Is the anti-corruption agenda all that it’s cracked up to be?

File Photo of Two Persons Shaking Hands and Exchanging Cash

The fight against corruption is often sold as the pill to end all postsocialist ills. Activists and researchers in Poland, Russia and Ukraine give their views on why we need to challenge it.

( – Editors of Opendemocracy Russia – April 21, 2017)

Recent years have seen a rise in anti-corruption protest movements across postsocialist states. In January, thousands took to the streets of Bucharest in the largest such demonstration since the fall of Ceaucescu. From Russia to Ukraine, Moldova, Poland and Romania, these protest cycles see citizens come together – whether on the square or in activist groups – to demand that public officials do not steal or abuse their positions. These movements are frequently framed in patriotic terms, and, in certain conditions, express anti-oligarchic, anti-communist and anti-authoritarian sentiments.

But is the anti-corruption agenda as we know it stifling other kinds of politics from emerging? There is a common sense hypothesis, found in the rhetoric of prominent opposition figures and the analysis of external commentators, that anti-corruption is the only agenda that can unite otherwise disparate groups of people – disparate by ethnicity, profession, class, education or gender. We cannot morally stomach the deception involved in public theft, it goes, that surely we can all come together to stop it. Likewise, the sense of morality that underpins the populist language against “corrupt people in power” is this agenda’s main ingredient (mass indignation and outrage), rather than any substantive discussion of what kind of polity the people involved actually wish to live in. In this sense, to be against corruption is to be “anti-political” (all politics, after all, is corrupt), and to whitewash other interests and divisions in favour of national salvation.

We ask Marta Tycner (Razem, Poland), Oleg Zhuralev (Public Sociology Laboratory, Russia) and Aliona Lyasheva (Commons, Ukraine) for their thoughts on how to make the anti-corruption agenda truly transformative.

Q: How have anti-corruption agenda(s) evolved in your country? Who do you see as the main groups or actors behind it?

Aliona Liasheva: The anti-corruption agenda has been an important part of Ukrainian politics for years. For instance, during the “Without Kuchma” mass protests at the beginning of the 2000s, one of the main questions that brought people onto the street was the president’s corruption as exposed by the “cassette scandal” – a leak of recordings of the president’s conversations with top bureaucrats of the country.

Later during the Orange Revolution in 2004, anti-corruption policies became one of the main ways the Ukrainian state was to be transformed. Terms such as “lustration” became really popular in political debates. Hundreds of bureaucrats were fired, hundreds of enterprises investigated.

Since 2014, and Ukraine’s deeper involvement in relationships with the EU, the fight for transparency is also being pushed on the international level. But for some reason all this just doesn’t work. Just last week, Ernst and Young rated Ukraine as the most corrupt country across 41 states with developed or developing markets in Europe, Middle East.

Why don’t the state’s anti-corruption strategy and numerous civil society anti-corruption initiatives work? I believe the dominant discourse on corruption in Ukraine fails to explain (and consequently change) the social roots of corruption. It fails to recognise that a top state official who is lobbying for policies profitable for her family business is not the same as a doctor who is earning a bit more than $100 and takes bribes just to feed her family.

Micro-corruption and macro-corruption are not being distinguished, even though the reasons behind these phenomena are quite different. Corruption on the macro level, namely the interconnection between big capital and the state, is being equaled to corruption on the micro level, presenting chocolates or wine to your doctor, teacher or low-level official. If the first is the way the oligarchs protect their business by state power, the second is a survival strategy of the oppressed that is often an act of perverse solidarity.

Marta Tycner: In Poland, the communist era, with all its dreadful economic failures and other problems, was a time when great effort was expended towards ending the role of eastern and central Europe in the international division of labour (not the first, but probably the most successful). Connections to the west were cut and a huge industrialisation programme was introduced.

With the transition to capitalism, this territory’s semi-peripheral dependency returned again in 1989-1991. Recent struggles against corruption trace their roots to this time of transition. The unclear ways in which public property was transferred to private hands, both local elites/ oligarchs and foreign predatory investors, resulted in justified accusations towards certain groups of people of gaining wealth and power in a suspicious way. One could argue that what happened in the early 1990s in post-communist states was an extremely rapid process of primary accumulation of capital, and it was only rarely linked to “personal merits” of the new local capitalists, rather than friends and connections in the right places.

This obviously differed from country to country. In Poland, the group of people who “achieved everything with their hard work and entrepreneurship only” is larger than in, say, Ukraine or Russia. Oligarchy never existed in Poland as the true and only system of government. Yet in terms of the general picture, the differences are not that important: the key is that a large part of the society felt betrayed by those who benefited from the transformation.

What is interesting in the Polish case is that the Polish political class went through one round of cleansing of the system, which didn’t change much in terms of political logics. In 2002, the post-communist government fell after a huge corruption scandal was made public. The post-communists were chased by liberal and right-wing politicians who acted hand in hand, and who promised to clean the system once in power and persecute the “fake social democrats”. But the promised coalition was never founded. PiS, the party which governs Poland now, formed a government with two smaller partners and began the “fight against the corrupt system” on its own. It resulted in founding a special anti-corruption agency (CBA), which, with its huge powers, attempted to run spectacular arrests of corrupt figures. PiS clearly overdid it when they chose their own coalition partners as targets in their anti-corruption crusade and when Barbara Blida, one of the arrested former post-communist MPs, took her own life in 2007 during arrest procedures at her home.

Since 2002, Poland’s political scene has been divided between two parties of “people of clean hands” originating from the pre-1989 anti-communist opposition. Did it make the preoccupation with corruption disappear? God no! The two groupings, PiS and PO, like in a toxic family where some roles need to be played even if the ones who staged them first are long dead, enact exactly the same deadly fight characteristic of peripheral capitalism.

With the absence of the post-communists, the liberals very quickly took over the role of the provincial elites and have seen themselves as saviours of the land, bringing the light of the west to the poor and uneducated. For them, the Right is the stubborn and deplorable brakemen of their efforts. In the eyes of their opponents, however, they are acting against morality and betraying the country for the sake of their filthy profit. On the other hand, for those who feel excluded from the gains of capitalism, only the anti-systemic right, PiS, can save the country by turning towards traditions, religion, hierarchical society and isolationism on the international scene.

PiS, both in opposition and now in power, still accuses Polish liberals of the same old sins of the post-communists – betraying the nation, being influenced by the malign propaganda of the west, and, of course, corruption. Out of habit, and to the amusement of foreign observers, they also accuse the liberals of communism and being “left-wing”, thus trying to identify them fully with their original enemy. “Komuniści i złodzieje” (“communists and thieves”) is probably the most common political offense directed towards the liberals.

What has changed are the proportions: national values and anti-leftism are much more in fashion now. Corruption is present, but much less exploited since the last elections, mostly because the roles have shifted – Poland’s “elites” are now in opposition, while the government is formed by “representatives of the common people”.

Oleg Zhuravlev: It’s a paradox, but it’s true: one of the sources of Russia’s anti-corruption agenda is state discourse. Putin at the beginning of the 2000s, with his rhetoric of the dictatorship of law and fighting against the oligarchs, was similar to Alexei Navalny today.

In Russia’s opposition discourse, the discourse of fighting against corruption became particular prominent at the beginning of the “for fair elections” movement in 2011. Indeed, this rhetoric was universal: it united liberal speakers at the protest, ordinary protesters and sympathetic journalists who were defining the agenda. However, what was the cost of unifying these different people? And can we say that the rhetoric of fighting corruption united different social groups?

In my view, in the Russian context, anti-corruption discourse didn’t unite different social groups, but rather many individuals, and hindered the articulation of group interests. The universal quality of this rhetoric wasn’t based on the reconciliation between the interests of different social groups, but, rather, in their levelling out for the sake of an abstract general interest. Why was this rhetoric so attractive if it didn’t represent the “real” interests of social groups?

To my mind, this rhetoric was attractive because it was an effective “justification” for the central conflict between “citizens” and the “authorities”. My colleague Ilya Matveev and I called this means of justification the “politics of authenticity”, whereby the basis for the justice of a struggle against a political regime is not the articulation of conflicting interests, but the reality, the truth of events witnessed. “I saw them stuffing the ballot box,” this phrase was often heard on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow in 2011 during the fair elections protests. The documents and amateur videos that showed the reality of corruption, the clips on YouTube that demonstrated all too clearly the falsifications during the vote counts – these documents endowed the “angry city dwellers” from different social groups with moral legitimacy in their fight against the dishonest regime.

In conditions of depoliticisation, when you have to justify yourself not just for participating in a protest but for being involved in politics at all, the ability to clearly demonstrate the criminality of the authorities becomes an important mechanism of mobilisation.

Q: What role do you think anti-corruption has played in civic mobilisation in recent years? What other concerns or issues has it connected with?

Oleg Zhuravlev: Despite the fact that, as I stated previously, in the Russian context anti-corruption rhetoric has impeded the articulation of social problems (both in the sense of the problems of social groups and problems of social inequality) from the very beginning, nevertheless, the long-term effect of this rhetoric’s “growth” is that the social agenda in the end became more prominent in the Russian opposition public sphere.

The issue is that the problem of corruption touches on the economy and social inequality, and it was precisely the socio-economic agenda that was “washed out” of the discourse of the White Ribbon movement (i.e. the free and fair elections movement of 2011-2012) in favour of the more abstract and moralising themes of rights and freedoms, honesty, truth and lies. The subject of fighting against corruption allowed the opposition to make a move from dishonesty towards socio-economic injustice.

I’ll give you an example. For a long time, the Russian liberal opposition discourse was based on the opposition between the Yeltsin and Putin eras. The first was declared a time of freedom and democracy, and the second – the period that witnessed Russia’s authoritarian turn. Only in exceptional cases were Yeltsin’s attack on the White House in 1993 or the dishonest elections of 1996 interpreted as annoying mistakes which already in the 1990s strengthened Russia’s “power vertical”.

Watch director Valery Balayan’s recent film Who is Mr Putin?, produced in the style of one of Alexei Navalny’s investigations. The film tells the story of how Vladimir Putin and his old boss, the mayor of St Petersburg Anatoly Sobchak, used their powers to drain budgets and illegally sell natural resources overseas – and they did this under the aegis of Egor Gaidar, Yeltsin’s former prime minister and finance minister. This scheme was depicted as the model that formed the foundation of Putin’s state.

In other words, in Balayan’s film, Putin and Yeltsin don’t appear as opposites. Instead, the film asserts the hereditary connection between the Yeltsin and Putin’s corrupt authoritarian regimes. This is why, in my opinion, at a moment when Russia is experiencing harsh neoliberal reforms and repressions, the emerging realisation that the Russian population is being economically exploited by the country’s elites could foster the growth of left-wing, socialist moods.

Marta Tycner: What’s important here is the deep conviction that corruption is built into the very decision-making process in business and politics, be it because of the elite’s moral flaws or because the political system has been designed and governed by them.

Here, corruption scandals are not seen as isolated affairs, as is the case in developed countries, but as an inherent part of the organisation of the state. This conviction is so common that not only anti-system politicians, but also mainstream figures or corrupt oligarchs try to use the declared fight against corruption as a measure to please the public. Still, this should not blur the primary role corruption plays as one of the key reproaches of “common people” against their provincial elites.

This situation makes the political debate in peripheral countries develop around very specific divisions. The part of society that benefits from the peripheral situation supports general openness of the country, chooses to assimilate to the culture of the comprador elites, and so on. They identify their own welfare with the welfare of the society as a whole, and are blind to how the close and unrestricted bonds between centre and periphery create disadvantages to the general population.

In response, the part of society that is disadvantaged by this situation turns towards ideas like social closeness, locality, traditional values, common sense, honesty of simple people and so on. If we take a look at the political movements in periphery countries, the most striking dividing line is the answer to the following question: should we as a country (blindly) follow the example of the centre, or rather isolate and seek remedy in “homegrown values” (tradition, religion, etc.)? We can see this as a specific form of class struggle oriented around the real interests of people, even though it’s articulated in cultural rather than economic terms.

Aliona Liasheva: Macro-level corruption isn’t going anywhere in Ukraine – this would mean a complete change of the socio-economic structure established in the 1990s.

I will give an example from the sphere that I research, Kyiv real estate. We have two major state, and several private development companies operating on the city’s real estate market. Having different status, these companies represent the merger between private and public spheres, which results in an absence of any democratic dialogue about how the city is going to be developed.

State companies serve the private interests of their top management. Being part of the state, they have power to decide where, what and how to build.

As a consequence, highly profitable urban spaces are occupied by highrise blocks that ordinary residents of Kyiv are not able to afford, and just a part of the profits from this urban development is going to city budget, everything else often settles down in offshore companies. The private development companies, even the really small ones, have connections with the state institutions, otherwise they would not be able to do business, as the bureaucratic procedures to legalise privatisation of land or housing development of are extremely complicated.

So if one wants to develop property, she has to overcome the bureaucracy by paying bribes or doing some favours for public officials. Often heads of the real estate companies hold positions in state institutions. Such a configuration of private and public actors helps the Ukrainian elite to protect their business, both from smaller local and international players, which are unable to invest, privatise or win a tender as they do not have the necessary connections and are not connected to the right circles. Ukraine’s real estate sphere is one of the most extreme examples of micro-level corruption, but similar process are going on in various other spheres.

Moreover often corruption of the elites is being covered by nationalistic rhetorics. Especially the conflict in the East has contributed to this. Companies connected to Igor Kolomoysky from the very beginning of ATO are winning tenders of the Ukrainian army, supplying them with petrol, ammunition, etc. But any criticism of this corruption would be considered as pro-Russian propaganda – this creates just perfect conditions for such a business to flourish.

Contrary to this interconnection of the state and big capital, micro-level corruption is an outcome of the hidden or grey neoliberalisation of the state institutions. Healthcare might be the best example. Cuts on state spendings for health care system combined with performance of free healthcare system leads for complete corruption of these services. On the one hand, as doctors, teachers, small-level public servants do not have a chance to earn a decent salary legally, the only thing left to do is to take bribes. On the other, those who are unable to pay the bribe or use the private services that public hospitals can not provide find themselves excluded. In order to include those not having access to healthcare the state investments are to be raised up, of course, together with rising up of the quality of the services. The opposite is done now – the healthcare system is being privatised. This might fight the microlevel corruption, but will make access to the medical services even worse than now. This leads to a question: is the microlevel corruption to fight by making it legal?

Apart from the anti-corruption agenda failing to distinguish between corruption on the macro and micro level, it is also takes away the focus from questions of equality to questions of legality, which might intersect, but not always. For example, President Poroshenko became the “star” of Panama Papers scandal – together with other Ukrainian oligarchs, he completely legally evades paying taxes. No need to explain why this is damaging well-being of Ukrainians, being absolutely legal practice.

Q: Anti-corruption agendas can be co-opted by state agencies and oligarchic and/or moribund opposition platforms. What dangers of this kind do you see in your country? How can these be resisted?

There is the sense that anti-corruption is a universal agenda, one that can attract many people – regardless of their differences – on the basis of morality, inequality and patriotism. What sticking points do you see for movement-building and politics in general in connection with anti-corruption?

Oleg Zhuravlev: We should note that corruption is perceived differently across the post-Soviet space.

Comparative research between Bolotnaya and Maidan, carried out by PS Lab, showed that, while Russian protesters in 2011-2012 perceived corruption as a certain “systemic problem”, which, if removed, would lead to the appearance of courts, the rule of law, social guarantees and democracy all by themselves, in Ukraine in 2013-2014, corruption was seen as the means by which the Yanukovych elite subjugated a powerless and economically unprivileged population.

In other words, for the Maidan public sphere, corruption was viewed more in a class-oriented frame. This fostered the formation of a poor and powerless “people”, similar to that in the “We are the 99%” protests in America. (Later this image, much like the anti-corruption rhetoric, was taken up by nationalists, who now predominate in the public sphere in Ukraine.)

I think the examples of Ukraine and Russia show that the politics of anti-corruption has two sides to it -it can be seen within the framework of liberal discourse, but it can also be seen in class-oriented rhetoric. I hope the future favours the latter.

Aliona Liasheva: In Ukraine, the anti-corruption discourse has been completely taken over by ruling elite and the cluster of society that supports neoliberal reforms. On the one hand, fighting corruption successfully helps the country’s leadership to simulate reforms in front of the EU and IMF in order to continue receiving credits. On the other, it helps them to strengthen the power vertical – any state governor is corrupt (as she is a businesswoman at the same time), but if she does something non-acceptable for the leaders of the country, she might be blamed publicly for being corrupt and thus lose her position.

Still, as it is becomes more and more obvious that the Poroshenko government is not even slightly less corrupt than the previous one, and the anti-corruption agenda is broadly popular among Ukrainians, there might be a chance to redevelop the understanding of corruption from below. Examples of this are rare, but they do exist, such as what’s happening with the trade union activists at Kyiv’s public transport company “Kyivpastrans” who weren’t paid their salary for several months. In this labour conflict, they demonstrated the bureaucratic machinations of the company officials which lead to violations of the employees’ labour rights.

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