Political corruption still worries electorate

CORRUPTION may be receding in Slovakia's legal and business environments, but it is becoming concentrated in politics and public procurement, and continues to trouble the public, according to a corruption watchdog NGO.

CORRUPTION may be receding in Slovakia's legal and business environments, but it is becoming concentrated in politics and public procurement, and continues to trouble the public, according to a corruption watchdog NGO.

With parliamentary elections eight weeks away, the watchdog group Transparency International Slovakia (TIS) warned that according to its polling, corruption is still perceived as the fourth most urgent problem facing Slovak society.

The NGO therefore called on political parties to address this issue in their election programmes.

"In December 2005 [when the poll was carried out] the number of people who saw corruption as the fourth most urgent social problem increased, and they wanted politicians to reflect this in their political party programmes," said TIS President Emília Sičáková-Beblavá at a press conference on April 21.

TIS prepared a list of 20 recommended tasks that it called "the anti-corruption minimum", and urged parties to include in their election agendas.

The minimum calls for more information to be provided about eurofunds, including clear rules for drawing state funding and aid from the EU, and for public procurement.

According to TIS, transparency in the justice sector should be increased, MPs' immunity from prosecution should be narrowed, control of party financing should be improved, the state administration should be professionalized, and political nominations eliminated.

According to the TIS poll, 82 percent of Slovaks think that corruption takes place in public procurement. Corruption is also starting to concentrate in areas such as state funding and party financing.

"All major political parties have been involved in corruption cases," noted TIS lawyer Pavel Nechala.

Among the most serious cases in the last four years was the suspected bribery of independent MPs to get them to vote with the ruling coalition, which during its term lost its parliamentary majority.

Suspicions regarding the MP bribery were raised by a secret recording of Iveta Henzélyová, a former member of the New Citizens' Alliance, who told her then party boss Pavol Rusko that she had been approached by people who had tried to convince her to vote with the coalition by promising financial advantages. Police never got to the bottom of the case.

Other cases involving apparent conflicts of interest included the resignation of Labour Minister Ľudovít Kaník, who stepped down after it was revealed that his family firm had applied for euro funds through an agency administered by the Labour Ministry.

Deputy Agriculture Minister Marián Radošovský left his ministry when it turned out that his company had received grants from the ministry.

In August 2005, Economy Minister Pavol Rusko was ousted after a major conflict of interest scandal, which led to the departure of his party from the coalition. Rusko was found to have signed IOUs worth Sk104.5 million (€2.6 million) in favour of Ľubomír Blaško, a businessman active in the energy sector, which Rusko administered as economy minister.

Still in people's minds is the 'fake donors' case involving PM Mikuláš Dzurinda's Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), which was recently shelved by the police.

Some people listed by the SDKÚ as financial donors on its financing reports still insist they never gave any money to the party.

Parties' proposals

The opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) stated that it believed in "social justice, solidarity, and freedom but also the responsibility of each individual... based on the principles of freedom, law, and democracy".

"Therefore, the HZDS agenda includes combating corruption, which we see as a social problem that requires prevention in addition to repression. The HZDS will therefore approve several effective measures for preventing corruption in the public administration," reads a statement provided by the HZDS to The Slovak Spectator.

Martin Maťko, spokesman for the ruling SDKÚ, said that his party had not as yet approved specific anti-corruption steps. He noted, however, that a whole part of the party's election programme, which will be approved at a program conference on May 1 and will be subtitled A Just Slovakia, will include anti-corruption measures.

Pavol Hrušovský, the chairman of the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), which ran ministries under the current government that made major progress in reducing corruption, according to TIS, said it would not back off from its anti-corruption approach.

At a press conference on April 25, Hrušovský even said that the KDH would "not form a government with any political party that would want to change or cancel the level of the current anti-corruption measures".

Gábor Gál, from the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK), said the SMK would continue building "the personnel and material" capacities of the special police section for dealing with corruption and organized crime.

"We would also like to clear criminal prosecutions of various formal elements that are now preventing criminal cases from being wrapped up even though the culprits may be obvious," Gál told The Slovak Spectator, adding that his party also aimed to strengthen the position of the Special Court and the Special Attorney's Office.

TIS admitted, however, that while corruption remains the fourth most serious problem following living standards, which worry 58 percent of respondents, unemployment (51 percent) and health care (30 percent), the country has achieved great progress in reducing concern about corruption among the public. Corruption was quoted as a major concern by 27 percent of respondents.

According to Sičáková-Beblavá, corruption in the healthcare sector is still perceived as a serious problem, as reforms "have not yet reduced corruption in the sector".

According to the TIS poll, as many as 63 percent of respondents believe that bribery is very frequent in this sector.

Another problem area for corruption is party financing and "selected areas where the public and private sectors meet".

Justice was quoted by 47 percent of respondents and government ministries by 45 percent.

Despite a lot of criticism, the experts also praised the progress achieved under the current government, highlighting changes to court management, zero tolerance of corruption in legal professions, extending the powers of the Supreme Audit Bureau, and improvements in the business register.

"In January 2004, changing a company's data in the business register took several months as opposed to a mere five days now," said Nechala, noting that apart from faster registration procedures, all business register data are now accessible via the Internet as well.

Excerpts from the TIS poll

SOME 30 percent of respondents gave a bribe to a public service employee over the last three years.

Over the last two years, 26 percent of people bribed health care employees with various gifts, which is 5 percent less than in 2002. Monetary bribes were handed over by 17 percent of people, which was a 2 percent decrease as opposed to 2002. Some 58 percent of people did not give any bribe to health care employees, which was 8 percent more compared to 2002.

In the area of public procurement, corruption takes place "almost always" according to 22 percent of respondents and "often" according to 60 percent.

The main reason why companies support political parties is to achieve important management posts for its people, according to 41 percent of respondents, while another 38 percent think the main reason why firms support parties is to gain lucrative state orders.

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