x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Countering a culture of corruption

EU sponsored report finds that fraud is still rife in Turkey, with many ministries happy to accept 'tips'.

ISTANBUL // It was just another day at the land registry office in Sincan, a district of Ankara, Turkey's capital. Officials were working at their desks, writing at computers, handing out permits - and literally lining their pockets, stuffing wads of cash they received from citizens into their purses. What they did not know was that they were being filmed.

This year, in what newspapers called a "kickback photonovella", the police documented several cases of corruption in the Sincan office with the help of hidden cameras before arresting 13 officials. This week, a similar operation with surveillance cameras led to the arrest of three land registry officials in Sakarya province in north-western Turkey.

Cases that create such public interest are like the tip of an iceberg, anti-corruption activists said. "Unfortunately, Turkey's corruption problem is still in an unacceptable dimension," Ufuk Batum, a leading member of the Transparency Association, a group acting as the Turkey chapter for the anti-corruption group Transparency International, wrote in an e-mail in response to questions this week.

"There has been a significant increase in cases of corruption during the last 20 years."

Fighting the problem is an uphill struggle. According to an EU-sponsored report by the ethics commission of the Turkish government that was published last week, land registry offices, the traffic police and local government institutions in Turkey have become centres of corruption. Low pay for officials, a tradition of accepting "presents" and lack of control mechanisms are among the reasons why corruption is so widespread, the report said.

It is not just state officials who are thinking of illegal kickbacks, the report found. Based on questions put to car users and traffic policemen in Turkey's three biggest cities - Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir - the report said many drivers were prepared to pay bribes to traffic cops.

Those problems and reflexes are deep-rooted and will not be easy to change, Mr Batum, of the Transparency Association, wrote. "The country's political culture has not fully embraced openness, transparency, the readiness to account for one's actions, fair competition and similar principles."

Last year, Turkey ranked 58 on a corruption scale of 180 countries issued by Transparency International. With that result, Turkey was seen as being slightly less corrupt than in the year before, when it was in 64th position. The UAE was ranked 35th last year.

One problem in fighting corruption is that courts and high-ranking officials are often seen to be very tolerant in dealing with suspected offenders. "The fact that people and institutions involved in corruption and bribe-taking are not being punished with the necessary strength, or sometimes even get off without any sentence whatsoever, creates the wrong sort of role model in the conscience of society," Mr Batum wrote

In February, a court in Ankara handed down suspended sentences to 10 officials of another local land registry office for abuse of office, but rejected the prosecution's argument that the officials were guilty of corruption, which would have resulted in prison terms of up to 12 years.

Even though the court found that there had been no corruption, it ordered the defendants to pay back a total of 18,000 Lira (Dh43,000) that they had received from people in return for speeding up work on property deals or house-building permits. At about the same time, Faruk Nafiz Ozak, the housing minister who has since been made the minister in charge of sports, said there was a difference between "tips" and outright corruption.

The director of Turkey's land registry administration, Mehmet Zeki Adli, also said there was no corruption involved if house-owners gave "tips out of their happiness of building a house".

It is that kind of mindset that makes it so hard to fight corruption, Mr Batum wrote. Instead of playing down corruption, the public had to be told "with the help of examples, cases and figures how big a damage corruption and bribe-taking inflicts on the whole of society".

That damage can be very big indeed. The reluctance of Turkish politicians to fight corruption triggered an economic meltdown in Turkey in 2001, when Ahmet Necdet Sezer, the president at the time, angrily hurled a copy of the constitution at government members during a meeting of the national security council in Ankara.

Mr Sezer accused ministers of not doing enough to stop the rot following a string of fraudulent bank insolvencies involving public officials. Bulent Ecevit, the then prime minister, broke off the meeting and told reporters the president had thrown Turkey into a "state crisis".

The episode triggered a crash of the Istanbul stock exchange as investors rushed to bring their money out of Turkey. Within days, the country found itself in the most serious economic crisis in decades.

tseibert@thenational.ae