Corruption is everywhere and nowhere
December 9 is International Anti-Corruption Day. Started a decade ago by the U.N.’s General Assembly, which states on its website that “corruption is a complex social, political and economic phenomenon that affects all countries…[it] undermines democratic institutions, slows economic development and contributes to governmental instability…[it] attacks the foundation of democratic institutions.” This all sounds good — except for the first part.
There are two escape tunnels in that first sentence. One is that the issue is “complex” (so don’t blame anyone if it takes time — forever? — to eradicate). The other is that “it affects all countries.” It does, but there is a difference between dangerous corruption and the largely trivial amounts, sometimes illegal, spent by British parliamentarians on their expenses or by Swedish cabinet mister Mona Sahlin, who charged her government credit card for a chocolate bar. Most were punished. Sahlin had to withdraw her bid for her party’s leadership, some British MPs were fired, fined or were given (short) prison terms.
Where countries with a functioning democracy and civil society can keep corruption down (but never out), others must live with it as a major, sometimes overpowering, fact of daily life. Eruptions against corruption tend to be massive, even violent. Acting as real-time demonstrations of the U.N.’s declaration, the mass protests threatening the governments in Ukraine and Thailand have corruption at the core of their complaints. The gatherings in Kiev were spurred by President Viktor Yanukovich’s swerve from an association agreement with the European Union toward a closer relationship with Russia. The protesters believe that Yankovich, his family and favored cronies are robbing the people of their state.
In Thailand, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra dissolved parliament on Monday and called a snap election after weeks of protests in Bangkok that brought 150,000 people to the streets. Demonstrators took to the streets in response to the prime minister’s support of an amnesty bill that would have allowed her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, to return to Thailand without facing a jail sentence. His own 2001-2006 premiership ended in a military coup, and he has been mostly in exile since, with various charges of corruption proven or pending against him.
Even so, Thai commentators believe the Shinawatras’ base of support would sustain a majority in the next election — one large reason why the prime minister called for a return to the polls.
The masses are also out on the streets is South Africa, but they are there to celebrate a man — Nelson Mandela — and his grace in forgiving his race’s oppressors while inscribing racial integration into the DNA of the African National Congress. Leading the mourning has been South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, who sought to “reaffirm (Mandela’s) vision of a society in which none is exploited, oppressed or dispossessed by another.” A few weeks earlier, South Africa’s popular tabloid the Star had published pictures of Zuma’s private estate in Nklanda where $19 million of public money had been reportedly spent for renovation. Zuma has been accused of receiving bribes, money laundering and rape — all of which have been thrown out by South African courts. Zuma was fired from vice presidential office for his alleged involvement in corruption by the then president, Thabo Mbeki, in 2005.
The papers were warned not to publish the pictures of Nklanda by the state security minister Sizabonga Ciwele — but the Star and others published anyway, including another paper that ran a headline — “So arrest us.”
Zuma and his allies have sought to portray the press as a bastion of white privilege, but some of his toughest critics, like the columnist Justice Malawa, are black. Malawa has charged Zuma with disgracing Mandela’s legacy and leading the ANC into a “corrupt, factional, paranoid and greedy shadow of its former self.”
The real pace-setters in unsavory government behavior are the world’s biggest states: China, where “corruption among government officials is almost expected,” and India, with its “grinding daily routine of petty corruption.” In both countries, rising popular anger may be forcing changes.
The new Chinese President, Xi Jinping, has launched a high-profile anti-corruption drive — even though his rise to power may have benefited his extended family (though not, as far as we know, himself or his immediate family).
In India, the success of a new grassroots group, the Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party, in elections at state levels in the past few days is said to herald a desire for clean governance. The Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, who is running to be the next prime minister after next year’s general elections, is following Xi’s example by putting corruption at the heart of his pitch, branding Congress as a “dirty team.”
Skepticism is in order for these pledges of anti-corruption. It is also at the heart of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s current program, even though allegations of corruption have plagued him for twenty years, stretching back to his period as deputy mayor and head of foreign economic relations for St. Petersburg in the nineties.
The fact that corruption now forms protests and popular movements in some of the states where leaders are the most suspect is an encouraging sign on the week of anti-corruption day. But to say that “all countries” are in the same corruption boat is to overload the boat and to fail to make a crucial distinction: some states regard even trivial corruption as deserving of rebuke, while others need riots to confront it.
The fact that corruption is often “almost expected” means that much of the time it’s wearily accepted — and only from time to time does the weariness turn to active anger. For some key states, that time seems to be now. Anti-corruption day may mark a celebration driven by citizens in search of their stolen citizenship. May they find and keep it.
PHOTO: Protesters practise tactics to defend themselves from possible police scuffles during a rally held by supporters of EU integration in central Kiev, December 8, 2013. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko