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Corruption paradox

Sometimes the storyline of corruption as a non-Western value gets muddled. In fact, a case that plunged Poland into a political crisis in June 2014 turned the storyline on its head.

The interior minister and the head of the central bank were surreptitiously recorded discussing how the bank would help the governing party get re-elected in 2015. The story, which was first published by the weekly magazine Wprost, set off a political storm. As an independent body, the central bank was not supposed to engage in partisan politics. Using its clout to aid a candidate or political party, therefore, constituted a serious violation.

The AP’s coverage on June 19 stressed not the apparent political corruption, but the motives behind the surreptitious recording. The lead paragraph reads: “Interference from ‘abroad’ could be behind the eavesdropping of the compromising conversation between two Polish top leaders, some claim, as a political scandal grows and threatens to topple the government in the Eastern European country.” The story pinpointed Russia as the probable foreign hand, noting growing tension with Poland over Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.

“Poland is staunchly pro-West and has reacted to the violence in Ukraine by pledging to increase its defense budget and calling for a permanent NATO presence on its soil,” the AP reported. “For years it has taken the lead in the EU in trying to encourage democratic and

Western values in Ukraine.” The AP also quoted an American author, Edward Lucas, as saying that “The Russians are experts at bugging and at information warfare.”

There was nothing in the story to suggest that the collusion of the central bank with the pro-West ruling party was a serious breach of democratic principles. Rather, the story made clear that the mechanism of the exposé was a greater problem than the collusion. The AP quoted five sources on the story—Lucas, the prime minister, an opposition politician, a retired director of the military intelligence, and the head of the Polish Institute of International Affairs—and all concurred on this theme, directly and indirectly.

The Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, was quoted as saying, “I will not resign in response to actions that, we all know, had criminal character, and, maybe were.... aimed at the government’s resignation or fall.” The leader of the opposition party Law and Justice, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, was also quoted as expressing solidarity with the government. “There’s a difficult international situation,” Kaczynski is quoted as saying. “We don’t know where this information came from. It could be an intervention from abroad. We have to protect this government.” This all points to the theme that nefarious behaviors are non-Western, but they are understandable if committed in the service of Western values.

The notion that corruption is alien to Western values, of course, flies in the face realities. The U.S. state of Alabama, for example, may have set a record in this regard. Within a span of one year between 2016 and 2017, the heads of the three branches of government—the governor, Speaker of the House, and the Chief Justice—were all forced out of office for corruption or subversion of the law. The previous governor was already serving a prison term. And so was the former mayor of the state’s largest city, Birmingham, who had also served as chairman of a County Commission.

It is improbable that any EU country can match that record, but none can claim that corruption is alien to it. In The New Old World—a history of the EU—for example, Anderson Perry cites corruption as one of the challenges facing the Union. Regarding France in 2004, Anderson writes, “The political system, riddled with corruption, is held in increasing public contempt.”2

France happens to be one of the three pillars of the EU, the others being Germany and Italy. In Transparency International’s Index of Perception of Corruption, Germany (9th) is the only one of the three countries to rank in the Top 10. With a score of 69 out of 100, France tied with the United States at 23rd. That is behind the non-Western countries of the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay. Italy has a score of 53 and ranking of 51st, tied with Grenada, Malaysia, Rwanda, and Saudi Arabia. Among the non-Western countries scoring higher are Barbados, Botswana, and Cape Verde.

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