After a new leadership team took over the government in the tiny western Balkan nation of Montenegro for the first time in decades and began looking through the books, they found what they described as shocking levels of corruption under the reign of longtime power broker, president Milo DjukanoviÄ.
According to the newly elected prime minister, public budget reserves had been allocated to buy pricey private apartments for government cronies. What’s more, he says, paper trails had been obscured. Huge box-loads of documents detailing the use of public funds had been shredded. And that’s only within the government headquarters building on Karadordeva Street in the capital, Podgorica.
The new government has yet to come to grips with the alleged misdeeds of the previous government at other ministries.
“We’re not talking about tens of thousands but tens of millions of euros,” says Zdravko KrivokapiÄ, the Montenegrin mechanical engineering professor who has served as the fledgeling government’s prime minister since December, in an interview conducted over video. “Why would an allocation of an apartment for someone who deserved it be kept secret?” DjukanoviÄ has long-denied allegations of corruption.
Throughout the west, there has been a huge uproar about the alleged corruption of Vladimir Putin and his Black Sea palace, as disclosed by jailed dissident Alexey Navalny in a lengthy video. Putin, of course, denies the allegations.
But while it’s easy and satisfying to look beyond the Urals and tsk-tsk at the rampant corruption of Putin’s Russia, deep endemic corruption is not just something over there. Even fellow Nato members like Montenegro and Albania as well as full-fledged European Union members such as Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania are rife with corruption.
And like in Montenegro, if entrenched political elites were to be swept away, any reformers looking under the hood of these governments would likely find even more graft and abuse of public funds.
The anti-corruption group Transparency International (TI) this year downgraded Hungary to the corruption ranking of Bulgaria and Romania, the bottom of the EU listings. The report cited the weakening of independent institutions, growing politicisation of the media, and hostility toward civil society as the reasons why misuse of EU funds had become the “new normal” in Hungary. “The steady erosion of the rule of law and democratic oversight has created conditions for corruption to flourish at the highest levels of power," TI said.
Just like Putin, other political oligarchs closer to home also enjoy a wealthy lifestyle. Ahmed Dogan, the 66-year-old founder of a major Bulgarian political party representing the country’s ethnic and religious minorities, controls a palatial Black Sea villa that is officially on public land and guarded by publicly paid security officials.
Human rights activists and western officials rightly mocked the judicial process through which Navalny, allegedly poisoned at the hands of alleged Russian secret police enforcers, was arrested and locked up for being too sick to show up for his parole hearing stemming from an earlier prosecution. But closer to home in Slovakia, an EU and Nato member, a brash business leader allegedly bought off judges that made rulings in his favour, according to a report by the formidable Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). However, nothing has been proven against him.
Meanwhile, Malta is still coming to grips with the 2017 murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who sought to investigate high-level corruption in the EU country’s criminal underworld.
Denmark, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Germany are in the top ten of TI’s list of least corrupt countries. But even in those countries drug traffickers and other criminal kingpins exploit lax banking and corporate registration rules to set up businesses that may be totally legitimate, but serve as fronts for money laundering operations. Recently, prosecutors alleged that an Albanian drug kingpin used seaports in the Netherlands and Belgium to move narcotics from South America to Europe.
Reformers in countries like Montenegro, where a government led by DjukanoviÄ that had been in power for decades was defeated in elections last year, know they have a small window of opportunity to act. They say they hope to clean up their country’s books and image in order to join the EU. Adding to their woes, Montenegro along with Albania have become major way stations in the global narcotics trade.
“The fight against organised crime and corruption is a priority for this government,” says KrivokapiÄ.
Montenegro has a long way to go. In 2015, OCCRP named DjukanoviÄ its person of the year for allegedly building “one of the most dedicated kleptocracies and organised crime havens in the world,” and the country as having “an economy choked by corruption and money laundering”.
But it would be easier to fight corruption for tiny Montenegro if there was a more serious effort to clamp down on corruption across Europe, including in eastern European and Balkan countries where graft, misuse of public funds and accountability are worsening.
“Corruption is not the problem of Montenegro alone but other countries as well,” KrivokapiÄ says. “We urge the international community to help us to deal with this problem.”