Guest Post: Lessons from Moldova’s Covid-19 Vaccine Distribution Scandal

Today’s guest post is from Valeria Ciolac, a member of the National Political Council of Moldova’s Party of Action and Solidarity, and a Youth Delegate of the Republic of Moldova to the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe.

Since the prospect of effective Covid-19 vaccines emerged last fall, experts have warned about the risks of corruption in the vaccine procurement and distribution process. Alas, in many countries these warnings proved prescient. My home country, the Republic of Moldova, is reeling from reports that politicians and local officials arranged for certain doses of the Covid-19 vaccine to be provided, in secret, to themselves, their family members, and their associates. Evidence of such corrupt misallocation first emerged last March, in the city of Edinet. But this was not an isolated incident. Over the last several weeks, it has become clear that even though the vaccine supply—which was procured only through donations and considerable effort—is supposed to be allocated first to high-priority groups, a group of seven hundred politicians, bank directors, restaurant owners, and others from around the country jumped in front of the line, leaving seven hundred medical workers behind.

When confronted with this evidence, the officials involved tried to explain away the diversion of the vaccines as legitimate use of excess supply. The Mayor of Edinet, for example, claimed that some medical workers chose not to get their vaccines right away, and the vaccines provided to politicians and their friends were surplus doses that would otherwise have been thrown away. But given the long history of public corruption in Moldova, and the resulting lack of trust in the state authorities, most Moldovan citizens doubt this explanation. It seems far more likely that in this case, as in so many other cases, politicians and well-connected individuals used their influence to secure vaccines that should have gone to those with greater need.

While it is tempting to conclude that such corruption is inevitable in a country like Moldova—the poorest country in Europe, and one that has long been immersed in corruption and negligence by the of public authorities—it is more useful to look closely at the Moldovan vaccine distribution system and ask whether things could have been done differently. And indeed, while there’s probably no way to prevent some degree of corruption in vaccine distribution, there are several measures that Moldova, and other countries in a similar situation, could have adopted, and should still embrace now, to minimize the risk of this sort of corruption. Continue reading

New Podcast, Featuring Olesea Stamate

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. This episode is something of a milestone for us, as it is the fiftieth episode we have put out since the podcast premiered over two years ago. I’d therefore like to take this opportunity to thank my collaborators at the Interdisciplinary Corruption Research Network (ICRN), all of the wonderful guests who have taken time out of their busy schedules to appear on the podcast, and, perhaps most of all, you all of our listeners. I hope that the podcast has been helpful in providing helpful, stimulating, and sometimes provocative content concerning the fight against corruption around the world, and we look forward to the next fifty episodes. For this milestone episode, I’m delighted to feature my recent interview with Olesea Stamate, who is an advisor to President Maia Sandu of Moldova, and who previously served as Moldova’s Minister of Justice when Ms. Sandu was Prime Minister of the country in 2019. Ms. Stamate discusses her background in civil society and how it has informed her work in government service, and we then turn to discuss the current political situation in Moldova and the challenges of corruption and state capture facing the country. Ms. Stamate emphasizes the pervasive corruption in the institutions of justice–particularly the courts and prosecution service–and argues that these institutions cannot be expected to reform from within. Rather, she advocates an external review and vetting process to weed out corrupt actors and create a more honest and capable justice sector. Ms. Stamate also discusses reforms to Moldova’s key anticorruption agencies, the constructive role that the international community can play in supporting anticorruption reforms, and what other sorts of reforms are necessary to address the challenges facing the country. You can also find both this episode and an archive of prior episodes at the following locations:

KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

Lebanon Disaster Update: An Excellent and Disturbing OCCRP Report Sheds New Light on the Backstory of the Deadly Explosion

A couple of weeks ago, I did a short post in reaction to the deadly warehouse explosion in Beirut, which killed at least 182 people, wounded thousands, and left hundreds of thousands homeless. My post wasn’t really about the Lebanon blast per se—especially because the causes of the explosion, and the role that corruption may have played, were unclear—but rather discussed more generally the direct and indirect ways that widespread corruption can increase the risk of deadly accidents. But I continue to wonder whether, with respect to the Beirut tragedy, it will turn out that corruption (rather than “mere” incompetence) will have been a contributing cause.

We still don’t have all the answers—particularly with respect to the decision-making process within Lebanon itself—but thanks to excellent investigative reporting by an international team of journalists with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), we now have a great deal more information about the shadowy and highly suspicious backstory of the abandoned ship that brought the ammonium nitrate to Beirut in the first place. I don’t think I can do the report justice, but I highly recommend that everyone read it—it’s available here. And to give you a sense of what’s in it, I’ll just quote the main findings summarized at the beginning of the report: Continue reading

The Legacy of Guatemala’s Commission Against Impunity

The most innovative experiment in the fight against corruption in memory ended last week with the closing down of Guatemala’s impunity commission.  Known as CICIG after its Spanish initials, the commission enjoyed tremendous success over its ten plus year life, securing the conviction of dozens of senior military and political leaders, forcing a sitting president and vice president to resign over corruption charges, and most importantly, showing Guatemalans their leaders were not beyond the law’s reach. The commission ceased operating Wednesday after outgoing President Jimmy Morales, whom the commission was investigating for campaign finance violations, refused to renew its mandate.

Although Guatemala’s corrupt elite finally succeeded in killing the commission, the innovation behind the commission’s success is very much alive.  Prompted by CICIG’s success, neighboring Honduras created its own CICIG-like commission, and last Friday, less than 48 hours after CICIG shut down, El Salvador’s newly-elected president established a Salvadorian version of CICIG.  Across the Atlantic, independent of developments in Central America, Ukraine is pioneering a similar ground-breaking approach to fighting corruption which Moldovans are considering copying.

What all four countries have in common is a corrupt ruling class able to stymie the enforcement of the anticorruption laws. CICIG’s creators were the first to recognize that outside pressure alone was never going to change this dynamic.  No matter how much diplomatic and economic pressure the international community brought to bear, Guatemalan investigators, prosecutors, and judges were never going to tame grand corruption by themselves.  Some were themselves corrupt or corruptible; others were honest but unwilling to cross corrupt friends and relatives, and still others feared for their life or the lives of their families if they opened a case.   The CICIG solution? Continue reading

“Corruption Proofing” Statutes and Regulations: The Next Big Thing in Anticorruption Strategy?

So-called “corruption proofing” is an ex ante preventive measure that entails review of the form and substance of legal acts (principally statutes or regulations) in order to minimize the risk of future corruption. It is a relatively new strategy in the anticorruption toolkit. As of 2015, 13 countries had enacted some form of corruption proofing: Armenia, Albania, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, South Korea, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.

While there is some divergence between each country’s specific practices, generally a corruption proofing system requires that draft and/or existing legal acts (statutes and regulations) are subjected to a review process by a designated institution (or institutions), which are tasked with identifying corruptogenic factors”—aspects of those laws that might create risks of future corruption. Examples of corruptogenic factors that corruption proofing systems have identified include unclear definitions of the rights and duties of public officials; broad discretionary power; over-broad freedom to enact by-laws and other subsidiary legislation; linguistic ambiguity; inadequate sanctions; lack of (or conflicting) regulatory and administrative procedures; and disproportionate burdens on citizens to exercise their rights. The reviewing institution then makes recommendations for changes to the law that would mitigate those risks. The governmental body from which the legal acts originate (the parliament, in the case of statutes) is obligated to consider these recommendations but is not required to implement them, though in some systems the governmental body must state its reasons for rejecting the reviewing institution’s recommendations. Another common practice is that the proofing agency’s recommendations (and, if applicable, the explanations for why they were disregarded) are circulated as an annex to the draft law being debated in the legislature and are also published online, thus providing both lawmakers and citizens with more information about the potential corruptogenic factors associated with the law. Continue reading

Lessons from Moldova’s “Theft of the Century”

One year ago today, on April 20th, 2017, a Moldovan businessman named Veaceslav Platon was sentenced to 18 years in prison. His crime? Helping to steal a billion dollars. Between 2012 and 2014, businessmen and politicians siphoned off money from Moldova’s three largest banks in a crime now known as the “Theft of the Century.” While corruption is endemic in many parts of Eastern Europe, the theft in Moldova was spectacular in its size and in the severity of its consequences.

This theft was an economic, social, and political catastrophe for Moldova. The amount of money that disappeared was similar to the amount implicated in the 1MDB scandal in Malaysia–but Malaysia’s GPD is 2.3 times the size of Moldova’s. The Moldovan government’s secret bailout of the banks cost $870 million, one-eighth of Moldova’s GDP. As a result of the theft, three of Moldova’s main banks went bankrupt and were liquidated; more banks are still under the supervision of the National Bank of Moldova, and there is persistent instability in the financial sector. And then there’s the human cost. For example, the misuse of money in the State Health Insurance Company’s accounts led to a medicine shortage in 2014-2015. During street demonstrations that ensued after the theft became public, two dozen people were injured. The political fallout from the theft has also been substantial: Confidence in the government was shattered, as every government branch and every major political party seemed implicated. Furthermore, because the party seen as most heavily involved in the theft was a pro-EU party, Moldovan support for joining the EU plummeted. Pro-Russian sympathizers capitalized on the public reaction, and the pro-Kremlin Igor Dodon was elected president in 2016. Dodon has talked about joining the Russia-controlled Eurasian Economic Union, halted participation in NATO exercises, and opposes the opening of a NATO office in Chisinau, Moldova’s capitol.

The investigation into the theft has dragged. More than 40 people have been implicated, and more prosecutions are supposedly in the pipeline, but only a few people have been convicted so far. With Moldova’s 2018 elections looming, now is a good time to look back at the fallout and lessons from the Theft of the Century.

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Getting Serious (and Technical) About Procurement Corruption: The Transparent Public Procurement Rating Project

For corruption fighters, public procurement is notable for two reasons. One, it is damnably complex. Two, it is often permeated with corrupt deals.  The latter makes it a critical target of anticorruption policy, the former a tough nut to crack. The thicket of laws, regulations, standard bidding documents, and practices that govern procurement means civil society groups advocating counter corruption measures are often at sea.  Lacking expertise on this bewildering set of rules, they can do little more than campaign in general terms for reform, urging steps like “greater transparency” or “tougher penalties” for corrupt activities.

But as anyone knows who has tried to persuade a government of uncertain will and commitment to adopt effective anticorruption policies, the devil is in the details.  Unless one has mastered the details of public procurement, a government can do all sorts of things to “improve transparency” or “crack down on procurement scofflaws” that are nothing but public relations gambits. So it is a pleasure to report that civil society organizations in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine have joined to form the Transparent Public Procurement Rating Project, which provides a way for staff to master the details of the public procurement and to thus be able to present detailed proposals for rooting corruption out of their nation’s public procurement systems.    Continue reading