Corruption is an affliction that blights much of the world. A perception study last year by Transparency International found that two-thirds of the world’s countries score below 50 on a scale from zero (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean).
For many former communist countries still undergoing a period of cultural and institutional transition, corruption is a major barrier on the road to achieving its goals. It hinders competitiveness and makes investment decisions more difficult, while adding additional layers of cost and diminishing the ability for countries to provide adequate levels of welfare for their citizens.
Despite its shortcomings, one of the greatest single achievements of the European Union has been its success at mentoring and assisting former communist and Soviet states in their bid to transition to a functioning Western style democracy.
Romania is an interesting example of this process. Following the country’s accession to the European Union in January 2007, the country’s efforts to tackle corruption were modest at best. An investigation in 2012 into corruption levels in Romania by the European Commission expressed serious concerns over the political situation and the ability to comply with fundamental principles of the Union.
Recently, however, evidence of progress has been more encouraging. Last year, the country’s National Anticorruption Directorate (NAD) successfully convicted 1,138 leading public figures, including top politicians, businessmen, judges and prosecutors. Furthermore convictions against high-level politicians and businessmen saw a significant increase compared to 2013; a shift in the anti-corruption drive that has continued into 2015 and has had a substantial social impact. A 2015 poll suggested that 60 per cent of Romanians trust the NAD, in contrast to only 11 per cent who express trust in parliament.
Perhaps the most high profile individual to be tainted by the clampdown on corruption is the country’s former Prime Minister, Victor Ponta, who stood down last month following mass protests triggered in part by charges of fraud, tax evasion and money laundering leveled against him. Other notable examples include Romanian media mogul, Adrian Sârbu, who was charged last year with tax evasion, money laundering and embezzlement and who is expected to stand trial in February 2016.
Ponta and Sârbu’s cases are particularly interesting as they indicate the endemic nature of corruption as well as its ability to traverse national borders with seeming impunity. One of Sârbu’s most notable business partners was Ronald Lauder, former US ambassador to Austria and son of the cosmetics tycoon Estée Lauder. Quick to identify the significant opportunities presented by the nascent media industry in Eastern Europe, in 1994 Lauder founded Central Media Enterprise (CME). By 1997, the news and entertainment company owned TV stations in Slovenia, Romania, Slovakia and Ukraine.
According to the New York Times, in Ukraine Lauder engaged with two local businessmen, Vadim Rabinovich and Boris Fuchsmann, whom the FBI and European law enforcement agencies suspect of having ties to Russian organized crime. In 2001 CME was investigated by US federal prosecutors over allegations it paid at least $1 million in bribes to Ukrainian officials for a valuable television license. These connections and allegations culminated in the magnate facing a lawsuit seeking $750 million in damages filed by rival broadcaster Perekhid Media Enterprises Ltd.
These examples demonstrate that while country’s like Romania have much work still to do in addressing rampant corruption, the fact that even serving Prime Ministers and leading international businessmen are no longer free from the spotlight of the justice system is enormously encouraging. The European Union deserves at least some credit for this transformation. It must not allow progress to slide.