A man holds a sign reading "We want democracy like in EU, not like in Russia" in front of government headquarters in Bucharest, November 2014.
Radu Sigheti / Courtesy Reuters

On November 16, when the Romanian people elected as president Klaus Iohannis, an ethnic German who ran a vigorous campaign against corruption, they shattered a number of illusions about politics in eastern Europe. Since the end of the Cold War, Western analysts and media have portrayed eastern Europe as a region dogged by a xenophobic nationalism, where uncivilized voters are quick to turn to ethno-nationalist parties in times of trouble. Although Hungary’s recent slide into authoritarianism conforms to this narrative, Iohannis’ victory tells another story—as do recent elections in several other postcommunist states.

In Romania, election results suggest that eastern Europeans have directed their frustrations not at ethnic minorities but at their own governments, which are riddled with corruption and inefficiencies. Iohannis’ opponent, Prime Minister Victor Ponta, ran a campaign that catered to the nationalist vote, promising to support traditional Romanian values of “the army, church, and family” and arguing that Romania should incorporate neighboring Moldova. But he was soundly defeated on polling day. Instead, voters chose a solidly pro-EU political outsider who promised good governance.

Romanians are not alone. Eastern Europeans continue to see the EU as the most credible antidote to countrywide corruption, as demonstrated by recent elections in Slovenia and Ukraine. In July, Slovenians elected Miro Cerar, a moralistic law professor who ran on an anticorruption, antiestablishment platform, to be prime minister. Cerar defeated both the center-left and the center-right by promising to restore fair governance to a country stuck in economic recession. Slovenians, tired of a political elite that grew fat on spoils as the rest of the country stagnated, turned—like the Romanians—to a pro-EU political outsider. In October, Ukraine’s parliamentary election followed a similar trajectory. The Euromaidan movement, whose parties won a majority of the vote and will form the next government, emphasized rooting out corruption and moving the country toward the rest of Europe.

Of course, electing reformers does not necessarily guarantee results. A number of antigraft parties have come to power in eastern Europe only to get nothing done once in office. This may explain why skeptical voters often choose candidates who have little to do with the political establishment: an ethnic German, a law professor, or, in the case of Kiev Mayor Vitali Klitschko, a boxer. Just last week, Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko appointed three foreigners to ministerial positions in his new government. An American will run the Ministry of Finance, a Lithuanian will run the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade, and a Georgian will run the Ministry of Health. Many feel that these outsiders have a better chance than most of overcoming inertia and corrupt local networks.

But even they may falter. By running on a single issue, anticorruption candidates often avoid taking positions on the long list of problems their countries face: stagnant economies, a need for foreign investment, a lackluster civil service. And getting things done often requires knowing how to deal with the people and practices of a corrupt system.

In Slovenia, for instance, Cerar has already faced two serious obstacles in his fight to eliminate corruption. First, many of his nominees to high positions in his new government come from the political establishment he campaigned against. This raises serious doubts about the credibility of Cerar’s electoral promises. Second, a majority of legal institutions continue to do a poor job of upholding the rule of law. The Slovenian judiciary, for example, remains among the least trusted institutions in Slovenia. In a recent high-profile case, the Ljubljana county court sentenced Janez Jansa, the leader of the main opposition party, to two years in prison for accepting bribes in a public procurement case. According to a former justice of the country’s constitutional court, the case was based on insufficient, largely circumstantial evidence. But with the backing of Cerar’s own party, Jansa was also stripped of his seat in parliament, underscoring the political nature of the prosecution and suggesting that Cerar might not be as independent as voters believed him to be.

Put simply, eliminating corruption is difficult, if not nearly impossible—especially from the outside. Yet eastern Europeans hope for deliverance. In Romania, Slovenia, and Ukraine, a silent majority has rejected right-wing nationalists in favor of unassuming, pro-European reformers. Liberal-minded parties throughout eastern Europe should take note and seek renewal themselves, drawing to their ranks antiestablishment outsiders with moral backbone.

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  • MITCHELL A. ORENSTEIN is Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at Northeastern University. He is also an affiliate of both the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies and the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. BOJAN BUGARIC is Associate Professor of Law at the University of Ljubljana, in Slovenia, and Visiting Researcher at the Minda de Gunzburg Center at Harvard University.
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