More than 20 years after Central and Eastern Europe began transitions to democracy, small elites in many places seem to amass more and more wealth and power. As public institutions are taken hostage to private interests, an observer might think that theft and crackdowns occur as part of the state’s design.
She’d be right. A perverse pattern of “state capture”—substantial, institutionalized, particularistic, self-interested influence or control of unrepresentative actors over public finances or state policy formation and implementation—has settled over a number of countries, including the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, and Romania. These injustices are reasons for anger, and even despair, for many citizens.
We’ve seen this in Bulgaria, where Europe’s largest and most sustained protests in 2013 and 2014 took place. This despair can create demand for reform and change. But if the reform does not take off and deliver a relatively fast sense of change, dismayed citizens may turn to extremist or xenophobic politicians, who offer quick solutions and fixes, and are ready to point fingers at various vulnerable groups to blame. To combat state capture with integrity, we should understand how it begins and spreads and how it differs from ordinary corruption.
State capture is not another name for corruption. It helps to think of an analogy. While corruption reflects moral failure of individuals, state capture is a systemic failure which occurs in a country without functioning checks and balances by design. What happens elsewhere due to poor controls happens intentionally in places like Bulgaria or Romania, where capture of state institutions and important industry sectors defines reality. Deficiencies and loopholes become integral to laws and institutions. Law enforcement and other governance officials learn to maximize wealth, power, and impunity for the benefit of particular groups and networks, as we see in Slovakia with the judiciary, for example.
Imagine writing and enforcing laws in order to exert and consolidate control and further enrich a few, and you’ll have a sense of state capture as we are witnessing it in Hungary. Now imagine these laws becoming entrenched in practice, and you’ll have one of the most daunting issues at the core of the reform and transition challenge.
Research has shown that state capture is a particular risk in countries emerging from authoritarian regimes. Sometimes, old collusive ties between major businesses and weak political institutions find their way into the structure of the new state. In other places, the chaos of post-repressive years leads skillful exploiters to seize control of state resources. They do so especially when fledgling transitional governments are undertaking economic liberalization measures in the context of weak rule of law.
Once this pattern sets in, it can last a long time. We see examples of state capture in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania. We might think that the rules of an open society would thwart state capture. The opposite is sometimes true.
The reason is that an opening political system allows many civil society organizations to form and grow, but it does not give these organizations authority. Under state capture, calling out extortion will not stop extortion. With limited capacity for oversight, NGOs usually cannot offset the loss of legal and regulatory controls and the endemic weakness in many state institutions.
This is infuriating, and can lead voters to embrace extremists and xenophobes. In societies with weak democratic roots, or where populations are dismayed with promises not delivered by mainstream politicians, populist forces may quickly appropriate simple anti-corruption frameworks to gain popular support rather than altering corrupt practices and ousting corrupt politicians. In turn, people disheartened by mainstream politics either withdraw from political participation or follow simplistic populists who offer fantasies of systemic change.
But societies can redirect this anger, with help from think tanks.
Organizations that research, write, and analyze can go after a captured state at its source: the ideas driving it. Remember that a captured state is sicker than a corrupt one. In a corrupt state, exposing wrongdoing would signal state institutions to respond. In a captured state, we need to complement transparency and monitoring activities with in-depth understanding of the political forces at work. The government institutions who would normally execute reform often serve the political interests of captors. The result can poison public life in a different way, by giving credence to calls for solutions that reject open society.
What’s more, state capture’s systemic nature makes it hard to document actual structures and processes in place. Think tanks can dig into the necessary systematic analysis of the structure of state capture, providing watchdogs and advocacy organizations with methodologies to document it, and understand where the capture links are weakest. Society and grassroots coalitions can thus focus their attention where the captors are weakest and create a source of public pressure on antidemocratic actors, to liberate the captured country.
The most effective way of exerting public pressure is through wide coalitions or the cooperation of independent actors. While these coalitions can reap tremendous emotional energy, they come short of devising feasible and achievable strategies for countering state capture. Think tanks can offer intellectual support for these wide public coalitions by analyzing the weak points of capture. Think tanks should not only analyze the system but also devise and bring policy proposals into public discussions. Think tanks can and should help mobilize different constituencies to dismantle the means through which state institutions are captured. They can help constitute and support wide coalitions demanding the reform of captured institutions. Only that way can society avoid falling prey to populist leaders or descend into apathy.
We’ve seen examples of coalitions countering state capture—in the Czech Republic, through the coalition Reconstruction of the State, and in Romania, with the Alliance for Clean Romania—which, despite challenges, have reaped some successes already. In Hungary, we see similar attempts emerging in the This Is Minimum [Hungarian] pledge and Slovakia’s municipal election pledge for Good Candidates [Slovakian]; these are all examples of where civil society can take on and challenge state capture.