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World: Transparency International Chief Talks About Corruption In CIS

Transparency International's David Nussbaum Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and the Central Asian countries rank among the worst in a new survey of perceived global corruption by the nongovernmental group Transparency International. RFE/RL spoke with David Nussbaum, Transparency International's London-based chief executive.

Prague, 18 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The Corruption Perceptions Index is a sort of poll of polls, pulling together and analyzing "perceptions of corruption" from 16 leading surveys this year that questioned business leaders, analysts, and experts around the world. Countries are ranked on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 signifying almost no corruption. Topping this year's list were Iceland, Finland, and other northern European countries. But the real story is who lies at the bottom -- and why.

RFE/RL: Could you explain, in laymen's terms, how you come up with this index?

David Nussbaum: The Corruption Perceptions Index, which Transparency International publishes each year, is a poll of polls. So we take a whole series, about 16 independent surveys, from around the world -- surveys of businesspeople, risk analysts, and so forth. And they've been asked about their views of the levels of corruption between different countries. And we take all those results and compile our Corruption Perceptions Index, which gives a guide as to how people perceive the relative levels of corruption in countries all around the world -- 159 countries this year.

RFE/RL: And why should we be more focused on the perception of corruption rather than on something more concrete?

Nussbaum: Corruption is by its nature very difficult to observe, because the people who are directly involved don't want it to be observed. Of course, the people who suffer from corruption are the ordinary people of the country, but they are not always in a position to report accurately what's been happening. So in order to get some better insight into the reality, these measures of perception are important because they give us a guide as to what the reality is. They're also important because business will take account of their perceptions of corruption in assessing the risk, for example, in making an investment in a country. I know myself from my own background as a businessperson on the board of a company that risk is very important when considering whether to proceed with an investment opportunity.

RFE/RL: So to take a look at this year's report, I see that Russia figures among the countries that have registered a worsening in the perceptions of corruption.

Nussbaum: The perception index isn't mainly designed to track year-on-year changes, but as you mentioned, the score in Russia is worse by about 0.4 out of 10 -- from 2.8 down to 2.4 -- and that does indicate a real change in the perceived level of corruption in Russia. And I think that probably relates to the fact that although there have been some positive developments, overall the transparency of government has been reduced. There's been a crackdown on independent organizations and on the media, and so there are perhaps fewer organizations in a position to keep an eye on government, to put pressure on government to keep honest. And in the end, if people perceive that political elites are able to get around the normal checks and balances that operate in an economy such as Russia's, then this will lead them to conclude that the levels of corruption have, indeed, increased.

RFE/RL: Hence, the connection between the lack of transparency and corruption...

Nussbaum: Indeed, that's why our name is Transparency International, because one of the principles that we see around the world is that where people are happy to be open about what they're doing, about what decisions they're taking and how they're taking them, this encourages greater levels of trust and reliability in the way they're behaving. Whereas, if there's a great deal of secrecy and curtailment of openness, this leads people to understand that what they perceive to be corruption probably is corruption. And we think we're probably right.

RFE/RL: Just to be clear, what kind of corruption are we talking about here?

Nussbaum: We're talking mainly about corruption by those with power, either with political power or administrative power. So that would be politicians and public officials who have to make decisions, such as allocating permits, such as giving contracts, particularly in the area of procurement. So this is where corruption is probably the most serious and leads to the most damage for economic and social development.

RFE/RL: Now let's look at some of the countries that have seen progress. I see Ukraine is in that category. And, of course, there was a much-publicized change in government there this year. Did that have any effect on any improvements that may have occurred with regard to corruption in Ukraine?

Nussbaum: As I mentioned, the index is measuring perceptions, so we're now speculating as to what might have led to those changes in perceptions. But I think there can be little doubt that the new administration in Ukraine, following the Orange Revolution, is viewed more positively than its predecessor. It has a well-articulated commitment to tackling corruption. And I think also the sense among the population that having rejected the rather dubious initial election, and the democratic transition to the new government -- this would have led people to take a different view of the country. And the building of trust by the people in the politicians they've elected to represent them is hugely important in building a sense of accountability. And accountability, in turn, leads to integrity.
"The kind of actions we're talking about are making sure that nobody has unbridled power to take, implement, and follow through on decisions; that there are checks and balances in place -- for example, between the judiciary and the executive -- so that the people who make the government decisions are not the people who make the judgment decisions in court or are able to influence those."

RFE/RL: Is there any sort of concrete example that you can point to in Ukraine that stands out as a step forward?

Nussbaum: I think that in Ukraine, it's probably the whole realm of changes which the government brought about. There are countries where sometimes there's a very dramatic step taken. An example was in Georgia, when they removed a very substantial portion of the police force. But I think in Ukraine, it's probably widespread than primarily focused on individual actions. And both can be important. Symbolic actions which demonstrate commitment have to be followed by rigorous, consistent, sustained attention to all the changes that are needed in institutions, in the judiciary, in the police, in the public service, in the health systems, in education, and so forth.

RFE/RL: You mention Georgia, and I'll throw Kyrgyzstan in there as well because those are the other two countries that had so-called colored revolutions. Yet those two countries, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, continue to rank pretty poorly in the index.

Nussbaum: The levels of corruption that these countries start at are independent, of course, of what changes they are making, and what's important is the direction they're heading and the speed at which they are able to improve. There are different challenges in each of these countries, and I think the way the economy works, and the degree of openness to external markets, also has some bearings. I think in Georgia, it shows perhaps that there's a long way to go if you want to clean things up. These kinds of changes are difficult to achieve. Georgia certainly does show an improvement from 2 to 2.3 -- so that's a significant step in the right direction. But when you have countries with very low scores, signifying endemic levels of corruption, it's going to be quite some time before you see them really being able to change fundamentally and sustainably the whole way the country operates, because people have become used to operating in a particular way, and to change that consistently is a big challenge.

RFE/RL: In what way can governments be pushed to weed out corruption? Obviously, it's there because people make money from it, and perhaps it's not in their interests to be clean.

Nussbaum: It's in the interests of those in government who are personally clean and are committed to integrity [to combat corruption]. But above all, it's in the interests of the people. And we've seen that in the colored revolutions, as you referred to earlier, where the people are conscious that they in the end are the people that are paying the price for the corruption of a few. And in many of these countries, there are elites who have access to power, access to resources, who are seeking to protect that in various ways. And yet the people who are bearing the consequences of that are scattered throughout the country, and they will want to find ways to transmit their voice so that their voice is heard by government and governments take actions. And the kind of actions we're talking about are making sure that nobody has unbridled power to take, implement, and follow through on decisions; that there are checks and balances in place -- for example, between the judiciary and the executive -- so that the people who make the government decisions are not the people who make the judgment decisions in court or are able to influence those.

Or, for example, that there might need to be an independent commission against corruption. That's been successful in some places such as Hong Kong and South Korea, in helping to create an environment in which people can overcome corruption, sometimes by providing, for example, channels for whistle-blowing. So where people become aware of specific cases of corruption, they often want to do something, but don't know what to do. And so, if a government or even a company sets up a whistle-blowing scheme whereby people can confidentially report matters which can be carefully checked and investigated in case there are inappropriate allegations -- but where there are proper allegations made, they're followed up and action is taken -- this can be an enormously helpful way of building a more transparent society in which those that are corrupt are aware that there's a much greater risk to them because the likelihood of being caught is higher.

RFE/RL: Is something like that happening in Turkey, which figures among the improved countries in this year's index?

Nussbaum: I think what's clear is that Turkey is very determined to look toward [European Union] membership. And in doing that, it realizes that tackling corruption and building a system of integrity right across the public sector is going to be hugely important. And so I think that stimulates the political will for reform. And we know from many countries around the world that that's critical. Political will is necessary. It isn't sufficient. It doesn't mean once you've got the politicians and the leaders of the country making the right noises, that things will change. But unless they're personally committed to it, it's quite difficult for change to happen throughout the country. Of course, over the next few years, as Turkey continues those negotiations, it will be interesting to see the degree to which this results in further reform.

But we do have examples in Eastern Europe, in some of the accession countries, both in those that have joined the EU now and those one or two that are wanting to join the EU, such as Bulgaria, where there's been improvement over the last five or eight years, that the prospect of being able to join the EU club, as it were, does galvanize the will to reform into action.

RFE/RL: What about Romania, then? The European Commission is due to report on the country's progress this month. Are things getting better there with a new government?

Nussbaum: There doesn't seem to be a significant change in the perceptions of corruption there, yet. But its scores have improved very slightly over the last few years. But the CPI tends to indicate when those changes have percolated through to changes of perception, so there's very often a delay factor before we see government action or other action reflected in the scores in the index.

RFE/RL: One last question. It regards a country like Turkmenistan, which according to your survey only trails Bangladesh and Chad as the world's worse place for corruption. What's life like for the average person in a country like that, in terms of corruption? Are we talking about a level of corruption that you're almost hit with it at every turn when it comes to the authorities?

Nussbaum: Unfortunately, yes, and it means that people's lives all the time are being ruined by corruption. It means that if you want to register a birth, you may need to pay a bribe. It means that even if you've gone to register a death, you may have to pay something to get that through the system; that if you want to travel, you may be subject to some harassment if you don't pay; that if you want to get permission or authorization to do a business transaction, or something in the construction area, permission to build -- again, all these things may be subject to bribery. And it also means that corruption probably becomes very embedded in the system. For example, in some countries, when people get a job, they may be required to make a payment to get the job, and it's then expected that they'll recoup that by bribes. So people are faced with terrible and invidious choices.

[But] one of the encouraging things around the world is that we find that even where people have had to put up with this kind of system for many years, somehow underneath they know this isn't how it's supposed to be, and when things change, both in this region and in other parts of the world, people have this huge sense of relief and encouragement. And the challenge then is to see this honored, and seen through by governments, political and commercial and social leaders so that their people can lead the kind of lives that they want to lead, as they face the future with a sense of hope, rather than frustration.

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