn't I do it?”


So when the rule really changes, because regulation changes, or because new leadership is there, and it no longer asks these [things] of people, then you have to have a communication campaign. But not a general one, when you tell people “Oh, corruption is bad,” or let's all be nice after a lot of us have been corrupt. But you have to tell people that from now on there is this new office, where you do this, and this is your transparent cost. If you pay anything more than this, then you really are a sucker. And if you communicate in this way with people, they will learn and they will do things otherwise. So [it’s a matter of] simply understanding what success is, putting it out in very qualitative terms, something which used to work this way - now works differently. And of also encouraging people to contribute to this, and to not just go there with the wrong information and behave the old way. It's part of this package of really communicating to people that norms have changed, and that practices have to follow norms and change as well.


And can you name the specific indicators of these effective reforms, what are they?


Well, I do not know the indicators of successful reforms in Ukraine. But the only one that impressed me, and I think that others should be like that, is the energy sector. For instance, you had an energy market that was the reflection of what we call the privileged economy - an economy where bad restrictive regulation actually creates winners, people who get economic rents and do not get rich by merit. And this market was dominated by a very few well-connected companies, which got a lot of money out of this, just because they had the privilege of being in the market, and other people were denied this privilege. And the fact that this small number of companies has now grown to a significant number of companies, who are able to trade energy, shows that the market access has opened. This is how it should be. Then you can see more significant consequences of this reform, but you should take other markets as well and look how it happens. If monopolies or oligopolies, small cartels, which have gotten together in the virtue of privilege, are giving way to more competitive access, where more people can come in and deal on the basis of merit, hard work or better products.



Despite starting with very harsh reforms, such as lustration, we are now facing the situation in Ukraine where reforms are mostly pushed by civil society groups, rather than the government. Do you think it suffices?


I am not aware of any country that has succeeded in radically changing the governance regime. For instance, from systematically corrupt to exceptionally corrupt, except if some enlightened elite comes to the government either in the form of one party, or in the form of a coalition of parties, broadly supported by society: supported by businesses, who want a competitive and not a privileged business environment, supported by universities, intellectuals and a broader group of people. So I think the civil society’s fight to change a country is absolutely heroic. But you [need to] have a broader civil society, and its political representation, a coalition of parties, which managed to get 51 percent in parliament to pass the necessary reforms. Because in countries such as Ukraine, corruption is not an isolated phenomenon. You cannot cure corruption in health or in education without radically reforming the system of health and education. A part of corruption is policy failure – it is produced by bad policies in the way these systems are organized. And it's not going to disappear just by arresting doctors that received gifts, you really need to change the system and for this you need to have a majority in the parliament. You also need to know what to do but you also need to win some elections. And this might take some time, but there is no avoidance of that. That is the way ahead.


There is now a visual battle between the anti-corruption activists and the government. Even the anti-corruption activists are now being made to declare their assets publicly in Ukraine. Have you ever seen such a situation in any other country? And what would be the most effective communication between these two groups? Is it constructive criticism or is it harsh criticism?


Unfortunately, I think that this situation is really ridiculous. I haven't heard of any other country where anti-corruption activists [have to do that], and, by the way, an anti-corruption activist doesn't have to be paid a salary as an anti-corruption activist, you can be a journalist, investigative journalist, or someone who writes a column regularly. And you cannot go around and ask people who are individuals to declare their fortunes. The reason why we are asking for financial disclosures from officials is because they, in their official capacity, have the opportunity to cross the line between public authority and private profit. And this is why they have to declare their fortune. This opportunity doesn't exist for journalists. Journalists don't have any power and access to public figures, [or props that] don't exist for civil society activists. So this whole thing looks a little bit like revenge to me, and a form of harassment towards civil society.


On the other hand, I think that civil society conceives anti-corruption very narrowly, as merely real-time repression of top people who might have done something that civil society thinks is wrong. And I know this is very tempting, I am Romanian by birth and in my native country a lot of ministers have been put to jail. And even a former prime minister and a former president are in danger. But corruption has not gotten better due to all of this. And it has not gotten better because civil society and politicians never really work together to enact the reforms necessary so that corruption [doesn't happen] anymore. I can put a minister in jail today but if it's a very lucrative business, the minister would get out [the following day], take over the rent and do [the same thing] all over again. So you have to have some cooperation with politicians. Maybe they are bad politicians, maybe they are corrupt politicians -- God knows that in many of these countries they tend to be corrupt politicians. Nevertheless, you have to meet halfway, at least so they could enact these preventive reforms. They might feel less threatened by this kind of reforms, by deregulation, by privatization, demonopolization. And these really are the reforms that change a country, not just arresting people. Because how many people can you arrest?


In Romania, there is no sufficient room in prisons. At some point, there were jokes that in the preventive arrest of the Bucharest police, since most of the important people tend to be in the capital, there was no room and they were putting between 6 and 8 people in one room to sleep. But at the end of the day, this didn't really change much, it changed less than in other countries, where they managed to negotiate some reforms.


So, unfortunately, you have to have a little bit of diplomacy in [the] anti-corruption [fight], and that would mean, however, that people [should] step back a little bit, and not repress their own civil society, but also that this civil society understands anti-corruption a little bit more comprehensively, not just [as] the repression of people who are there in power.


I would like also to address the corruption tolerance issue, because nepotism is considered to be Ukraine’s burden. Do you think there is such a thing as a “corruption gene”? Is it more of an individual behavior and choice or is it a social problem?


Well, I am not a great believer in the theory that corruption is in some country’s DNA, or that it’s even a cultural thing. Because if you look around these days, you would see that one of the most corrupt countries in the world, when nepotism is concerned, seems to be France. And France is the country from where we all copied our legal codes and recreated modern administration. At least for us in Eastern Europe this was a model country.


And last year I read in an op-ed of a French newspaper: “why is it such a big deal that we now need to pass anti-nepotism regulations in the Senate?” Because only a fifth of French senators are directly hiring some first-degree relatives, and that's not a lot. It used to be more in the past. And that of course is ridiculous. Nobody should hire his or her direct relatives. And therefore what happens in times of low normative constraints, when people simply don’t care, or they don’t watch politics, [is that] whoever is in power and has too much power, does [what] French politicians have done; somebody lost [the presidential] elections in France last year because he has hired his wife and his two children as his personal aids in his electoral campaign. So no, no nation is born corrupt. And no people want to be abused by their rulers. Not even the most primitive, illiterate people. People know when they are abused, and they do not like it.


And what are the lessons that Ukraine should learn from the example of Eastern European countries, which have been successful [in] combating corruption?


Well, I think Ukraine was very close this time to learning these lessons, [after being] very slow at learning them. Because the successful Eastern European examples which are, in particular, Estonia, have been around for quite a while. And if Ukrainian rulers would have wanted to do what Estonia had done, they had a pool of opportunities, but they didn't do it. Meanwhile, there is the most recent example of Georgia, and I know that Ukraine tried to learn from Georgia. But I think Ukraine should actually do more. And in particular it should do more in terms of a Georgian administrative revolution, an administrative simplification and transparency. There are quite a lot of lessons that Ukraine can still learn. There are very close examples that can be culturally transferred. It's not easy to do what whomever else did, but doing what [worked] best in Eastern European countries is something that is accessible to Ukraine. And I would insist on this.

Mariia Ulianovska is a Hromadske contributors. The original version of this article was published on Hromadske, a Ukrainian internet TV and multimedia organization. TOL has done some editing to fit our style. Reprinted with permission. All images courtesy of Hromadske. 
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