Keep up good work on corruption, cabinet told

OVER THE LAST eight years and two consecutive Mikuláš Dzurinda governments, people believe that corruption in Slovakia has receded, according to annual surveys conducted by the Transparency International Slovakia (TIS) watchdog and public opinion polls.

OVER THE LAST eight years and two consecutive Mikuláš Dzurinda governments, people believe that corruption in Slovakia has receded, according to annual surveys conducted by the Transparency International Slovakia (TIS) watchdog and public opinion polls.

Corruption experts warn, however, that unless the new Robert Fico government takes a firm stand against bribery and clientelism, all past efforts may be in vain.

"The progress that Slovakia has made so far might be satisfying, but the situation will not continue to improve unless anti-corruption measures continue to be taken. Unfortunately, we haven't seen any such efforts by the new government so far," said TIS President Emília Sičáková-Beblavá.

Every year, Transparency International publishes a 'corruption perception index' (CPI), which measures how widespread people believe that corruption is in each given country.

In 2006, Slovakia placed 49th out of the 163 countries evaluated on the index, ranking about the same as countries such as Latvia and South Africa. Compared to its score in 1998, the first time Slovakia was ranked in the Transparency poll, the country has risen from 3.9 points to its current 4.7 on a scale of 0-10. The higher the mark, the lower the perceived level of corruption.

Slovakia has also done relatively well compared to its regional neighbours over the last eight years. Poland, for example, was given a CPI rating of 3.7 points in 2006, down from 4.6 points in 1998, while the Czech Republic was unchanged at 4.8 points, and Hungary was only marginally better at 5.2 points in 2006, up from 5.0 in 1998.

"Not only our poll but also similar polls by the EBRD [European Bank for Reconstruction and Development] and a March 2006 poll by the [Bratislava-based] Focus agency all confirmed that Slovaks believe that progress is being made in combating corruption. As a result, more people are now willing to report corruption cases to the police, and although this figure still remains very low at just 7 percent [of all corruption cases], it has increased from 3 percent over the last few years, and a positive trend is visible," Sičáková-Beblavá said.

According to TIS analyses, the greatest improvements have come in areas that underwent structural reforms over the past few years, such as health care, as well as in areas where the state has given up ownership through privatization, such as the banking sector.

"We have also observed that the perception of corruption has not decreased in areas that have not been reformed, and that the risk of corruption remains the highest where the private sector meets the public sector, such as in public procurement and EU funding," Sičáková-Beblavá said.

Between 2007 and 2013, Slovakia stands to receive over 11 billion euros in EU funding, or roughly one-third of the country's current annual GDP. According to TIS, Slovakia still doesn't have an effective means of preventing this money from being misused.

"The volume of money that will be flowing into Slovakia in the next few years requires that tough anti-corruption measures be put in place. Otherwise, there is a risk that this money will not be used effectively," the TIS president said.

TIS lawyer Pavel Nechala noted that the Robert Fico government's program, adopted in July, lacks a clear plan for fighting corruption.

"The program is weak on corruption, and we also see it as a bad sign that the government did not make a specific cabinet official responsible for this area," Nechala said at a TIS press conference on November 6.

He also noted that the existing institution that is supposed to lead the fight against corruption, which was set up under the previous government, is "understaffed and is doing virtually nothing at the moment".

But Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák argued that the role of the Anti-Corruption Unit at the Government Office "is not to replace the police.

"If we get the feeling that we lack a specific program to fight corruption, we will definitely prepare it," he said in reaction to the TIS report.

Nechala conceded that the Fico government had already approved several measures that TIS considered positive steps in the fight against corruption, such as publishing court verdicts on the Internet (an initiative launched by the previous government), and its proclaimed interest in saving money on public procurement by centralizing the process.

On the other hand, Nechala said that the new government had taken some steps backwards on corruption, such as Justice Minister Štefan Harabin's proposal to abolish the Special Court for organized crime and political corruption cases.

In a statement to The Slovak Spectator, Harabin said that TIS' statements were "a free expression of opinion, which I respect.

"However, it is not possible to run a ministry according to public opinion polls," the minister added.

In response to criticism of his proposal to abolish the Special Court, Harabin said it was an unnecessary institution: "The ministry wonders why some neighbouring countries ranked higher on the [CPI] chart even though they don't have such an institution [as the Special Court]", he said.

Nechala was also critical of "the personnel policy of the new government. In many state organizations, changes are carried out without proper job tenders, and this looks more like political patronage than an attempt to build up good government staff".

According to Silvia Glendová, spokeswoman for Prime Minister Fico, the arguments presented by Sičáková-Beblavá and TIS regarding cronyism in appointments to state posts were not credible. She attacked the organization and its president, saying that they "did not deal with the activities of the Labour Ministry when her [Sičáková-Beblavá's] husband [Miroslav Beblavý] was deputy labour minister for the [then-ruling] SDKÚ party".

"Real steps are much more important than program documents in fighting corruption. This government is taking these steps, for instance by nominating clean and independent people to significant economic posts," Glendová said.

However, some recent appointments suggest that the situation is somewhat different than Glendová claimed.

The Pravda daily reported on November 6 that the ruling Slovak National Party (SNS) had nominated 23-year-old law student Kristína Ďuračková, the daughter of SNS MP Jozef Ďuračka, to the board of directors of one of the largest heating plants in Slovakia, Trnavská Teplárenská. When asked what qualifications his daughter had for the job, Ďuračka told the daily that she was "not a stupid chick at all. She speaks three languages".

Asked whether the nomination was connected with the fact that Ďuračková is his daughter, Ďuračka added: "well, everything is about politics... you know what I mean".

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