Corruption in Eurasia: Transparency International paints bleak picture of anti-democratic decay

Corruption in Eurasia: Transparency International paints bleak picture of anti-democratic decay
“With many democratic institutions under threat across the globe—often by leaders with authoritarian or populist tendencies—we need to do more to strengthen checks and balances and protect citizens’ rights,” according to Patricia Moreira, managing director of Transparency International.
By bne IntelliNews January 30, 2019

For defenders of democracy the 2018 edition of Transparency International’s (TI’s) Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) makes for unnerving reading, with the bleak picture painted of Eurasia only lightened by the post-revolution scenario developing in the small South Caucasian nation of Armenia.

It is a given that a failure to significantly control public sector corruption will expose any country to anti-democratic decay and the CPI 2018 conclusions that were on January 29 issued on Turkey, Central Asia’s “Stans”, Iran, the three South Caucasus nations and Mongolia provide plenty to lose sleep over.

Turkey’s five-year descent
First to Turkey, once seen as a nation at the crossroads of Europe and Asia making clear progress on rights and transparent business that would sooner or later make it a viable candidate for European Union membership. Not anymore. The CPI 2018 presented snapshots of the nation of 81mn’s descent that on a five-year view meant it rated several special negative mentions in the publicity material put out with the latest rankings.

Compared to 2017, there was little change in Turkey’s CPI position and score. For 2018, it was jointly placed 78th with six other nations out of the 180 ranked countries and territories (others given the ranking of 78th included India, Kuwait and Ghana), an improvement of three places from a year ago. Its points score moved up from 40 to 41 (the used scale of zero to 100 defines zero as “highly corrupt” and 100 as “very clean”). Nevertheless, not so long ago, in 2013 to be precise, Turkey scored 50 points.

In a press release, TI thus described Turkey, along with Hungary—another country under a populist administration with its face set against the liberal democracy model—as in a precarious position, saying: “Cross analysis with global democracy data reveals a link between corruption and the health of democracies. Full democracies score an average of 75 on the CPI; flawed democracies score an average of 49; hybrid regimes—which show elements of autocratic tendencies—score 35; autocratic regimes perform worst, with an average score of just 30 on the CPI.

“Exemplifying this trend, the CPI scores for Hungary and Turkey decreased by eight and nine points respectively over the last five years. At the same time, Turkey was downgraded from ‘partly free’ to ‘not free’ [by Freedom House], while Hungary registered its lowest score for political rights since the fall of communism in 1989. These ratings reflect the deterioration of rule of law and democratic institutions, as well as a rapidly shrinking space for civil society and independent media, in those countries.”

“With many democratic institutions under threat across the globe—often by leaders with authoritarian or populist tendencies—we need to do more to strengthen checks and balances and protect citizens’ rights,” said Patricia Moreira, managing director of Transparency International. “Corruption chips away at democracy to produce a vicious cycle, where corruption undermines democratic institutions and, in turn, weak institutions are less able to control corruption.”

Source: Transparency International 

Stench from Azerbaijan
The CPI performance of Turkey’s neighbour and close business and political partner, Azerbaijan, also creates quite a stench on even the most generous viewing. The Azerbaijanis drastically dropped six points on the latest index. The gas-rich nation’s points score declined to 25 in 2018 from 31 in 2017 while its ranking worsened to 152nd from 122nd.

TI observed: “This decline follows a continued crackdown on civil society and independent journalists. Over the last couple of years, the Azerbaijani government has made it immensely difficult for civil society organisations, including our chapter Transparency International Azerbaijan, to accept international funding that would allow them to continue to operate. By tightening access to funds, the government is curbing citizens’ ability to organise and speak out.”

The anti-corruption watchdog, which relays the perceptions of experts and businesspeople in its CPI, also recapped how in September 2017 the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) published an investigation that revealed a $2.9bn money laundering operation and slush fund run by Azerbaijan’s ruling elite. The Azerbaijani Laundromat operation used the siphoned funds to promote the country’s image abroad and distract from human rights violations committed under its authoritarian regime, according to the report.

Azerbaijan also got some special unflattering mentions as TI attacked declines in democracy which go hand in hand with rising corruption. It said: “From Russia to Azerbaijan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan, many democratic institutions and norms across the region are currently under threat—often from authoritarian rule. Governments throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia are failing to preserve the checks and balances that are foundational to democracy and instrumental in controlling corruption.

A pro-democracy rally in Baku, Azerbaijan. Such demonstrations are sometimes permitted but are tightly controlled. Azerbaijan came in for some heavy fire in the CPI 2018 report.

“Corruption thrives where weak democratic practices exist. Combined with a lack of political will to combat corruption in the public sector, countries across the region are undermining the political rights of their citizens. As a result, people are unable to speak out, demonstrate or associate with organisations or activist groups—at least not without fear of consequences. At the same time, corruption locks these countries in a vicious cycle where the ruling politicians have no real incentive to allow for democratisation and strengthening of independent institutions.”

Georgia’s backsliding
Anti-corruption watchdog TI also sounded the alarm over Turkey and Azerbaijan’s neighbour Georgia, concluding that it “faces democratic backsliding, making both vulnerable to high-level corruption and a country to watch moving forward”.

Although the nation on the Black Sea’s eastern coast fared better than any other country in the Eastern Europe & Central Asia region—it placed 41st of 180 assessed countries with 58 points compared to 46th in the 2017 survey with 56 points ”—it came in for some firm criticism from TI.

In a press release on the CPI results, TI said: “Despite an urgent need to investigate cases of corruption and misconduct in the government, Georgia has failed to establish independent agencies to take on this mandate.

“Impunity contributes to public distrust. According to a recent poll conducted by our chapter, Transparency International Georgia, 36 per cent of citizens believe that public officials abuse their power for personal gain. This is up from only 12 per cent in 2013. Progress in anti-corruption will continue to stall and reverse if the Georgian government does not take immediate steps to ensure the independence of institutions, including the judiciary, and support civil society, which enhances political engagement and public oversight.”

Armenia bucks the trend
For possible light at the end of the tunnel, anxious observers must turn to the South Caucasus’ smallest nation, namely impoverished Armenia.

TI, encouraged by Armenia’s post-revolution anti-corruption government, announced the country had gained two places in the CPI rankings. Armenia, which saw a change in government in May last year after a peaceful but relentless demonstration of people power against cronyism and corruption, placed 105th of the 180 assessed countries while its points score remained at 35.

TI stated: “Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Ukraine, Macedonia and Armenia are all the countries to watch over the next few years. Categorised by their challenging political landscapes, only Armenia bucks the trend with a positive change in government.”

In the executive summary accompanying the latest rankings, TI added: “Armenia is expected to begin enacting anti-corruption reforms in 2019. Judicial reform should be at the top of the priority list; a proper separation of powers, as well as the appropriate checks and balances, will go a long way to ensuring these reforms are a success. The role of civil society is also crucial.”

Pressured Iran drops eight places
Armenia’s big neighbour to its south, Iran—like Turkey home to around 81mn people—has seen its reform efforts complicated by the fact that it has come under a sustained sanctions-led economic attack from the US. A big concern for Iran presently is fighting profiteers and speculators seeking to exploit criminal opportunities presented by the market turmoil generated by the Trump administration sanctions regime. Seeking to curb public anger over such crimes, Iran has even set up special courts to deal with such offenders.

The Islamic Republic has nevertheless dropped eight places to rank 138th on the CPI 2018. Its score worsened to 28 points from 30 points in last year’s survey, giving it the same position as Guinea, Lebanon, Mexico, Papua New Guinea and Russia.

Source: Transparency International CPI 2018 presentation on Eastern Europe & Central Asia.

Dismal reality of the “Stans”
The lowest CPI scores for the Eastern Europe & Central Asia have once again been posted by the six “Stans” with Mongolia (listed as Asia Pacific by TI but included as Eurasia in bne news coverage) faring a little better.

“Unsurprisingly, given its average score of 35 [compared to the global average of 43], Eastern Europe and Central Asia is the second lowest scoring region in the index, ahead of Sub-Saharan Africa which has an average score of 32,” noted TI, adding: “With this dismal reality in mind, a disturbing trend is emerging. Highly corrupt countries that score poorly on the CPI also tend to have fragile democratic institutions and their citizens have weaker political and civil rights.”

“In many post-Soviet countries, checks and balances do not exist that would ordinarily keep powerful private individuals and groups from exerting exceptional influence over government decisions. In these settings, illicit lobbying practices take place and conflicts of interest go undisclosed,” it added.

Although it only gained one point—taking it to 37 in 2018 from 36 the year before—Mongolia managed to move up 10 places to 93rd on the CPI 2018 ranking.

Kazakhstan slipped from 122nd to 124th with its score unchanged at 31, while Kyrgyzstan improved three places to 132nd. Its score of 29 was also the same as what it was awarded the year before.

Further down the rankings are Uzbekistan at 158th with 23 points (2017: 157th & 22), Tajikistan at 152nd with 25 points (marking a significant gain on 2017’s 161st & 21) and trailing in last as the entire region’s worst performer, Turkmenistan, which placed at 161st with 20 points (2017: 167th & 19).