According to all relevant international indices, countries in the eastern half of the European continent are worse off regarding corruption than the ones in the western half. For instance, Transparency International`s Corruption Perception Index (itself used also as the basis for measuring corruption within the Freedom Barometer Index) shows that, in 2018, “old” EU members (so-called EU-15) scored between 88/100 (Denmark, itself the best in the world) and 45 (Greece), while the EU members which had been accepted to the Union in this century scored between 73 (Estonia) and 42 (Bulgaria). At the same time, EU candidates or aspirants from Balkans and from Caucas scored between 58 (Georgia) and 36 (Albania). Average scores for those groups of countries would show even more difference. Not to mention countries in Europe whose political leaders and many social dignitaries openly reject the very concept of rule of law (such as Russia, with its meagre score of 28/100).
Historical heritage (whereby rule of law was an unknown concept) and entrenched traditions, or the mentality inherited from the communist past, or challenges of the unfinished transition into a European system of market economy and rule of law, or all those together, make those countries still disproportionally vulnerable to corruption. Populist and/or authoritarian tendencies in some of the recently accessed EU members - as well as in some EU candidate or aspirant countries in Balkans or in Caucas - worsen the situation and often reverse the initial success in establishing rule of law and transparency in public affairs.
Politicians often default on what citizens expect
The results in fighting graft increasingly fall short of the expectations of citizens of those countries. Corruption in all its forms (and uncertainties that it brings into the life of an ordinary citizen or entrepreneur) is a non-neglect factor in the giant exodus of people (not just the most educated but almost anyone who can emigrate) from the east to the west of the European continent, which itself is causing serious brain drain or even overall depopulation of numerous areas in transition countries. Not to mention that corruption directly slows down economic development and farther disturbs the anyway shaky political and social stability.
The discrepancy between expectations of citizens and the actual performance of the ruling elites in fighting corruption is perhaps most drastic in Romania. In 2007, when accepted into the full membership of the EU, Romania and Bulgaria were considered as “sick men” of the EU, accused of having had “sneaked” into it for mere geopolitical reasons. Meanwhile, Romania reformed rapidly while Bulgaria more slowly. After a fire in a disco in Bucharest in autumn 2015, caused by corruptive practices in fire-security, the mood of the broad public has changed to a degree that corruption has become, ever since, the most important public concern in Romania, as seen also through mass rallies in the capital.
However, the government in Romania took the opposite direction, by mitigating penal code obstacles to graft, as well as by sacking some of the most prominent institutional fighters against it, such as the chief prosecutor of the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) Laura Codruťa Kövesi, or Attorney General Augustin Lazar.
EU acknowledges what mother-countries sometimes miss
Laura Kövesi is on the way of getting much of the needy and deserved compensation (along with an opportunity to do even more at the EU level) by likeliness of being appointed, in the forthcoming term, as the head of the European Public Prosecutor`s Office (EPPO), i.e. as the chief EU prosecutor. Meanwhile, judicial proceedings against herself (for alleged misuse of office and/or illegal methods in fighting corruption) in Romania ended with no guilt found.
At the same time, EU decided to end its monitoring scheme in Bulgaria, while continuing with it in Romania, through so-called Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (itself established after 2007, amid concerns over the above mentioned two countries` alleged unfitness for EU membership). With it, a clear signal was sent that Bulgaria was advancing (however slowly and painstakingly) while Romania was stagnating (or reversing) on the path of curbing corruption and establishing rule of law.
In the neighboring Hungary, it was citizens who sent a strong message to the current ruling majority with its increasing state capture (manifested also through covert alliance between the ruling party and huge domestic proxy business groups), by electing opposition candidates to Mayoral posts at the recent local elections, in the capital Budapest as well as in several other big towns.
Also neighbouring, Serbia faces serious obstacles in implementing one of the laws that are critical for a successful institutional anti-graft struggle: the one on the protection of whistle-blowers. Once praised for a very smarty conceived and state-of-art law in the field, the country is now witnessing arrests of a few prominent whistle-blowers, who revealed the conflict of interest, as well as deals that were both non-transparent and damaging to public finance and interests, notably in the “special industries” and/or in the international arms trade. This example tells that without checks and balances in the system, including autonomy of the prosecution and judicial institutions, even the best laws fail to reach the proclaimed goals. Authoritarianism and political voluntarism then simply spill over to the legal sphere and rule of law is seriously endangered. The signal that corruption might go by unchecked is thus sent to thousands of other public officials.
Consistency when using the EU as a “magnet” is essential
The EU, as the main foreign partner of Balkan countries (and their proclaimed political destination) has rightfully linked the accession process primarily to the progress in the field of rule of law (as the biggest problem of those societies). Yet, on numerous occasions, the EU itself proved as inconsistent. One side of the story is tolerating authoritarian political practices, including suppression of media freedom and misuse of state mechanisms for narrow political party gains, such as in case of Serbia, or to that matter also in Montenegro. Another one is failing to notice and reward the progress made, such as in the recent case of postponing the EU accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania, or previous refusal to allow visa-free regime for Kosovo`s citizens (even though all these three EU aspirants had fulfilled all which was initially demanded from them specifically in order to have unlocked their accession process).
The EU, as the most exciting peace and freedom project in the entire to-date human history, is a powerful magnet and irreplaceable “carrot”, both for its current members and for candidates or aspirants, to maintain or establish its values, principles and good governance practices. It has got certain mechanisms of strengthening the rule of law among its members as well as candidates. Those mechanisms will hopefully in future be upgraded to prevent backlashes in the rule of law or in other relevant areas in member countries. But, when it comes to candidates or aspirants to membership, the existing or possible new mechanisms of influence should be more consistently applied, whereby reliability of the EU might prove to be critical.
The siren call of populism and authoritarianism - with its offers for “easy fix” to all social problems should only more authority be given to the political leaders without proper checks and balances - might divert citizens of those countries from the EU enthusiasm (still prevailing in the region) towards authoritarian regimes (and/or models) of Russia, China, Turkey, etc. Authoritarianism and corruption almost always go hand in hand (as international indices could confirm), thus lack of streaming towards the EU for those countries inevitably means getting into a vicious circle of even more corruption, less rule of law and less human freedom.