USAID Anti-Corruption Project Conference

Ambassador Jess Baily’s Remarks

Tuesday, March 22, 2016 at 10:30 AM
Holiday Inn, Skopje

Thank you Mr. Krzalovski.  Minister Jashari;  Mr. Zvrlevski, and Ms. Janeva and Ms. Kovesi; ladies and gentlemen, good morning.

I’m pleased to participate in this important conference organized by the Macedonian Centre for International Cooperation as part of USAID’s Anti-corruption project, and to see all of you in attendance here today.

All of us gathered here in this room are mindful of the corrosive force corruption has on society.  U.S. Vice President Biden called it “a cancer that eats away at a citizen’s faith in democracy,” and noted that it “diminishes the instinct for innovation and creativity, crowding out important national investments. It scares away investments and jobs. And most importantly, it denies the people their dignity, and saps the collective strength and resolve of a nation.”  Perhaps you’ve heard that quote before, but I believe it bears repeating.

Power and greed are a heady mix that corrupts not just government, but sports federations, businesses, and universities.  Certainly, the United States isn’t immune to corruption.  Just take a look at the scandals that have plagued the State of New York last year, with the former leaders of the State Senate and State Assembly convicted on multiple counts of bribery, fraud, conspiracy, and extortion.  Democratic societies depend on a certain level of trust in the system and in the institutions that govern our lives.  If left unchecked, corruption undermines our trust in the system.

This is the key question – is it left unchecked?  Because it’s not the presence of corruption that threatens democratic societies, it’s impunity.  Corrupt acts and impulses are like germs – they’re everywhere.  But a healthy body politic has the means to fight back, to kill germs, to prevent their spread.  When those defenses break down, that’s the real threat to health, whether to a person or to a democracy.

Bono, the rock star turned international activist, said “The biggest disease is corruption.  The vaccine is transparency.”  Transparency doesn’t just uncover corruption; it also reveals the lack of it.  It builds trust.  Conversely, when transparency is absent and institutions operate behind closed doors, it breeds distrust and raises fears that the institutions are serving private interests rather than the public good.

The point for government institutions is that there is no trust without transparency. That’s why the United States has assisted Macedonia over the years to increase transparency and accountability in government contracting and budgeting, in the judiciary, in ethics guidelines, and other government functions.

Fighting corruption and increasing transparency requires more than law and regulation.  A courageous,  independent media can also illuminate the darkness where corruption thrives.   Some of you may recall that when I arrived in Macedonia, just over a year ago, the first official reception I hosted was for members of the press, because I recognize the vital role they play.  As citizens, we rely on the investigative work of journalists to uncover issues and suspicious behaviors.  Their credibility requires a commitment to honest, factual investigations and unbiased, non-partisan reporting.   Such work takes real courage and integrity. Unfortunately, the polarized nature and deeply engrained perceptions of party alignment in the media make the job of real journalists all the more challenging, and indeed undermines trust in the media.

Civil society is another important actor in demanding transparency and holding governments accountable.  We’re proud to support a number of civil society organizations in their efforts to research, speak out, generate discussion, and inspire citizens to hold  government accountable.  Just last week, the anti-corruption consortium of civil society organizations made public a number of their case studies.  They helped raise awareness and spark discussion regarding the public procurement process, irregularities in the work of the Agency for Electronic Communications, the role of the State Commission for the Prevention of Corruption, the issue of conflict of interest, the media’s uneven coverage of corruption, the relationship between money and politics, and three separate whistleblower cases.

Like journalism, the work of civil society takes courage and persistence to effect change.

But ultimately, neither civil society nor media has the power of legal recourse, the power to punish.  Corruption happens all over the world, but when it happens with impunity, that is when democracy is most at risk and both public and international trust is lost.  Countries need to establish (and support) the institutions, laws, and procedures that not only deter but punish corrupt acts, and confiscate criminal proceeds.  Where enforcement is negligible and punishments minimal, corruption will only find fertile ground.

That’s why the proper functioning of the legal system is so critical.  Let’s be honest – the credible threat of punishment is itself a strong deterrent.  Like journalism, the law must also be applied with an even hand and not through the lens of party alignment.  All people, regardless of political affiliation, ethnicity, religion, economic status, or gender must be equal under the law.  Punitive action simply as political retribution or ideological intolerance can undermine the credibility of the whole system.

In this regard, we note that Public Prosecutor Zvrlevski announced yesterday a commission to look into allegations of election-related crimes, even before the formal electoral period.  Showing citizens that you take seriously their complaints and will investigate instances of improper use of state resources, voter pressure or intimidation, and other abuses is critical to building trust in the electoral process.

We’re pleased to have Special Prosecutor Janeva here today.  The Special Prosecutor’s office  has the tough job of investigating and if warrantedprosecuting  some serious allegations of government malfeasance, whose revelation plunged this country into a long political crisis.   This is a new institution, and  she and her colleagues have encountered some friction in their work.  I suspect there is no prosecutor in the world investigating high-level corruption who hasn’t experienced some difficulty; I hope that institutional cooperation will improve in this regard.

Our other speaker, Romania’s chief prosecutor Laura Codruta Kovesi, has an impressive track record of successful prosecutions.  We look forward to hearing  about her country’s efforts — what challenges they have faced, and how they are overcoming them.

Let me sum up with the following thought.  Strong democracies don’t fear citizen watchdogs, nosy journalists, or tough prosecutors.  Their public officials follow rules to insure accountability, integrity, and transparency in the conduct of the public’s business.  And when they stray, strong independent judiciaries investigate and punish.  Such nations will experience corruption, but not impunity.

The United States wants Macedonia’s institutions and citizens to succeed in their fight against corruption.  Nothing is more critical for the healthy, resilient democracy your citizens have sought to build for the past 25 years.

Thank you.