Countering Corruption and State Capture in Southeast Europe

Deputy Assistant Secretary Alexander Arvizu
Skopje, Macedonia
September 29, 2016

Thank you for the opportunity to represent my colleagues from the United States Government this morning, including the United States Agency for International Development which has been instrumental in organizing this conference. While the United States Ambassador to Macedonia, Jess Baily, is unable to join us, it is a privilege to be able to convey to you his best wishes for a successful and productive meeting.

You were selected to be part of this program for one simple reason: we believe each of you can make a positive difference in the future of this country, of Southeastern Europe, and of the world. We have invested in you, and in this conference, because we believe your leadership and engagement will make this region even more prosperous, free, and secure. More exchanges of people and ideas; more commerce and trade; and developing more common values based on each country’s unique history and heritage makes this region and America better places for our citizens, and brings us closer together.

In my country one of the sayings from the time of our independence is that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” This is particularly true when it comes to fighting the spread of corruption.

As a former American Ambassador in this region, you know as I do that corruption exists here, in this country, in this region, and in the world, including in the United States. And the fact is that it always will be present to some degree. Yet we cannot be complacent. We cannot let it take over the state, undermine the faith citizens have in government and its institutions, or have it become a substitute for the rule of law. When it does, it corrodes, weakens, and eventually destroys the foundations upon which democracy rests. It will cripple the effective, responsive governance necessary for freedom and liberty to flourish. It provides openings for criminals, violent extremists, and terrorists. We have seen this happen time and again, including in places not far from where we are now. It is because of this that Secretary of State Kerry has made tackling corruption a national security priority, and has called on all national governments to do the same.

Yet even seemingly less malevolent corruption that does not destroy a state will hobble it. It is a tax on all citizens— though it tends to harm the weakest, poorest, and most vulnerable the most. It makes communities less competitive, less safe, and less free. Indeed, as Secretary Kerry has said, “there is nothing more demoralizing, more destructive, and more disempowering to a citizen than the belief that the system is rigged against them.”

Because of this, the fight against corruption must be constant, vigorous, and supported by both leaders and concerned citizens alike. We must utilize all the resources at our disposal to confront it: through laws and their enforcement; with technology and tools that increase transparency and accountability; and in the application of both formal and informal standards that set low tolerance levels for official and unofficial corruption.

This work—both by the state and civil society— can be tiring, and it can be frustrating. It may also seem as if progress is difficult, and success is never near. However the effort is absolutely necessary: it is necessary as so much depends not only on the victories, but on the fight itself. This is because when citizens expect corruption from public officials, or it becomes pervasive in the private sector, it impacts virtually everything, from tax collection, to health and safety standards, to the very legitimacy of governments, the courts, the military, and law enforcement.

In Macedonia, you have recognized the importance of accountability and an independent investigation of accusations of corruption.  The United States and the international community support the decision by the four major political parties to establish a Special Prosecutor to review allegations of abuse of office.  The Special Prosecutor’s ability to independently and thoroughly investigate and prosecute cases of corruption are a critical step forward for Macedonia and an assertion for the population here that government should be accountable to the people.  We urge all the political parties to continue to support the unimpeded work of the Special Prosecutor.

International cooperation plays an important role in combatting corruption, and every country can in turn learn best practices from one another. We must be constantly vigilant, always seeking to evolve and adapt as new forms of corruption are identified. Our ethics laws and regulations in the United States have developed based on identifying new forms of corruption and corrupt practices, both those used by criminals in our own country and by transnational criminal organizations operating around the world.

Macedonia must claim its place in Europe and the world by meeting regional and international norms of transparency and standards compliance. The results of not doing so are unpleasant. Once a country earns a reputation for corruption, it draws in and emboldens bad actors and criminals, pushing out legitimate investment and engagement, ultimately increasing the cost of doing business and lowering competitiveness. Having an effective anti-corruption regime is a disinfectant that increases the confidence of businesses and citizens alike, both your own and of international partners in the United States, in the European Union, and around the world.

You know these are tremendous challenges, but you should also know that you are not alone in this fight. The sponsors of this conference; speakers you will hear these next two days; non-governmental and civil society organizations; and governments who have made this a priority will support you in your efforts. Take advantage of the opportunity to meet with many of them here at this conference.

One of those governments making fighting corruption a priority is the United States. It has been highlighted by President Obama, and at high level meetings of the G7, the G20, the United Nations, and at summits. Yet, in my opinion, all that we do, bilaterally and in collaboration with others at those meetings is simply setting the table for you: for it is you, and it is here that action takes place. You will set the tone. You will put in motion policies, laws, investigations, and set the expectations and the level of tolerance for corruption in your communities.

Without you, the proclamations of presidents and prime ministers mean little. With you, the course of lives and the prosperity of your people and their place in the world can be changed for the better. You are here because you want to engage with us to reduce corruption, and on behalf of my government, I want to thank you for all you are doing and for allowing us the opportunity to be your partner in this important work.