Why Newcastle United and anti-corruption in the UK have more in common than you ever realised

2020 is coming to an end. Brexit’s (apparently) been ‘done’. Covid 19 has certainly not been ‘done’, but vaccines are on the way and there is reason to be hopeful that by the end of 2021 it will be a thing of the past rather more than a thing of the present.

Both Brexit and Covid 19 will nonetheless have long-term impacts on politics and policy in the UK (and beyond). One of the many areas where it’s not clear what that impact is likely to be is that of corruption and anti-corruption.

The UK and the Toon Army

Before we can say anything about where the UK is going to go in terms of anti-corruption thinking, it’s worth trying to work out where the country currently sits. Now, that’s not as straightforward as it may appear (although see here and here for good snapshots of what we need to be looking for). Defining what corruption actually is can be tricky, measuring it can be even more problematic. That’s before you even get round to actually enacting successful anti-corruption policies. Given that, where does one start?

Well, when thinking about this recently I began in an unlikely place; with Newcastle United Football Club. Now, I’m not saying that Mike Ashley, the club’s owner, has been up to any particular skulduggery (and that even though his management style is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea), it’s more that Newcastle’s position in the English football pyramid reminds me a lot of the UK’s position in the corruption world. Hear me out on this one.

If you take Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) as your starter for ten, the numbers stack up nicely. In the most recent edition of the CPI the UK is 12th out of 180. Newcastle, meanwhile, are mid-table (currently 13th) in England’s Premier League. If you take the UK government’s definition of elite football as your marker then that translates to being 13th out of England’s 158 elite level football clubs.

The vast majority of English football clubs would subsequently love to be Newcastle. Indeed, a place that high in the football pyramid seems all but a dream for most. The same applies to the UK and its place in the CPI; a place in the top 20 looks a long, long way off for much of the world.

A question of perception

Yet, from Newcastle’s perspective, things must look and feel a little different. There was a time when they were the very best; they are 4 time title winners, 6 time FA Cup winners. But no Newcastle fan realistically thinks those days are returning any time soon. Newcastle look like a club with a rich and decorated history but a future that will see them exist at best as a top flight also ran.

In corruption terms, Britain has never hit the top spot in the CPI. In pre-CPI days the UK certainly did enjoy a reputation for taking probity very seriously. That was never quantifiable, but it was nonetheless widely acknowledged. Is the UK going to be able to turn back the clock and challenge the Nordic countries for the CPI’s top spot? Unlikely.

Losing the love

Furthermore, there was a time when Newcastle United were everyone’s second favourite team. In the late 1990s and 2000s the side played marvellous, attacking football and came close to winning silverware; the likes of Kevin Keegan, Tino Asprilla, Peter Beardsley and David Ginola were not just entertainers, they were more pretty successful. There was lots of good will towards them. No longer. Mike Ashley and the regime he runs has seen to that. Newcastle fans bemoan the lack of investment and they hate the fact that survival in football’s top flight appears to be the only goal.

Read that across to the UK. Once (for many, if not all) an object of admiration, the UK is becoming seen as a something of a chancer that is frequently rather tiresome. The UK used to exude confidence and it had a soft power that was second to none. Four years of ugly Brexit discussions have changed all that. Second favourite team now? Less so than was the case before, that’s for sure.

The same can be said if you bring the issue of finance into the equation. For a number of seasons Mike Ashley has been trying to sell the club and appeared prepared to dip into the murky waters of potential Saudi ownership. The response on Tyneside was muted; potentially bringing in extra cash will always find advocates, but significant questions about the legitimacy of the source were also very much in play. The UK, meanwhile, has increasingly dabbled (and arguably facilitated) the (even murkier) world of global money laundering. It’s no secret that the UK has become a potentially attractive option for those with ill-gotten gains. Two sorry stories.

Finally, even as you get closer to the field of play there are similarities. Whilst political battles take place around the Newcastle boardroom, Steve Bruce, the Newcastle manager, carries on. He’s a competent and under-rated custodian. He’s ‘doing the right thing’ with chaos never seemingly far away. The UK civil service, meanwhile, finds itself in much the same position. Corruption allegations are regularly made against UK politicians, yet UK bureaucrats try relentlessly to keep things on an even keel.

One can, of course, push all this too far. But the similarities do nonetheless seem rather apt.

Dan Hough, University of Sussex

UK reform of confiscation should prioritise bribery, not omit it

The confiscation of criminal proceeds is a key global weapon against corruption, intended to ‘take the profit’ out of the crime – with the aim of returning that money to the public and, hopefully, deterring future corruption. But legal regimes around confiscation vary in the extent to which they embrace corruption, bribery and fraud as appropriate crimes that can trigger confiscation. In this blog post, Tristram Hicks argues that the UK is missing an opportunity to use this tool in the fight against corruption.

The definition of ‘being a criminal’ is currently part of a wider review of post-conviction confiscation by the Law Commission, the public consultation for which has just finished (in December 2020). A key question is whether “corruptors” should be subject to enhanced confiscation measures.

Section 75 of the UK Proceeds of Crime Act, 2002 was originally written to define “being a criminal” in a way that an ordinary member of the public would understand the term. It describes someone like Norman Stanley Fletcher (from legendary TV series Porridge) or Bill Sykes (from Oliver Twist) or even Keyser Söze (from The Usual Suspects). These would all meet the definition in Section 75. It’s a clever piece of law. To qualify as a criminal under Section 75 it’s necessary to be convicted of any listed habitual or occupational crime, such as counterfeiting, drug or human trafficking; or any offence that takes six months or more to commit; or a collection of offences that together produce a serious financial gain.

If a person is convicted under Section 75, the criminal court is allowed to assume that all their assets are the proceeds of crime and confiscate them. There are multiple safeguards, of course, because this is intentionally draconian legislation.

Since 2004 all these convicted criminals, investigated by any agency, such as the Police, Revenue & Customs, NHS Fraud, local authority, Environment Agency or Trading Standards, have all been listed on one database, held at the National Crime Agency.

The Law Commission consultation is therefore important to criminal justice policy makers, legal practitioners, criminal investigators, Chief Officers and Police and Crime Commissioners.

For legal experts reading this post, when I describe “being a criminal”, I am referring to the “criminal lifestyle” provisions of POCA which trigger the “confiscation assumptions”. It is one of the tragedies of legal drafting that this clever statutory definition of “being a criminal” was misnamed “having a criminal lifestyle”, which is not the same thing at all. As a result of this misleading terminology, significant policy benefits have been missed.

This comprehensive list of criminals is part of the Joint Asset Recovery Database held at the NCA. The people listed have had their qualifying status clearly defined and then validated by the rigour of the Crown Court. If your agency’s mission is tackling habitual criminals such as fraudsters, smugglers, corruptors, illicit traders, counterfeiters, money launderers or any criminal motivated by money it’s a really useful list. This could have been used for policy, performance and strategic purposes by multiple agencies, but this opportunity has not been taken up.

The Law Commission say that stakeholders in their pre-consultation raised bribery and corruption as potential candidates for inclusion in Schedule 2. The consultation itself asked for views about Section 75, but proposed that “bribery” and “fraud” should not be included in the list of offences that trigger enhanced confiscation.

This is an odd decision. Including bribery and fraud would make the court’s ability to confiscate much easier and strengthen the toolkit against corruption. You might think that these offences are very definitely the kind of offences committed by habitual or occupational criminals and that they should be on the list; that was certainly the view of the Metropolitan Police Fraud Squad detectives who wrote the early drafts.

The Law Commission argument is that bribery might qualify for enhanced confiscation anyway, if there were multiple offences or a single offence that took a long time to commit. This is a valid argument, but also true of other offences which are included on Schedule 2. It seems that this is really a matter of priority. They are basing their thinking on the handful of cases of bribery overseas under the Bribery Act, 2010, and seem to assume that deferred prosecution agreements rather than real enforcement are the answer.

The consultation report also omits corruption within the UK, perhaps because of the dearth of casework. In fairness the Commission does not have much to go on, in terms of ready information about domestic corruption. The UK has no criminal investigation team dedicated to domestic corruption, nor is there a specialist prosecution office. (The Law Commission has recently reviewed the misconduct in public office common law offence).

The Law Commission effort to modernise legislation is to be applauded, but this particular proposal seems to be a missed opportunity to strengthen an important weapon in the fight against corruption at home and abroad.

The author is a former Detective Superintendent in the Metropolitan Police Service, who spent ten years on the UK Criminal Finance Board, responsible for implementing the Proceeds of Crime Act. He is now an independent international consultant on criminal asset recovery.

An earlier version of this post appeared on the author’s website.

Let’s make sure corruption does not de-rail the vaccine rollout!

At every turn, and all around the world, the covid-19 crisis has created new corruption risks. As we enter a new phase of vaccine roll-out, CSC Director Liz Dávid-Barrett looks at how corrupt and criminal actors are likely to exploit this and how can we head them off.

Photo by Daniel Schludi on Unsplash

Looking around the world, many individuals have exploited the covid-19 crisis for corrupt and criminal ends. News emerged early on of dictators abusing emergency powers to clamp down on civil society. Countless contracts for Personal Protective Equipment for healthcare workers have been awarded to political cronies, often meaning that PPE was substandard, late or never arrived. And even where PPE was delivered to healthcare providers, some of it was siphoned off and sold on the black market.

The vaccine rollout is likely to see similar behaviours, which threatens to undermine the vaccine’s ability to curb the spread of the virus and allow economic recovery to start. If vaccines do not reach healthcare workers, that will make it harder for them to provide care. If vaccines get siphoned off and sold on the black market, many vulnerable people will be unable to access them, and the much-needed herd immunity will not be achieved.

But equally, if people start to worry that the vaccines they receive might be substandard or counterfeit, that could undermine trust and feed the ‘anti-vaxxer’ rhetoric. That would also have very detrimental consequences.

So, how can we get a step ahead and prevent these corruption risks occurring?

First, many countries are creating special commissions for vaccines at national level, which invest in research and development of vaccines or make deals with vaccine providers. While it may make sense to centralise power from an efficiency point of view, it is important that such commissions are staffed by high-integrity figures appointed through meritocratic procedures, and that their decisions are transparent and open to scrutiny. Any special vaccine commission should also have a mandate to reduce corruption risks in the supply and distribution of vaccines as one of its key performance indicators.

Second, the vaccine rollout is going to involve a lot of public procurement – a key risk area for corruption. It is not just vaccines that will need to be procured, but also services for bringing them to a country and distributing them. Planning is the key to good procurement. These contracts should be given out through established framework agreements or streamlined open competitions. And bidders should be vetted to check that they are not receiving advantages as a result of links with politicians or public officials. Contracts should be published, to allow the public to scrutinise the prices.

Third, the government should protect vaccine distribution networks.  They should ensure that there are sufficient storage facilities to keep vaccines at appropriate temperatures and prevent degradation. But they should also provide security for the delivery companies. Criminals will be keen to intercept vaccine deliveries and steal supplies so that they can sell them on the black market. Steps must be taken to prevent this.

Fourth, clinics that are vaccinating patients should be required to keep records about which patients have received a vaccination. These should be regularly audited to ensure that medicines are reaching the intended beneficiaries.

Fifth, governments should invest in communicating clearly about who is entitled to a vaccine and how to access it. This will empower individuals to ask questions should they be denied access, and will make it clear that black-market providers are not part of the regulated system. Buying on the black market brings risks that you might be buying a substandard product, and should be discouraged.

The vaccine has the potential to bring an end to the tragedy and disruption caused by covid-19. Let’s make sure that corruption does not snuff out the light at the end of the tunnel!

NB. Liz discussed many of these issues in a conversation with Onyi Ough, Executive Director of Step Up Nigeria, earlier this week. The podcast is available here.

Reforming UK procurement: the government’s post-Brexit Green Paper

Professor Robert Barrington of the Centre for the Study of Corruption and member of the government’s Procurement Transformation Advisory Panel, looks at the UK’s new proposals for post-Brexit procurement reform – and concludes that, if they are implemented, the UK will have a world-class system

The UK Government has this morning published a Green Paper (ideas for what a new law could include) on how it will reform public procurement post-Brexit.  Leaving the EU has created a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform procurement laws, and the Covid crisis has demonstrated how badly things can go wrong if good rules are not in place.

The UK spends £292 billion each year on buying goods and services; the Financial Times has noted that granting access to this pot of government money is one of the few significant cards the UK holds in striking new trade deals.  Moreover, in a recovering economy, there will rightly be pressure to strike the correct balance between bureaucracy, efficiency, value for money and anti-fraud and corruption safeguards.
The good news is that other countries have already made progress in this field, notably South Korea and Ukraine – both of which were represented on the government’s procurement Transformation Advisory Panel, along with the OECD, which monitors and promotes best practice in this field.

So what does the Green Paper actually propose?  My focus is naturally on corruption, and it is genuinely encouraging that this is incorporated into the paper, acknowledged as a risk, and addressed as such.  I am not an expert in public procurement, so my analysis should be taken with a pinch of salt until the real experts have had a look.  But at first glance, pretty much all the boxes I would have wanted to see ticked are there.  These include:

Transparency by default (para 6) – a key principle that needs to underpin any genuine exercise of this nature

Beneficial Ownership Transparency (para 112) – ‘a new mandatory exclusion ground relating to the non-disclosure of beneficial ownership meaning that bidders who do not state their beneficial owner(s) will be automatically excluded’

Open contracting (Chapter 6) – and specifically the adoption of the Open Contracting Data Standard (OCDS) advocated by the Open Contracting Partnership

Debarment (para 116) – a bundle of reforms that will reward greater scrutiny, but at first glance look like a step-change from where we are today, including a recognition that companies under Deferred Prosecutions Agreements (DPAs) can be debarred

Social value (para 101) – ‘including social value as part of the quality assessment’ – in other words, not always awarding contracts to the lowest bidder when that might have negative social consequences.  This will need some checks and balances to ensure it is not ‘gamed’ but is a very sound principle.

Three areas that need more work:
Tax: it is there – a search reveals 11 matches – but does not resolve the critical tension…should companies that do not pay into the public purse be allowed to take out from it?  Much of the paper follows the thread of being fair on SMEs: but how is it fair if they are paying tax, and a giant supplier like Amazon is (allegedly) not paying its fair share?

Emergency response: the paper asks the right questions but will almost certainly need to do more to cover off all the loopholes exposed by the Covid procurement.

Freedom of information: companies often retreat into secrecy by default, arguing that almost everything they do is commercially sensitive. But if they are delivering public services, there is a legitimate expectation that they should operate under – and not block or evade – Freedom of Information rules.   This is acknowledged in the paper, but as far as I can tell the paper does not make a proposal to apply FoI fully to the private sector when providing or operating public services.

There is lots more to digest- not least the proposal for a new independent monitoring arrangement, which also looks a very positive development, except perhaps in its non-receptiveness to corruption complaints that are at contract level and not at systemic level.  

My conclusion – and again, I may stand to be corrected once the experts have had a look: it is big, and bold, and would give the UK a world class system.  There is a risk that the best parts will be watered down in the consultation; and, as we have seen with Covid procurement, there is a risk that even if the rules are good they will not be followed.  But whether you are for or against Brexit, my take is that – if implemented – these reforms will deliver some of the things that have been long promised for a post-Brexit Britain.  The civil servants and minister responsible, while hoping that the inevitable backlash from vested interests can be seen off, should be quietly patting themselves on the back.

Happy New Anticorruption Year! Five reasons to be cheerful about Anti-Corruption

Fighting corruption is a tough gig. It requires fighting on many fronts simultaneously, against opponents who often don’t play fair, and it takes a long time. But, on the occasion of International Anti-Corruption Day, CSC Director Liz David-Barrett argues that there are at least five reasons for anti-corruption activists to be cheerful:

  1. The Biden administration promises to put global leadership back into the fight against corruption.  Biden’s victory brings an end to four excruciating years in which President Trump rode roughshod over democratic norms, undermining the global fight against corruption by providing cover for kleptocrats and authoritarianism elsewhere. Biden promises to reinvigorate democracy globally and, at home, is taking on the critical area of campaign finance. He also plans to end the practice of anonymous shell companies, a huge step that will make it much harder for kleptocrats to hide their ill-gotten gains.
  2. Investigative journalism is back with a vengeance. A few years ago it looked like journalism was dying out: everyone was making their own news on twitter and nobody wanted to pay for the long-term research needed to uncover misconduct. But recent years have seen the emergence of a new form of global governance institution – the informal networks of investigative journalists (the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Finance Uncovered) that brought us the Panama Papers, the Paradise Papers, and many other exposés of misconduct and kleptocracy. Despite scanty resources, this group has consistently collected and analysed a vast body of evidence that has helped to hold leaders and industry to account all over the world.
  3. Law enforcement is cooperating like never before. Corruption is a transnational crime and tackling it requires cross-border cooperation among anti-corruption agencies and law enforcement bodies. That is working better than ever, with initiatives like the International Anti-Corruption Coordination Centre in London, donors ploughing major funds into building capacity in this area all over the world, and the recently announced Riyadh Initiative set to fill in some gaps and speed up learning among anti-corruption agencies.
  4. Corruption has become a topic in pop culture. This is partly a consequence of the proliferation of scandals, but it has brought debate about corruption into popular culture and got everybody talking. TV series and movies about corruption abound (a couple of my recent faves are Line of Duty and Spotlight). They increasingly tell nuanced stories about how anti-corruption tools can themselves be infiltrated or misused as weapons to discredit opponents and undermine accountability, and they also highlight the courage of those who work to uncover and expose corruption. If anti-corruption professionals are showing up on tv and in the movies as glamorous heroes, that is a sure sign that norms are changing.
  5. The global network of anti-corruption professionals is growing fast. There are swelling cadres of anti-corruption professionals in the public and private sector of many countries, with in-depth expertise about how to tackle complex problems. Some people snipe that anti-corruption should not be its own ‘industry’ like aid or human rights, and as a relative newcomer we should certainly learn lessons about the need for contextualisation. But the presence of a community is especially important to anti-corruption work, because knowing that you are not alone in the fight is critical to overcoming the collective action problem. We see this with our own students on the CSC’s MA programmes and our PhD researchers: our alumni support each other around the world and swap ideas on what works in fighting corruption. That is a big reason to be cheerful!

A post-Nolan future for Brexit Britain: our letter to the Financial Times

Three Professors at the Centre for the Study of Corruption have collaborated with a group of eighteen professors of governance, corruption and public integrity from across the UK, to publish a letter in the Financial TimesCSC Professor of Anti-Corruption Practice Robert Barrington looks at their concerns.

Why do a group of professors get together to write a letter to the FT?  It’s simple: we can discern a very clear decline in UK standards and adherence to the Nolan Principles, illustrated by the Prime Minister’s failure to follow the Ministerial Code, the Covid-19 procurement ‘chumocracy’ and multiple other examples.

The list of run-ins with the Nolan Principles and Ministerial Code over the past year is too long to put in full: legislating to break international law in ‘limited and specific ways’; the resignation of the Prime Minister’s adviser on Ministerial Standards over the Priti Patel bullying; multiple sleaze allegations relating to Robert Jenrick; the threats to the judiciary, the media – notably the BBC – and of a ‘hard rain’ falling on the independent civil service; the political capture of the notionally objective public appointments process; and much, much  more.

Many of these cases and government attitudes have precedents.  What is new is the number of cases and the apparent lack of concern by the government and individuals over what would formerly have been scandals or resignation offences

The eighteen professors who have signed the letter, all experts at major UK universities, are sounding the alarm bell for the UK – a decline in governance standards results in negative impacts for the economy, for national security, for democracy and for a fair society – levelling down not levelling up.  And it does not stop there.  The damage extends to the UK’s international reputation, and therefore its influence in the wider world.

Here is the letter in full:

Letter: It’s time the UK recommits to the Nolan rules
From Professor Elizabeth David-Barrett and othersFinancial Times 08/12/2020

As a group of scholars who specialise in the areas of governance, public sector integrity and corruption, we are writing ahead of tomorrow’s UN International Anti-Corruption Day to express our concern at the apparent reluctance of the current UK government to uphold the Nolan Principles, the seven principles of public life established in 1995: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.

We have studied this subject throughout the world, and what is happening in the UK today has alarming similarities with what we have witnessed elsewhere.

The pattern of ignoring standards of openness, attacking key accountability institutions and subverting governance norms is often the forerunner to a rapid rise of corruption and the self-enrichment of those who hold power.

The UK is by no means immune to this, especially if formal and informal checks and balances in the system, such as the independence of the judiciary and civil service, are compromised or undermined.

Studies elsewhere have shown that diminishing governance standards result in negative impacts for the economy, for national security, for democracy and for a fair society. Rather than “levelling up”, evidence tells us that it leads to “levelling down” with consequences that can span generations.

The chair of the committee on standards in public life recently noted that public standards make the UK a more attractive commercial environment, yet the rating agency Moody’s has cited “the weakening in institutions and governance” as a factor in its recent downgrade of the UK.

With multiple reports of potential conflicts of interest and unaddressed breaches of the ministerial code (Report, November 21), we too feel it is important to sound a warning bell for the UK.

Professor Elizabeth David-Barrett Professor of Governance & Integrity, Director of the Centre for the Study of Corruption, University of Sussex Professor

Paul Heywood Sir Francis Hill Professor of European Politics, School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham

Professor Mushtaq Khan Professor of Economics, Department of Economics, School of African and Oriental Studies

Professor Heather Marquette Professor of Development Politics, International Development Department, University of Birmingham

Professor Jason Sharman Sir Patrick Sheehy Professor of International Relations, Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge

Professor Robert Barrington Professor of Anti-Corruption Practice, Centre for the Study of Corruption, University of Sussex

Professor Martin Bull Professor of Politics, School of Arts & Media, University of Salford

Professor Nic Cheeseman Professor of Democracy, International Development Department, University of Birmingham

Professor Amrita Dhillon Professor of Political Economy, Department of Political Economy, Kings College London

Professor John Heathershaw College of Social Sciences & International Studies, University of Exeter

Professor Sam Hickey Professor of Politics & Development, Global Development Institute, University of Manchester

Professor Dan Hough, Professor of Politics, School of Law, Politics & Sociology, University of Sussex

Professor Alena Ledeneva Professor of Politics & Society, School of Slavonic & Eastern European Studies, University College London

Professor Nicholas Lord Professor of Criminology, Centre for Criminology & Criminal Justice, University of Manchester

Professor Jan-Hinrik Meyer-Sahling Professor of Political Science, School of Politics & International Relations, University of Nottingham

Professor Mick Moore Professorial Fellow, Institute of Development Studies

Professor Christian Schuster Professor of Public Management, Department of Political Science, University College London

Professor Dominik Zaum Pro-Vice Chancellor (Research & Innovation) and Professor of Governance, Conflict & Security, Department of Politics & International Relations, University of Reading

Regime change and the rule of law: Serbia’s lessons to Montenegro

Montenegro’s new government was voted in on 4 December, heralding regime change after almost three decades (although former prime minister Milo Đukanović remains president). Tena Prelec, Research Fellow at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford (and former CSC PhD Researcher), analyses the corruption-related challenges facing the new cabinet.

In autumn 2000, as a man on an excavator became the symbol of the revolt set to dig out the roots of Slobodan Milošević’s authoritarian regime, the ruling elite in Montenegro was just about to enter a new phase of consolidation. Then Montenegrin President Milo Đukanović had recently performed another of his multiple chameleon-like transformations. From Sloba’s ally and long-standing supporter of Yugoslav unity, Milo was about to set the course of a new era for his country: its independence. In doing so, he assumed the mantle of the champion of the Montenegrin nation, garnering support from both Western and Eastern allies.

Twenty years on, the chameleonic good fortune of Milo Đukanović seems to have run its course. An unlikely coalition of opponents, ranging from Serbian nationalists (backed by the powerful bishop Amfilohije, head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro, who won this battle but later lost the one with Covid-19) to green civic parties, and passing through a range of inbetween options, defeated Đukanović’s Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) without resorting to blood-soaked revolutions. To the surprise of many (yours truly included), on 30 August 2020 democratic change in state-captured Montenegro took place through the ballot box. And a little more than three months later, on 4 December, the Montenegrin parliament approved its first ever DPS-less government.

The change of a corrupt government is, of course, no guarantee that a new era of transparency and fuller democracy is to follow. The rise to power of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy (following the Tangentopoli scandal, which seemed to have wiped out the entrenched corruption of Italy’s ‘First Republic’) and that of Jair Bolsonaro in Brasil (after the Car Wash trials, hailed by some as a positive example of judicial activism) are but two recent examples. On the other hand, there are examples of countries where a ‘clean sheet’ did work out: Estonia is one of them.

This Baltic charm, alas, did not quite work in Serbia. The legacy of the two decades since 5 October 2000 is notoriously contested. During my PhD fieldwork, which sought to explain the morphing corruption practices in the energy sector in the post-Yugoslav space from the 1980s to the 2010s, I came across many examples of such disillusion with the new Serbian elite. I was particularly struck by the testimony of a former anti-Milošević activist, who said:

“People were expecting that Serbia would change, they were expecting democratic changes, and did not get anything in return. Their hopes were crushed. I was on the streets with OTPOR. But when you see that everything is done in the same way, that the party officers from the new government are getting hold of petrol when they want, that they are trafficking, that everything is done in the same way as it was done before… this leads to devastation.”

Turns out, manning an excavator in front of the parliament is not enough to uproot the dirt within it. The Serbia of 2000 and the Montenegro of 2020 differ in many respects, not only because of the time distance: while Milošević was soon handed over to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Đukanović still wields considerable power as the President of Montenegro. However, parallels among the two ‘novel’ coalitions run aplenty. Similarly to the political forces about to take power in Montenegro, the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) was a broad church of progressive and conservative (some of them: nationalist) forces, united by the common aim to bring down a strongman. With time, their differences started to matter more, while corruption scandals engulfed the credibility of key members of the coalition.

If the 4 December experiment is to work, or for it to be a constructive interludium while conditions for fuller democratic pluralism are being built, it is essential that Montenegrins take note from their neighbours. There are several lessons that those interested in real change in Montenegro should heed – starting from the below.

  1. Anti-corruption: set the expectations straight…

A country whose state capture has been perfected over the course of three decades can’t be free of it immediately. Rather than overpromising and underdelivering, the new coalition would be better advised to underpromise and overdeliver. Easier said than done, for sure: but the message that a wholesome change in tack in a short time is an almost impossible feat needs to be articulated very clearly. Setting clear and achievable goals should be a priority.

2. …but practice what you preach.

But even more than on the form, it is imperative that the new coalition delivers on the substance: the promised change of tone needs to be underpinned by setting the right example. In this sense, an experience at the local level in the administration of the coastal city of Budva is a cautionary tale. Local elections in Budva in 2016 returned a result that allowed a change of power from the  DPS to a composite majority in the city council, similar in composition to the one now taking power at the national level. From a governance perspective, that experience developed in an alarming way: Democratic Front (DF) politician Marko Carević (who assumed the office of mayor of Budva in 2018) personally profited from public procurement to the tune of €1.9 million. Replicated at national level, this road would lead to secure ruin, as it would prove, in the eyes of the public, that ‘all politicians are the same’ – as summed up in the words of the Serbian activist quoted above.

3. Take particular care to free captured institutions…

A change of blood among the people running the State’s institutions will be crucial for reformatting the country. The new team of ministers was announced as an ‘expert government’: let that statement of purpose not be mere window-dressing, but truly set the tone. The guiding principles of the professionalisation of the institutions, the rationalisation of spending, and the drastic curbing of clientelism should be followed through. Promptly depoliticising key institutions such as the Anti-Corruption Agency would give a strong signal.

4. …but strive towards creating a ‘consensual elite’.

Perhaps counterintuitively, however, the new political leaders must not fall in the trap of purging the state apparatus of any sign of the previous guard: installing the same obedient type of civil servants will do Montenegrin democracy no good. In Serbia, the decision to substitute all the people in charge at state-owned companies created, in certain cases, a gaping hole and “catastrophic lack of professionalism”, as a Serbian energy expert characterised the change of the guard at the electricity utility, EPS, in the early 2000s, which exposed it to even greater rent-seeking practices. An important signal of the changing tide would be to keep in charge figures who stood out for their high-quality work, regardless of their political affiliation.

This course of action has good grounding in theory. Elite circulation (incorporating some elements of the old while allowing space for the new) is said to be characteristic of a consensual elite, which is present in a consolidated democracy. Elite reproduction, which stifles the emergence of new cadres, produces fragmented elites, and is usually present in unconsolidated democracies. The elite development model of replacement or quasi-replacement is, in fact, most characteristic of totalitarian or authoritarian regimes. It follows that the first road should be the one to strive for: a model in which “there is high certainty about the rules and about the practices that flow from them, but low certainty about the political outcomes, with today’s winners likely to become tomorrow’s losers” (Higley and Lengyel).

5. Embrace a global anti-corruption push and set an example for the region

Montenegro is infamous for being a captured state. From the cigarette smuggling with the Italian crime families Camorra and Santa Corona Unita in the 1990s (and later), to Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder in recent years, the country’s involvement in global dynamics of organised crime and corruption has resonated far wider than its own borders – not unlike Serbia’s embargo-busting experience. There are concrete legislative steps the government can take that would place Montenegro at the forefront of global anti-corruption and anti-money laundering discussions. From the setting up of a thorough register of beneficial owners, to setting stricter rules for its sprawling high-end real estate industry (a boon for money launderers), to implementing a Global Magnitsky-style law that would take into account grand corruption as well as human rights abuses, there are ways for the government to show that they are serious about tackling these grave problems head on and potentially turn Montenegro’s bad reputation on its head. While some of these discussions are contained in the EU negotiation talks, Montenegro going the extra mile in this field would be truly significant.

These are but a start…

…as there are, obviously, a great number of challenges that stand in front of the new government. Building a truly inclusive Montenegro – and thus rebuking the insistent criticism according to which Serbian nationalism and Russian influence are those that stand behind the overthrow of the supposedly ‘civically minded’ DPS – is an important one. There is a long way to go in this sense: the recent statements by DF MP Jovan Vučurović denying the Srebrenica genocide are absolutely unacceptable and should be condemned as such. Making good on the promise of keeping Montenegro firmly on a pro-EU and pro-NATO track is another crucial, and related, tenet. Implementing a strong economic programme that delivers growth while ensuring that it balances off inequalities, rather than deepening the divide, is of course key.

But if Montenegro’s new government manages to deliver on the all-important issue of the rule of law, the next one will be better placed to take on these, and other, topics. All the dirt will not be eradicated at once, but it is time for some serious elbow grease. 

This text has been prepared within the project “Strengthening the Rule of Law in the Western Balkans: Old Tools for New Rules” implemented by Politikon Network, in cooperation with Centre for Contemporary Politics, and with the support of the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. This blog was originally published by Politikon Network.