‘Crooks and Thieves’: The Fight against Corruption in the New East

If there is one problem which has plagued countries of the former Eastern Bloc since the fall of communism it is corruption. Moving from a centrally planned to a market based economy was never going to be easy. However, nearly thirty years later, corruption remains a huge problem for many countries in the New East. Yet, whilst the scale of corruption in the region remains a concern, recent events in Romania give much cause for optimism.

The Attempt to Decriminalise Corruption in Romania

On 31 January 2017, the newly formed coalition government in Romania, led by the Social Democratic Party (PSD), passed a startling decree: financial  misconduct by public officials involving sums of less than 200,000 lei (£38,000) was to be decriminalised. The government argued that this decree was necessary to prevent overcrowding in prisons. However, it was seen as more than a coincidence that one of the beneficiaries of this new decree was the President of the PSD (Liviu Dragnea) who himself faces corruption charges. The response of the public was immediate with thousands taking to the streets of Romania in protest. There were an estimated 12,000 protesters in Bucharest alone just hours after news of the decree spread.

The international community were also quick to condemn the decree which was seen as a deliberate attempt to stifle anti-corruption efforts in the country. In a brief but strong statement (01 February 2017) the European Commission warned that:

‘The fight against corruption needs to be advanced, not undone. We are following the latest developments in Romania with great concern’.

Photograph: Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images

Despite vowing to carry on with the decree, protests continued, calling not only for the scrapping of the decree but the resignation of the government. Eventually the government bowed to the pressure, announcing the repeal of the decree in an emergency meeting on 05 February 2017. Just several days later the Romanian Justice Minister resigned. This marked a huge victory for Romania’s citizens in the fight against corruption, for now at least.

Beyond Romania: Corruption throughout the New East

Arrest of Alexei Navalny at recent protest in Moscow. Photograph: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

However, Romania should not be mistaken as the only country in this region to suffer from corruption.  Other countries such as Russia and Ukraine also suffer from corruption on a shockingly grand scale (nor are countries in Western Europe or countries such as the US immune from corruption). In its most recent Corruption Perceptions Index (2016), Transparency International accords Eastern Europe & Central Asia a dismal average score of 34, indicating a high level of perceived corruption in these countries. Russia and Ukraine fare particularly badly and are both ranked 131 out of 176 for their perceived level of corruption. By contrast, Georgia and Latvia fare much better, both ranked at 44. Nevertheless, this Index demonstrates the scale of this problem in the former Eastern Bloc.

Yet, there remains much cause for optimism. Recent events, not only in Romania, seem to indicate that citizens in the region are fighting back. For instance, a recent corruption investigation by Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny concerning the Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev sparked nationwide protests, with thousands taking to the streets. Finally, it seems that citizens in the region are telling the authorities that enough is enough.

The Guardian, ‘Protesters in Romania denounce plan to decriminalise misconduct offences’, 01 February 2017

TIME, ‘Everything to Know About Romania’s Anti-Corruption Protests’, 06 February 2017

European Commission, Joint Statement of President Juncker and First Vice-President Timmermans on the fight against corruption in Romania, 01 February 2017

The Guardian, ‘Romanian PM to ‘press ahead’ with corruption decrees as protests grow’, 02 February 2017

BBC News, ‘Romania protesters not backing down after decree repeal’, 06 February 2017

The Guardian, ‘Romanian justice minister resigns after angry anti-corruption protests’, 09 February 2017

Transparency International, Corruption Perceptions Index 2016, 25 January 2017

BBC News, ‘Russia protests: Opposition leader Navalny and hundreds of others held’, 27 March 2017




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