Rethinking Europe, Global HotSpots

As Romania Battles Corruption

Corruption is the most underrated international security threat of our time.

Photo Credit: nrares www.flickr.com

Takeaways


  • The battle over Romania’s future shows that corrupt governments will only change if confronted by their own people.
  • The World Bank estimates that more than $1 trillion are paid in bribes globally every year.
  • Corruption results in political instability, economic deprivation, low efficiency and poor governance.

Every day, major corruption cases are splashing on the front pages of newspapers around the world. Thankfully, corruption is no longer perceived as a “victimless” crime, but as an infringement on the fundamental human right to equal treatment.

World leaders are now paying more attention because they recognize that corruption is not just one of the main causes for economic and social inequality, but for social discontent and potential political upheaval.

Here they go again

The current test case in the headlines is Romania. More than half a million people took the streets nationwide last week to protest against the new government measures to weaken the country´s anticorruption laws.

These demonstrations are clearly aimed at defending the success that Romania has achieved during the last few years in the fight against corruption, and holding the government accountable.

Under massive popular pressure, the Romanian government withdrew its attempt to decriminalize some forms of corruption (when the amount involved was less than $47,000).

Bad numbers

Romania ranks in the 57th position out of 176 countries measured by Transparency International in its corruption perception index.

Even though it is an EU member, not much change in the perceptions of people on the levels of graft and corruption in the country, not much has changed since 2007 when Romania joined the European Union (the ranking in 2007 was 69th out of 179 countries).

The reason why Romanians fight against corruption is because they recognize, as citizens in other, similarly affected nations do, that corruption results in political instability, economic deprivation, low efficiency and poor governance.

Bad for any nation’s balance sheet

Corruption and bad governance are very real liabilities on any nation’s balance sheet. Its consequences are multi-dimensional: democratic, economic, and geopolitical.

Although the cost of corruption may appear to be obique, it ends up costing everyone.

The World Bank estimates that more than $1 trillion are paid in bribes globally every year. Beyond that staggering number, what makes it much worse in real life is that corruption takes a disproportionately heavy toll on poorer and transition countries.

High levels of corruption not only weaken the public institutions. They also diminish the public’s confidence in the very institutions that are designed to protect the public. It thus runs counter to the core tenets of democracy and economic growth.


The case of Romania underscores that corruption is also hurting the European Union (EU). Corruption represents a security challenge. That it occurs in the EU’s fragile Eastern and Southern neighborhood makes it all the more risky.

Corruption and the debt crisis

As if that weren’t bad enough, there is robust evidence that the eurozone´s debt crisis is correlated to the extensive levels of corruption in several Southern European countries.

For example, in Greece, inherited legacies of corruption manifest themselves in the here and now – in the form of weak compliance in tax collection, lack of transparency, red tape and an unfriendly business environment.

These factors are among the main root causes that brought the country in the brink of the financial and economic crises.

High levels of perceived corruption in Greece, which ranks amongst the most corrupted countries in the EU, are associated with tax evasion, therefore undermining the whole basis of the tax collection system .

Refugees and corruption

Beyond the EU countries themselves, the many refugees arriving at — or aiming for — Europe’s shores are a direct result of countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, to varying degrees, having seen many years of an unfortunate diet of bloody uprisings, civil strife, terrorism and economic underdevelopment.

Little wonder that hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing these regions searching for safety in Europe.

In that sense, the refugee crisis is also the result of policy makers in Europe overlooking the endemic corruption that had plagued African countries for many decades. The consequences of this not-so-benign neglect for international security are clear for all to see.

The road to EU membership and corruption

On the Eastern front, state capture and the runaway corruption of Yanukovych’s government were among the main promoters of the Maidan protests in Ukraine.

The country still struggles with the disastrous post-independence legacy of a quarter century of self-inflicted problems of corruption, an unjust rule of law and an economy dominated by oligarchs.

In the Western Balkans, corruption is a scourge as well. Governments there celebrate if and when they move up a couple of ranks in the Transparency International indices.

They fail to see clearly enough that corruption is destroying the future of the average people in the region and hindering the European integration process of their countries.

While the move toward anti-corruption policies progresses at the global level, any move on the policy front is only as meaningful as the political will to enforce them.

The citizens are key to winning the battle

The role of citizens challenging their home country governments is key. The current battle over Romania’s future is only one example.

To clear the air for real over the pestilence of corruption requires far more than relying on technology, the internet, social media and investigative journalism. All of them are useful tools to raise awareness.

Corrupt governments will only live up to the need for serious change if the people make this battle their own fight and leave the corruptors and corrupted no other choice than to give up their illicit ways.

Editor’s Note: The views presented are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent views and opinions of the Department of Defense or the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies.

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About Valbona Zeneli

Valbona Zeneli is a professor of national security studies, and director of the Black Sea-Eurasia Program at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies.

About Joseph Vann

Joseph Vann is the director of the Program in Countering Transnational Organized Crime at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies.

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