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World: Corruption Is All-Pervasive

  • Askold Krushelnycky

Corruption -- ranging from petty bribery to large-scale fraud -- pervades the transitional countries in the former Soviet bloc. Today, we begin an eight-part series that seeks to explain how corruption works and what can be done about it. In Part I, RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky provides an overview of corruption not only in the East but in the West, in Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America.

Prague, 29 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Attempting to define corruption is a bit like trying to describe a tree. Most people can recognize it, but the definition is elusive.

That's because corruption takes many forms. At a petty level, it makes life unpleasant or difficult for small businessmen or others trying to obtain services from government bureaucrats. At a grander level, it can involve a country losing hundreds of millions of dollars through the looting of its resources or by tax evasion. The kinds of corruption we will deal with in this series would be recognized by most people as something distasteful and harmful to their societies and their countries. One respected English-language dictionary -- Webster's in the United States -- defines corruption as the "impairment of integrity, virtue or moral principle [or] inducement by improper considerations to commit a violation of duty."

Clearly, that definition covers corruption among senior officials -- such as highly-placed bureaucrats, politicians and even heads of state -- who contribute to the breakdown of respect for law, the prolongation of poverty, and disillusionment with democracy and market economies. In some extreme cases, government becomes so criminalized that it becomes indistinguishable from organized crime.

In Russia recently, the issue of corruption has been given new prominence by President Vladimir Putin challenging the super-rich business tycoons -- known as oligarchs -- who are accused of amassing fortunes illegally and of exercising undo influence over the government. In Ukraine, a former prime minister, himself awaiting trial on money-laundering charges, has accused the Ukrainian president of involvement in corruption.

Elsewhere in the former communist world, present and past top leaders of Kazakhstan have been accused of taking tens of millions of dollars in corrupt payments from Western companies. In the Czech Republic, armed police this summer swooped down on one of the country's biggest banks, whose managers are suspected of fraud. In Bulgaria, the government is under pressure after allegations of ministerial-level corruption. Polish officials and businesses have combined to launch a nationwide campaign through television and billboard advertisements against increasing corruption -- and this a country long held up as a model of reform.

But the former Communist countries hold no monopoly on corruptive practices. In many Asian nations, corruption seems an indelible feature of daily life. In India and Pakistan over the past 50 years, it has clearly held back economic and social progress.

Corruption -- sometimes at the highest political levels -- is also prevalent in some of the most economically successful Asian countries, such as South Korea, Indonesia, and Thailand. Indonesias former President Suharto, who led the country for more than 30 years until 1998, is due to go on trial Thursday (Aug 31) on charges that he, his family, and friends corruptly amassed billions of dollars.

Corruption is widespread as well in the largest Asian power and the world's largest remaining communist state -- China. A former deputy chairman of the Chinese parliament recently was sentenced to death for massive bribe taking and dozens of senior communist officials have been arrested in recent years for being more interested in pocketing illegal profits than in Marxism.

Corruption is deeply entrenched in the Middle East, where many countries are ruled by a small clique or clan that dictates every aspect of life and where kickbacks are common accompaniment to business deals. Corruption is omnipresent in Africa, where it deepens the rift between a very small number of wealthy people and a vast impoverished majority. Latin American corruption is legendary, permeating every sector of society.

Some parts of the developed world, like Western Europe and North America, pride themselves on having almost eradicated institutional corruption. But in the past they suffered from widespread corruption and, periodically, new corruption scandals erupt.

Political corruption was rife in the United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries, when politicians routinely profited from kickbacks for allotting public building projects to favored contractors or for introducing legislation benefiting certain corporations.

In the 19th century, those known as robber barons in the United States used methods that often flouted the law and showed little regard for ordinary workers. But their sons and grandsons later became respectable pillars of society, promoting justice, democracy, and philanthropy.

British commentator Adrian Lithgow says:

"As an illustration of that, probably the most famous political family in the world -- the Kennedy family -- started among what one would perhaps call questionable trade-union practices, perpetrated by Joe Kennedy, the grandfather of [President John Kennedy]."

Lithgow says also that two years ago the European Commission resigned after revelations about large amounts of money (hundreds of millions of dollars) being wasted and misappropriated, and allegations that some commissioners had abused their positions.

He says that some EU members -- notably, Italy, Portugal, Greece, and France -- have reputations for widespread corruption, a few at the highest political levels. And although their membership in the EU provides some impetus to fight corruption, it has also offered new opportunities for corruption. Thus, money flowing from the richer EU countries to the poorer ones -- money intended to improve roads, railways, communications and public services -- often has been siphoned off by corrupt businessmen and politicians.

But Lithgow says that -- unlike in the post-Communist countries, where corruption is a considered a nasty fact of life -- in Western countries it is viewed by most people as an aberration. In the West, too, politicians publicly tainted by corruption usually find their careers at an end.

Lithgow ascribes this to Western countries' greater experience in developing a democratic political system, which responds to the will of the majority. He says an independent legal system is also crucial.

"The enforcement of law is another issue here. Compliance with court decisions is much more embedded in a country which has had a longer time to develop its [democratic] system."

Western companies operating in the post-communist countries have been accused of contributing to corruption there. We'll examine that issue in a later part of the series. But in our next program, we'll take a closer look at indigenous corruption in the countries of the former Soviet bloc.