Protests over corruption and impunity are erupting almost daily in countries across the globe. Although tensions between the dominant minority and the marginalized majority have always existed, they are worsening in a globalized world marred by increasing inequality. A new global trend is evolving as populations reject governments that serve a handful of elite. And this trend shows no signs of stopping. The rise in anti-corruption protests demonstrates the strength of public sentiment that animates contemporary security challenges.
Latin America is in the midst of an “Accountability Revolution.” Corporate and government corruption, most notably the Petrobras and Odebrecht scandals in Brazil, have reverberated across the region. They have been met with large-scale protests and demands for greater accountability. The Marcha Verde, or Green March in the Dominican Republic, is just one example. Protesters carry banners calling for the “End of Impunity” in order to “be free of the regime of corruption and impunity that oppresses us.”
The sentiment that charges this movement and others like it is part of a larger pattern – widespread resentment against traditional political and economic institutions that benefit an elite few, to the detriment of the everyday man and woman. These perceptions, combined with evidence of corruption, are amplified by the use of social media for collective action. Even the most powerful elites have been subject to this force and some, including former presidents Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina, Dilma Rousseff of Brazil and Ricado Martinelli of Panama, have been criticized, investigated, arrested or impeached.
This trend extends far beyond Latin America. Protests against corruption and abuse of power are ongoing in Romania, Morocco and Russia. In Romania, over 500,000 citizens have gone to the streets nationwide to protest a government decree normalizing corruption, in some of the largest demonstrations since the overthrow of communism in 1989. In the words of a protester: “the government is lying and cheating and it is our right to change that.” In response, Romanian youth are playing a particularly important role as “a new generation, motivated by national feelings, standing up for our rights.” This anti-corruption narrative is repeated, both in Morocco and Russia, where protests are increasing despite government and police repression.
In Morocco, protests began after images of a fishmonger’s death, not unlike the death of a fruit vendor in Tunisia that sparked the Arab Spring in 2011, were disseminated across social media. The fishmonger story gained national attention and protest quickly morphed into wider demands against “hogra,” roughly translated as “deprivation of dignity from corruption.” The protest reflect a loss of faith in government and feelings of disenfranchisement and marginalization. In the minds of protesters, corruption is an innately human issue perceived as an attack on individual dignity, which affects their access to “freedom and social justice.”
Nearly 270,000 citizens recently hit the streets in Moscow to protest corruption, shouting “Russia without thieves” and “Russia without Putin.” A recently conducted poll by an independent Russian polling organization, the Levada Center, showed 65% of Russians see corruption as unacceptable and 38% support the protests. Moscow-based journalist Roman Dobrokhotov describes a new generation of protesters, the discontented youth, and argues Russia is losing control over public opinion as a “new culture of information consumption” emerges. Russian youth no longer watch State television channels, instead they subscribe to social media accounts, which allow platforms like that of protest organizer Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Center to go viral.
Protest are not the only destabilizing symptom of endemic corruption. Systemic corruption in Afghanistan, one of the world’s most predatory states, has torn apart the formal and informal social structures creating a national security threat. In a national survey, corruption was rated Afghanistan’s third most serious problem, while insecurity and unemployment held the top two positions. However, the survey fails to appreciate the link between corruption and insecurity – the fact that corruption infects all facets of society and leads directly to increased insecurity.
Corruption delegitimizes the Afghan government and the elite class that enriches itself at the expense of national interest. It impedes economic development, encourages transnational crime and enables terrorism. It leaves citizens to fend for themselves, making them increasingly vulnerable to the appeal of extremism that promises improved governance and anti-criminality, despite violent practices that further destabilize the country.
Despite the anti-corruption campaign of the government and a military task force dedicated to transparency, billions of dollars of foreign aid ends up in the pockets of corrupt officials, rather than in the hands of those who need it most. Afghanistan’s slide into a failed state provides a stark example of the potential of corruption and should serve as a warning to nation-states and the international community. Governments that fail to curb corruption and public resentment concerning impunity jeopardize their political and economic security.
Countries in the throes of anti-corruption protests must act now, before these situations spiral into heightened social unrest and violence. Government officials must understand public perceptions of corruption and impunity are evolving. People view corruption and impunity as personal attacks on their dignity, which threaten political and economic security. These threats can only be solved by addressing the underlying grievances of the populations and actively dismantling the institutions that permit endemic corruption to perpetuate.