Across the globe the call -- "End Corruption" -- is ringing loud. In the bitter cold of Ukraine's capital, Kiev, tens of thousands of citizens are demonstrating against the government of president Viktor Yanukovych. The protesters declared: "Out with the bandits!"
In New Delhi, India, the parliament has finally bowed to the persistent pressures of mass public demonstrations, led by the 76-year-old anti-graft campaigner, Anna Hazare, and has approved legislation to establish an independent anti-corruption commission. As the media has reported major bribery scandals, and as Hazare has gone on hunger strikes and drawn enormous public attention to his cause, so the corruption issue is emerging as the major topic for the 2014 national elections.
In Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey, the police have swooped down on more than 50 prominent people, including the sons of three cabinet ministers, on alleged corruption charges. Stories of kick-backs on government contracts paid to influential public officials by business people are rife and may threaten the ambitions of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is likely to run for president in 2014.
News reports from Beijing, China, state that president Xi Jinping is expanding his anti-corruption drive and, as a result, former Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee member and head of all of the nation's security and intelligence services, Zhou Yongkang, is being investigated. As a BBC news story stated: "If the reports are true, he would be the highest ranking official since the Communist party came to power more than 60 years ago to face a formal corruption investigation."
"Jailed at Last," rang the headline in The Economist magazine as it reported from Brazil on the jailing of former top politicians. They had been found guilty by the Supreme Court of bribery schemes related to campaign financing, but many Brazilians were skeptical that they would ever be put behind bars.Public demonstrations for justice for even the most powerful people in the country have finally been heard as the Supreme Court sent the villains to prison.
Each of these diverse anti-corruption developments across the world reflect mounting public awareness of just how large corruption is in their governments and how it enriches the few at the expense of the many.
As hundreds of millions of people, many very poor, across most of the world obtain Internet connections, see web-based news that governments find hard to censor, even in China, so the pressures on authorities to attack graft mounts. Those that are seen to be resisting such change, as president Yanukovych is discovering in Ukraine, risk being hurled out of power by the masses.
The willingness of president Xi in China to launch what is emerging as a substantial set of corruption investigations across the higher echelons of the Communist Party in China may not just reflect his determination to consolidate his power and purge potential rivals, but may also be a response to public anger, voiced through social media, against graft.
One positive result is that an increasing number of Chinese journalists are, for the first time, investigating corruption cases involving senior officials without fears of reprisals by their government, suggested reporter Luo Changping, who I spoke with in late October in Berlin, Germany when he received the 2013 Integrity Award from Transparency International, the global anti-corruption civil society organization. He said it will be some time before there are institutional reforms that provide greater protection for journalists and that make the actions of top officials more transparent, but he is hopeful that China is now set to move in these directions.
Reversals and Repression
However, there are plentiful recent experiences showing that the protests and the anti-corruption actions do not necessarily mean sustained reforms. The hopes of a new era of democracy that arose in the massive Arab Spring demonstration in Egypt in January 2009 seem distant today as that country once again is under military rule.
And it was in Kiev, Ukraine, after all, in 2004 that the public massed to overthrow a corrupt regime in a movement that came to be known as the "Orange Revolution." All of the high hopes of those demonstrators for an honest and democratic governmental future were undermined by the incompetence, the in-fighting and, yes the corruption, of the government that then came to power. That government's failure opened the door for the election of Yanukovych, who is now widely seen in his country and abroad as providing his family and his cronies with enormous opportunities to loot the state.
The widespread public perceptions of Yanukovych are illustrated by comments by Rutgers University Professor Alexander J. Motyl in a report for Foreign Affairs that noted: "He has eviscerated the courts, joined forces with Ukraine's richest oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, and used his Party of Regions as a vehicle for self-enrichment. The result is an ineffective, incompetent, and corrupt government apparatus that systematically ignores popular needs and violates human and civil rights."
As the public anti-corruption power manifests itself, so some autocratic and corrupt regimes, from Russia to Zimbabwe, move to repress those civil society groups that are in the forefront of organizing protests and threatening opposition leaders. Nevertheless, the courage of these leaders is remarkable, as is their determination. They believe that right and history are on their side and they are clear-headed about the risks they face of imprisonment, torture and even death.
Rafael Marques de Morais, Angolan journalist and activist, brushed aside the threats and the intimidation when we chatted in Berlin as he too received a 2013 Integrity Award from Transparency International. He acknowledged that there are many countries like Angola, where the power of the government is so concentrated and so totally in control of the military, the police, the judiciary and the security services, that activists have scant space to operate, let alone organize mass demonstrations.
The Call for No Impunity
However, as we saw in the Arab Spring, which started in Tunisia in January 2011, even in thoroughly repressive countries a time can come when the daily indignities hurled by corrupt officials on ordinary citizens become so demeaning and frustrating that the citizens raise their voices. They strive to restore their dignity and seek to promote an end to impunity from prosecution for all who rob the state and its citizens for their personal gain.
The events right now in Ukraine, Turkey, India and China, where each is very different in detail, yet where public anti-corruption pressures are central, underscores how increasingly powerful and how global is the march for justice. Above all, people want to see everyone, irrespective of their lofty governmental position, or their family or business ties to powerful politicians, held to account by a police force that is honest, and a justice system that treats all people with fairness and decency.