A Joint Statement by Freedom House, Global Witness, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee and the Eurasian Democracy Initiative for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Oslo
As the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) meets in Oslo this year, it is a fitting moment to address – as its delegates seek to do – the scourge of corruption and its corrosive effect on governance across Eurasia. The NGO coalition consisting of Freedom House, Global Witness, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee and the Eurasia Democracy Initiative firmly believes that corruption undermines the very concepts that the OSCE was initially conceived to advance and urges parliamentarians from its 56-nation membership to take urgent measures to counter this trend.
In dramatic fashion, the effects of corruption can be seen most recently in the unraveling of the Bakiev regime in Kyrgyzstan. From street-level extortion and racketeering at the hands of former Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev's own family to a shake-down of the United States and Russia over military basing agreements, the now-toppled Kyrgyz government raked in cash while the country's citizens remained, for the most part, mired in poverty. It is little wonder that demonstrations against the government gained in momentum in March and April of this year, leading to a confrontation in the capital that resulted in regime change. A more dramatic effect of this corruption has flared in the south of the country in recent weeks as ethnic Kyrgyz clashed with ethnic Uzbeks, killing hundreds and displacing tens of thousands, in what is thought to be anger over a perceived reversal of who the "haves" and the "have-nots" are in the post-Bakiev order. Patterns of corruption have brought this small, mountainous nation to its knees. Its best hopes for recovery lie in reversing these patterns and embracing new norms of transparency and accountability – appropriate lodestars for this very assembly.
The behavior of the now-ousted Kyrgyz regime did not differ much from those of neighboring states. The Zeromax firm headed by Uzbek President Islam Karimov's daughter, Gulnara, is coming under new scrutiny for muscling itself into most business ventures in Uzbekistan. Azeri President Ilham Aliev's 12-year-old son somehow managed to acquire a multi-million dollar villa in Dubai. Questions about gas deals in Turkmenistan are of concern to any foreign investor that must report truthfully to its shareholders, while access to affordable gas has been a persistent and, some might argue, determinative factor in Ukrainian politics over the past half-decade. In Russia, where a heroic, 37-year old lawyer, was murdered in police custody last year for revealing widespread corruption, a consistent connection is seen between corruption and ineffective governance. Yet corruption in the former Soviet states is not an isolated phenomenon: the Balkans and much of Europe, as well as the United States, for that matter, have seen instances of the abuse of public trust for private gain. In more established democracies; however, there are generally institutions for confronting and redressing corruption including but not limited to courts and a vibrant media.
It is puzzling and ironic when we consider that the OSCE chose Kazakhstan to lead the organization in 2010. When, on July 8, in Oslo, Kazakhstan's Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairman Kanat Saudabayev addresses delegates to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly's session on the subject of corruption, it is important to bear in mind that Kazakhstan's president has shut down newspapers and otherwise attempted to prevent all those who have dared cover the ongoing corruption case lodged against him in the Southern District Court of New York (the largest case in the history under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act). Despite the promise to fight corruption made at the 2007 OSCE Ministerial in Madrid, Kazakhstan has failed to initiate credible anti-corruption reforms. Instead, Kazakhstani government has been busy conferring upon the President the title of "Leader of Nation" (which would secure for him lifetime immunity from prosecution) and hounding opposition and businessmen associated with it, both local and foreign. Most recently, allegations of kick-backs taken by President Nazarbayev's son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev, have cast a cloud over oil deals in the country that this year chairs the OSCE.
Far from being a "victim-less" crime, therefore, corruption undermines democratic governance in three important ways. First, it saps governments of the legitimate revenue necessary to secure and maintain the necessary operation of the state. Citizens in corrupt states are quite literally robbed of the kind of services their counterparts in countries like the one in which we are today gathered have come to expect. Second, it degrades the character of the state itself, and lowers the bar for criminality and, in particular, graft, throughout society. The line between governments and criminal gangs becomes blurred or, in the case of Kyrgyzstan, obscured altogether. Third, efforts to conceal official corruption leads to censorship and, ultimately, violence when the few and the brave refuse to heed official cues and seek to expose the rotten cores of corrupt states. Journalists are murdered, free speech is fettered by criminal and civil codes conceived to protect the powerful, and cover-ups of corrupt deeds entangle and compromise ever widening circles to such an extent that officialdom becomes little more than an instrument of a violent and arbitrary kleptocracy. The importance of taking urgent action, then, could not be clearer. As parliamentarians with the prerogative of legislative initiative, most of the attendees of this assembly can, in their own countries, do more to turn back the tide of corruption.
Combating systemic corruption begins by acknowledging its costs. The economic costs are straightforward, and shadow economies can be measured. Opportunity costs, while speculative, can also be estimated. Other costs relate to the corrosive effects of corruption on the state itself, as well as institutions of a free society, such as an independent media, watchdog organizations, and the increase of social stress itself. Corruption, at its essence, demeans human dignity. Efforts to address it, therefore, must take into account the full range of these costs. The burden of fighting corruption is best shared by three principal actors – governments, the private sector, and public interest organizations. Jointly, these groups could play roles in advancing country-specific variants of the following initiatives:
Expanding disclosure for public officials: this includes not only elected and appointed officials, but also those with key roles in state-run holding companies;
Protecting those who uncover corrupt practices – including whistle-blowers, journalists, law enforcement officers and others – through heightened penalties for harassment, threats, attacks and retribution;
Empowering independent anti-corruption commissions to investigate and report allegations of corruption, unfair procurement practices and other breaches of public trust;
Removing both temporary and life-time immunity from prosecution privileges for public officials wherever they exist and supporting international condemnation for states that pass such measures; and
Embracing culturally-specific norms of transparency and integrity through a system of best-practices, allowing citizens, groups and governments to adopt and adapt measures that work in countries with the highest scores on indexes such as Transparency International's annual perceptions survey.
These are just some initiatives which have rendered results. Equally if not more important that the specific measures is the political will to take bold action to hold those entrusted with the public faith accountable for their actions in office, ensuring open access to free and fair markets, and better protecting those who commit themselves to defending public integrity. As public interest organizations, we commit ourselves to continuing the fight against corruption in Eurasia and working fulsomely with those elected officials who join us in this common endeavor.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
July 8, 2010