Politicised institutions are key obstacle to fighting corruption in Montenegro

Montenegro has on the face of it made good progress in adopting anti-corruption laws, but frequent political scandals suggest they are not being implemented. Jovana Marović, Executive Director of the Politikon Network, a think tank based in Podgorica, and a member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG), argues that – in the absence of effective law enforcement – public officials and politicians feel they can act with impunity.

Any evaluation of Montenegro’s anti-corruption efforts to date should start with the changes in the law. A whole set of new legal solutions saw the light of day under the auspices of the European Union’s conditionality policy and the country’s aspiration to get closer to this supranational community. However, more than seven years after the start of accession negotiations and with the membership perspective still uncertain, Montenegrin institutions have stopped even simulating reforms. The new legal solutions have produced no significant results, and some laws have even been changed for the worse.

The most recent example is announced amendments to the law on free access to information which introduce the so-called abuse of the right of access to information. The proposed provision allows an institution to deny an interested party’s request and refuse to make a document or information available on the grounds that the request is “unfounded or unreasonable”. The proposed changes also introduce the possibility for institutions to determine whether or not information is of public importance, and accordingly whether or not it is necessary to publish it. If these amendments pass, it will not only (again) call into question the country’s commitment to reform, but will also spoil civil society’s efforts to control the government and help combat corruption.

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Civil society needs support to fight corruption and organised crime in the Western Balkans

Civil society organisations (CSOs) and investigative journalists in the Western Balkans are critical to raising awareness about fighting corruption and organised crime, as well as supporting state authorities to develop effective strategies. But they lack capacity and resources to address these complex issues, while activists are often harassed and intimidated by the authorities and other powerful individuals. As Andi Hoxhaj (Teaching Fellow in Law, University of Warwick) explains, support from international organisations – both funding and security – is critical.

A rally in Belgrade, Serbia. Credits: Ne Davimo Beograd.

Corruption levels in the Western Balkans are stagnating. Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia saw perceived corruption levels rise in the past year, while Bosnia and Herzegovina remained on the same level, and only North Macedonia witnessed a slight improvement, according to the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) 2018 of Transparency International. Notwithstanding the CPI’s limitations, it gives a useful snapshot of the situation.

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Montenegro: Captured by Corruption

In the first of a series of posts by investigative journalists and civil society activists working on exposing corruption in the Balkans, Milka Tadić Mijović (President, Centre for Investigative Journalism of Montenegro) discusses impunity in Montenegro and the complicity of the West.

Montenegro. Photo credits: Jarek Jarosz, via a CC BY-NC 2.0 licence.

Last spring, a woman in Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, was shot in the leg in front of her apartment. Had the bullet hit the artery an inch further, she could have died. That woman, Olivera Lakic, an investigative journalist who has revealed links between top officials and cigarette smugglers, is still on sick leave. Montenegro is globally known for cigarette and heavy drugs smuggling.

Around Christmas a few years ago, a strong explosion erupted at midnight. The bomb exploded outside the office of the Editor-in-Chief of the daily Vijesti, the most influential newspaper in the country. Just a minute earlier, the editor had left the office. Had he stayed, he might have not been alive anymore. Nobody was held responsible for that crime either.

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Strengthening the rule of law in the Western Balkans: Why should the EU care?

One of the main conditions set by the EU for aspiring members in the Western Balkans is to strengthen the rule of law, but the success of these efforts has so far been relatively limited. Drawing on a new study, Tena Prelec (Doctoral Researcher, University of Sussex) explains some of the major challenges that exist in the region and outlines why promoting the rule of law should continue to be viewed as a key priority for the EU.

Many of the most pressing rule-of-law related issues are deeply embedded in the political, economic and social structure of the countries of the Western Balkans. Tackling them is no easy matter and requires multi-faceted solutions: the coveted trophy of fostering better governance cannot be achieved within a few months’ time, nor even in a five-year period (such as the length of an EC mandate). Instead, it needs a strategy that will skirt short-term victories in favour of long-term gains, while providing clear benchmarks, fair reward and punishment, and the use of uncompromising language in calling out abuses. The Balkans in Europe Policy Group study “Strengthening the Rule of Law in the Western Balkans: Call for a Revolution Against Particularism” sets out a wholesome strategy addressing the matter from an institutional, political and sociological perspective.

But, why should EU member states be interested in this topic? From a practical standpoint, it is understandable that European Union leaders and officials are sometimes reluctant to prioritise painstaking work that would only bear fruit in the long run, preferring to focus on maintaining stability (or the appearance thereof) and on more achievable successes. On top of the clear benefits for the Western Balkan countries, however, there are a number of pragmatic reasons – next to a host of loftier ones – why the European Commission, and indeed all the member states of the European Union (including the ‘outgoing’ UK), should be interested in ensuring that a comprehensive revolution against state capture and corruption takes place in EU accession countries.

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The funding of politics and the challenge of tackling corruption

The SCSC’s Sam Power, an ESRC-funded PhD student, writing his thesis on the complex relationship between party funding and corruption, comments here on the challenge of getting the funding of politics right …  

On 3rd February the EU published its first Anti-Corruption report which promised to provide a ‘clear picture of the situation in each Member State’ (see the full report here). Looking over the ‘national highlights’ (because thankfully irony is still alive and kicking in Brussels), the UK actually does pretty well. TI-UK’s Robert Barrington is right that the report breaks little new ground, but it does serve to bring some corruption issues into sharper focus (see Robert Barrington’s analysis here). Amongst various recommendations, such as enhancing preventative measures to address risks of foreign bribery and further strengthening accountability in the governance of banks, is the notion (very much in keeping with the TI-UK line) of capping donations to political parties. This is unsurprising, one thing that is not in short supply in the UK are myriad party funding scandals and when they occur arguments about party funding reform inevitably come to the fore. The solution of capping donations, however, is one which may not be quite as cut and dry as both TI-UK and the EU might believe.

An excellent blog on the Channel Four news website outlines a report from the UK’s Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) which proposed a shake-up of the way in which political parties were funded (see the C4 blog here). Again the suggestion was a cap on donations, however the blog outlined a key point which is that a cap is tantamount to an increase in, or at least a move towards, state subsidisation. The argument here is not that state subsidisation of political parties is undesirable (although there is significant debate surrounding this), it is simply that it is an implicit effect of a cap on donations. Indeed, as the CSPL report states, ‘if the public want to take big money out of politics, the only way to do so is a cap on donations. It is unrealistic to expect to be able to do that at a level low enough to achieve the objective without at the same time increasing public support’. The question is whether the British public would support further funding an institution for which they have little trust in the first place. The TI Global Corruption Barometer 2013 showed that when asked which ‘institutions were corrupt/extremely corrupt’ it was found that 66% of respondents judged political parties to be corrupt/extremely corrupt, whereas 55% of respondents believed the same of parliament and the legislature.

Munich-based political scientist Michael Koβ, in a fascinating book on how party funding regimes change (see here), outlines a survey undertaken by the Electoral Commission in the UK in 2003 in which only 23% of respondents supported even partial state funding to political parties even though 70% of respondents believed that private donations could buy political influence. Indeed, one could argue that the UK is in an uncomfortable paradox; state subsidisation of political parties is not broadly supported in part because of the perception the public has of political parties. Which is in part because of the ‘damage’ that has been done to these institutions due in part to corruption scandals. This view of parties (and politics) as predominantly corrupt and self-serving means that an increase in state subsidy will most likely be seen as, put bluntly, an outrageous waste of public money.

So what is to be done? It is a common solution (the more unkind might say cop-out) to suggest an improved discourse between parties, the media and the public. The recommendation of the Channel Four news team is along these lines, and it has to be said it is one I have some sympathy with; ‘people cannot look in disgust at how parties are funded, but object to the solution: a measure of state funding that takes suspicion out of the equation’. However, there remains a problem with this line of argument. The analysis of Channel Four, the CSPL, the EU and TI seems to make an assumption that state funding creates a system which is necessarily less corrupt than private funding, there is very little proof, academic or otherwise, that this is the case. The move to a greater system of state subsidisation because of (perceived or actual) corrupt linkages is a move which promises no guarantee of an actual drop in levels of corruption. This ignorance is perversely linked with a relative consensus that, as Koβ argues, a key driver of a change to party funding regimes is the reliance on this very notion of corrupt linkage.

My argument is not that a cap on donations will have no effect on corruption in political finance, but rather that there is no proof that it will help. In fact it might just lead to a different type of corruption. I am further suggesting that were a change in the UK to occur, quite how this believed drop in corruption would manifest itself, both in actuality and in public perceptions, is anyone’s guess. Images of a ‘British public’ reenergized by a healthy respect for the political process as a mysterious fog of corruption lifts from Westminster the moment a bill capping donations gets passed probably falls into the realm of ‘unrealistic expectation’. In short, I am advocating for an increased research focus on different types of party funding regime and whether this leads to different types of corruption as well as an improved discourse between the media, parties and the public regarding corruption in the UK. It is a conclusion that even the kinder among us might still none the less call a cop-out.        

Sam Power 

Corruption By Degree: China’s Crackdown Moves to the Academic Sector

The financial crisis of 2008 brought China’s decades-long reliance on cheap manufacturing exports to induce extraordinary growth and savings rates to a spluttering end. The plan henceforth is to stimulate domestic-led growth through science and innovation. The result is that China’s universities and research community is now more important than ever within the broader Chinese national vision and economic reforms. And hence, the academic sector is now in view of China’s corruption investigators. This piece introduces the nature of the corruption, and some examples of the ongoing crackdown.

Corruption in the academic sector in China applies mainly to capital expenditure, admissions and staff promotion. The least complex and most common area of corruption is said to be within campus-related construction and the purchase of goods and materials. University budgets for campus modernization have recently expanded. Related contracts have been awarded in some cases without proper tenders. This produces opportunity for nepotism and embezzlement of funds, which is said to take place with collusion from local and provincial officials.

Student admission processes are similarly said to be imperfect. Universities have permission to select a minority of students via interview and other selection methods, rather than through the national entrance examination process. It is this intake quota that is the most open for exploitation. In response to accusations of unfair entry for some students, the Ministry of Education has called for universities to publish the credentials of their students, including recording of entrance interviews and publishing their entrance exam scores. Universities found to be abusing the propriety admission process may be excluded from being able to use it. Prestigious Renmin University in Beijing is an example of an elite university that has been caught up in a number of entrance scandals.

The national college and graduate college entrance exams also face persistent threats of corruption. In the national graduate entrance exam held in the first week of January 2014 for example, 223 students in the north-western province of Heilongjiang alone were found to have violated exam regulations. 196 of these cheated using communication devices.

A well-covered case of such cheating involved the Harbin Polytechnic University’s MBA entrance examination. Since such devices are only allowed through with permission from exam officials, it is thought that university officials colluded with training centre officials responsible for hosting the entrance exam. Chinese media reported that some students were led to one room, and others to another, with one room allowing the use of such devices. Two admissions offers are currently suspended, and the entire MBA program on hold.

Within the university sector, it is also reported by Chinese media that promotions, tenure and titles are all available to be bought and sold for the right amount of cash.  Plagiarism between Chinese researchers and from non-Chinese sources is also rife. The Ministry of Education has called for “zero tolerance” to plagiarism. The Ministry of Science and Technology stripped a professor of a national prize in 2011 because of plagiarism.

Illustrating the government’s determination of crackdown on tacit permission given to such activities within the university system, are recent high-level investigations.  In December the Vice-President of Zhejiang University was arrested and suspended on suspicion of occupational crime. The vice president of Sichuan University was placed under investigation for suspected serious discipline violations in December.

China’s higher education reforms follow the 2010 “National Outline for Medium and Long-Term Education Reform and Development (2010-2020)”. This calls for the acceleration of the development of world-class Chinese universities. The success of the plan is necessary for realising China’s broader innovation goals that in their own right are now crucial for China being able to continue raise the standard of living across the country. The degree of success of the crackdown will impact not only the value of a Chinese degree going forth, but also the success of China’s intended economic transformation – and none less thus than the future of the world economy.

Lauren Johnston received her PhD in economics from Peking University, and is an expert on the Chinese university landscape. Indeed, it is unlikely that there are many native English speakers who know more about Chinese universities than she does. Lauren edits an online newsletter Sinograduate that offers in depth analysis of Chinese higher education issues. It is a genuine ‘must-read’ for anyone interested in this rapidly expanding sector. Lauren can be contacted at info@sinograduate.com

For students of voting behaviour, corruption is what they’d call a ‘valence issue’

No one, in other words, sets out to make a case for more corruption.  Indeed, everyone (claims to) want to see less corruption.  The question is subsequently of how to go about achieving that, and not whether the aim itself is one worth achieving.

The ‘valence’ nature of corruption as an issue has not stopped the Aam Aadmi Party (literally, the ‘Party of the Common Man’) from causing quite a stir over the past few weeks in India.  Led by the articulate and approachable Arvind Kejriwal, the AAP caused a storm in a regional election in Delhi in December, gaining 28 seats and a plurality of the vote.  The party’s platform?  To tackle corruption.  Nothing more, nothing less.  After initially refusing to enter government (on account of needing another party to ensure a parliamentary majority), the AAP quickly had a change of heart and took on the challenge.  Delhi, and India, subsequently entered an interesting new chapter in its party political development.

It didn’t take long, however, before the AAP’s opponents were hurling abuse at the new upstart – Salman Khursid from the AAP’s main rival, the Congress Party, called Kejriwal an “anarchist with Jurassic ideas” whilst AAP party members were some of the “worst, stinking third grade people” in all of India.  Even AAP members have begun to join in with the criticisms, senior party figure Vinod Binny claiming that parts of the party manifesto “conned the people of Delhi”.  With friends like these …

The AAP’s recent success in the Indian capital certainly makes for interesting viewing.  Many of the AAP’s policies have a decidedly populist feel to them; giving each and every citizen of Delhi 700 litres of free water, for example, and promising to cut electricity bills by up to 50 per cent.  Much will depend on whether Kejriwal and his colleagues can quickly learn how to govern, and where and with whom they can and can’t make compromises.  History would tell us that the AAP will ultimately succumb to the long-standing dynasties in Congress and the BJP, but Kejriwal has already done much better than many single issue anti-corruption activists before him.  With a general election planned for the middle of 2014, Indian politics will certainly be worth keeping a close eye on.

Professor Dan Hough. Director of the Sussex Centre for the Study of Corruption.