Introduction: crime narratives and their narrators. Narratives: more than just tale, Page 4-7

Civis Mundi Digitaal #40

door Petrus C. van Duyne


The narrative of corruption, which goes beyond (mainly lower level) direct bribery, is like a quiver with ‘accusing arrows’ that can point at a multitude of culprits in a single case: each pointing their arrows to others, equally or even more guilty and having his own narrative within the overarching narrative. This is how it goes in higher-level cases of corruption: pots calling kettles black. The resulting chain of narratives can unfold rapidly and broadly, growing into a scandal: a kind of on-going story or a chain-process of revelations. In countries in which corruption is endemic or even institutionalised and which have a weak state structure, such a scandal may stir bottom-up social unrest, which impact on the relevant institution(s) or even the structure of the state. This happened in 2014 in Ukraine during the Majdan revolt (Jansen, 2014, ch. 11). What did that produce? Taking stock of the present situation we can say that in that country the timber frame of the public institutions proved to be too deeply eroded by corruption to bring about short term change. Rotten institutions can be resilient if the interests for the corrupt stakeholders are high enough.

Three chapters in this volume narrate about corruption in Eastern Europe, where corruption is in every respect endemic and where corruption as a narrative label loses it distinctiveness and shades into that of malgovernance.

The three countries studied are Serbia, Romania and Ukraine.

For the state of corruption in Serbia Marija Zurnićaddresses the development of the first decade after the deposition of Milošević (2000). Did the corruption situation change for the good after his departure? Actually, the author’s story points at two answers. In the ‘reality on paper’ much has been achieved: there is an Anti-Corruption Council, an Anti-Corruption Agency, and a multitude of laws and ratified conventions. To this it should be added that almost nothing happened without external pressure from the EU. The normal reactions of the Serbian elite are: foot dragging or, if action is unavoidable, creating Potemkin Villages (Van Duyne and Stocco, 2012). This ‘institutional corruption resilience’ was investigated from the angle of ‘discourse’ (or in my terms: narrative) and Institutionalism, together: Discursive Institutionalism. The question the researcher poses is: do corruption scandals in Serbia cause legal and institutional changes. The author’s pièce de resistance is the scandal around the privatization of the Port of Belgrade of which the state owned shares were sold to two controversial entrepreneurs for a too low price in 2005. It was a shady deal which did not directly cause a scandal. Actually, it ‘simmered’ for a while until in 2008 it became a real scandal, which was not the only one in which these entrepreneurs were involved. It was a protracted complicated scandal giving rise to three subordinate narratives or discourses: The Mainstream Discourse (of the present ruling elite) told the story that the previous government was to blame; the Sub-discourse, pointed at the confluence of politics and capital in which handsome deals were cooked, and the Counter Discourse came from the businessmen themselves, rejecting all allegations and blaming the government and Anti Corruption Commission which they even summoned to court.


The outcome of this contest of narratives or discourses was disappointing: for the theory of Discursive Institutionalism as well as for the Serbian people. The ruling elite in the formal institutions proved resilient against ideas and argumentations derived from this and other scandals. However, they were receptive to EU pressure. Even then one can observe foot dragging rather than acting from an inner conviction. One can say that the anti-corruption narrative did not penetrate into their own discourse.


In the second chapter Radu Nicolae recounts the story of corruption in the medical sector of Romania. It reads like a narrative of a house of mirrors, in which nothing is what it pretends to be. Naturally one thinks of the ubiquitous tradition of informal payments of patients to the general physician. But this is only the baseline of corruption involving mainly poor patients and low paid doctors and it is certainly not specific of Romania.

Above this baseline the author elaborates a labyrinth of opportunities for corruption and fraud. This ranges from the doctor who conspires with the pharmacist next-door to make phony prescriptions, to “big pharma” to get its ineffective brand on the most advantageous compensation list.[1] The experience with corruption starts with medical students who get their diplomas by bribing the professor after which they slide into a system where they are under a corruption pressure to hustle patients (some real, others on paper from a bought name list, some dead), medicines, and his own career towards an equally corrupt top. Actually, this is a technical enumeration of deceit and abuse and is not the real social and psychological – human – narrative. That is the broadly shared complicity through the whole social system of patronage and clientelism, from the successive Ministers of Health downwards. For example, from 2006-2014 each Minister ordered an audit of the Bucharest Oncology Institute, which revealed gross irregularities. So the manager was fired and replaced by his protégé, resuming the old practice. The next Minister also ordered an audit with the same result and installed a new protégé till the next Minister etc. It should be no surprise that new laws to curb corruption in the health sector were either technically ramshackle or failed in their implementation. In the literature it is called “lack of political will”, which sounds too passive and impersonal. I think the real narrative of corruption is better described as a social hierarchy or elite network taking care of mutually advantageous crooked decision making. [rood toegevoegd door MvH].

In the description of the corrupt health sector the author did not cast the criminal wheeling and dealing in the conceptual frame of organized crime though according to Gøtzsche (2014) it would have made a perfect organised crime story.


In the next chapter on the gambling industry in Ukraine the researchers Anna Markovska and Yuliya Zabyelina make up for this omission by combining the narrative of corruption and organized crime. Not because of the nature of gambling which is not criminal per se, but because of the policy making by the Ukrainian government. What is the case? Gambling was a normal licit commercial sector until in 2009 a gambling hall burned down resulting in many victims. Although this tragedy had nothing to do with gambling itself but with violations of safety regulations, the government pronounced a ban on the whole industry. By this act all existing licenses (costing € 150.000), became null and void and without compensation even if bought shortly before this prohibition. The government simply pocketed the money: welcome in Absurdistan!


What followed was the predictable enfolding of an illegal market as the demand for gambling services remained: the population did not appreciate what was wrong with gambling and did not feel any pangs of conscience being served in an illegal setting. The illegal gambling service developed soon enough, though in a more fragmented shape: various kinds of ‘underground’ gambling dens came into being. That is according to expectation and as such of little interest, if it were not the case that in some absurd way above this underground gambling economy illegal ‘upperworld’ enterprises sprang up. These were publicly observable as chic facilities and thus known to the authorities. To which the authors add: protected on a higher level than just the local police only. One of such illegal ‘upperworld’ gambling facilities was registered in the company register under the ironic name: International Organisation against Human Rights Violations. It operated professionally, right in the centre of Odessa, protected by the police (for ± € 50.000 per month), while keeping the neighbourhood clean through its own security staff.[2]


From a criminological point of view it is an absurdistic narrative. A clearly weak and corrupt government enacted a law that created a criminogenic environment in which not only a low-level underground market developed but also openly tolerated professional organisations.[3]

[1] Again Romania is not unique in this if we compare it with the medical practices of “Big Pharma” in Western Europe and the US as recounted by the Danish expert Peter Gøtzsche (2014).

[2] All numbers are in normal European writing: the comma for the decimals and the dot for the thousands.

[3] It is fair to mention that the drug policy in many European countries has resulted in similar absurdism: cannabis trade is prohibited, but the public outlets in the Netherlands through ‘coffee-shops’ is regulated, the difference being that no corruption is involved.