The Regensburg Corruption Research Cluster was launched in February 2020 with the support of the German Research Foundation (DFG) that actually finances the interdisciplinary project “From informality to corruption (1817-2018): Serbia and Croatia in comparison”. The DFG grant includes a three-year financing for three doctoral students: one in history, one in linguistics, and one in economics. From this core the cluster has been developing further, with two more Ph.D. projects (one financed by the Bayhost programme of the State of Bavaria, another one external) and a postdoc project (financed by the European Union’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions/MSCA) added.
Corruption is considered one of the central problems of Southeastern Europe on the road to development, stability and European integration. Intensive monitoring, media campaigns and massive institutional imports have been launched over the past 20 years in order to get a grip on the problem – with generally modest results. Our research cluster is tackling the issue in an innovative way. We start from the assumption that while the phenomenon of corruption is universal, concrete societies harbour particular boundaries between legitimate and illegitimate action. International anti-corruption campaigns that ignore this risk falling flat if they do not adequately address the local context and do not seek to connect with local discourses. A region like Southeastern Europe, which has always seen itself as a plaything of foreign powers and their interests, cannot be expected to identify with changes demanded by the European Union and to initiate deep, authentic social change. For this to happen, we first need an “autochthonization” of the conceptual apparatus we use to capture and describe corruption. Example: Where, as in Southeastern Europe, people have historically learned distrust of the state, they also internalize the importance of alternative safeguards through family or friends. An anti-corruption policy that portrays the favouring of close people as immoral per se fails to recognise the value of these relationships for people and thus misses the starting point for change. This cannot lie in the expectation that family and friendship will quickly become a “private matter” that has nothing to do with the distribution of public resources. It would be more important for a society to build personal networks into the formal regulatory framework in such a way that local notions of justice are satisfied, while also setting limits and ensuring transparency in the event of any transgressions.
These policy implications notwithstanding, we do not aim to become activists or even policy advisors ourselves. Rather, we translate our approach into fundamental research by practicing interdisciplinary cooperation between the disciplines of history, linguistics and business administration. All three disciplines are characterized by their openness to qualitative approaches, i.e. to the close examination of local/regional/national conditions and concrete actors. Through our four historical subprojects, we investigate stability and change in the understanding of corruption in some subregions of Southeastern Europe (former Yugoslavia, Romania) since the 18th century. In doing so, we work on the long-term obstacles to anti-corruption measures. These include the covert or overt instrumentalization of these measures by elites, local lack of understanding and popular resistance based on distrust of the state, and historical caesurae with institution-destroying effects. A linguistic sub-project deals with the corruption-related change in values in the 20th century, as only a diachronic analysis of corresponding lexemes and word fields can reveal. Finally, the economics sub-project deals with the understanding of corruption and corruption practices in the business world today, on the basis of in-depth interviews with business actors in the field.
With our region-based approach, we by no means want to claim that Southeastern Europe is a closed world unto itself. Rather, many things become visible in the region that play a role wherever people encounter the state with mistrust. In this “particularist” way, we do not deny that corruption is an interconnected, global problem, and that cross-border measures can be helpful in solving it. However, we want to show that global solution strategies must always take the local context into account, and that a global understanding of corruption is only helpful if it does not reflect the world view and the interests of standard-setting central institutions, but is developed from an intersection of local, regional understandings of corruption. Only then will the conditions be created for anti-corruption measures that “arrive” locally and also have a lasting effect.