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Written by: Joe Grady (Topos Partnership)

Katica Janeva. Any Macedonian interested in the problem of public corruption knows this name – the Special Prosecutor who was convicted and jailed in June of 2020 for her involvement in a bribery scheme, and who had been the highest-level government official charged with investigating and punishing public corruption in the country.

Janeva’s abuse of her position hurt North Macedonia’s reputation and damaged chances of eventual acceptance into the European Union, and maybe more importantly, it was a blow to any confidence the public might have had that government could be significantly reformed and “cleaned up” in North Macedonia, or that the “Colorful Revolution” in which Janeva was an important figure was anything more than a hypocritical sham.   

As it happens Janeva’s downfall occurred during the course of a project researching how North Macedonians think and feel about public corruption.

The research, funded by the Open Societies Foundation, was also conducted in Brazil and the United States, and focused on how residents of these countries think about corruption in the public sphere, as well as how best to engage them in efforts to combat the problem. In each country, researchers spoke with roughly 150 people, and some participants also engaged in internet surveys assessing how they responded to different kinds of messages.

The assumption behind the work was that positive change is much more likely if the public – in whatever country – believes both that corruption in government is a serious problem, and that something can and must be done to combat it.

Not surprisingly, findings across the countries were distinct in various interesting ways. Brazilians, for example, may see themselves as being culturally averse to rigid rules and procedures, including those that keep government “honest.” Americans have a strong sense that their country is supposedly governed democratically in the interests of the public – but that this ideal was betrayed long ago.

Macedonians, for their part, often have a sense that their country lags behind others, and particularly, behind European countries that function in more modern, transparent ways. They may also look back nostalgically at the Yugoslav era when things seemed to run less democratically but more predictably. More fundamentally, they live in a context where “everyday corruption” can feel like a necessary way of navigating dysfunctional public systems, and where courting favor with those in power can seem like the only way of thriving in a party-dominated (clientelistic) work world.

But there were also important parallels in the three countries, in people’s current thinking and in the kinds of ideas they find most compelling[1].

In all three countries, the public tends to be hopeless and fatalistic about whether government ever really focuses on the public good. The very idea is hardly in their minds, as they tend to see government as a set of powerful elites running things in their own interest. Corruption is basically understood as the normal state of affairs, in ways that have nothing to do with legality – government pretends to represent “us” but is actually disconnected from and uninterested in the public.

With regard to communications approaches that can help, there are also important parallels.

The most basic and important communications elements in all three countries are real-world success stories of a specific kind, in which the implementation of a law, process or structure led to positive outcomes: city councils that focused more on the public good, institutions of various kinds producing better results for the public, and so forth. In North Macedonia, one of these success stories focused the creation of a smartphone app that publishes real-time air quality information, so that everyone can see how well pollution regulations are being enforced.

On a deeper level, the research found that when it comes to communicating corruption in government, it is important to shift from what the researchers call “Crime and Punishment mode” – including a focus on individual actors and actions  – to “Guardrails” mode, focusing on concrete mechanisms at whatever level of government, that effectively keep leaders and institutions on track serving the public. This mode is more about hope than outrage, more about prevention than punishment, more about practicality than morality, more about structures than individuals.

Janeva and people like her are all too familiar to North Macedonians, and it is tempting to focus on successful prosecutions, when they happen, as a way of illustrating that progress is possible. But the research shows that instead of Crime and Punishment stories like hers, communicators can make greater headway by focusing on success stories of the tools we can build, strengthen and protect, that make corruption more difficult, and public-spirited government more likely.

For more information please see: Marija Mirchevska from FOSM “OSF/FOSM’s quest for a reflexive and learning based approach to anticorruption communication” (link); global research findings (link); and North Macedonia’s findings (link).

[1] Note that the countries were selected in part due to some parallels, such as current or recent experience with conservative governments that came to power in part by successfully – if hypocritically – painting opponents as corrupt.


6 December 2021