According to a recent World Bank survey, a majority of Slovak citizens believe that corruption in the country is rampant. But the same day the results were announced, a proposed anti-corruption plan of action, initiated in February by Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda, was delayed by several months, prompting accusations that the government was still not taking the problem seriously.
The World Bank survey cited the healthcare sector, the judicial system, customs offices, the National Property Fund privatisation agency and licensing authorities as the most corrupt in the country, while the military, President's office and labour offices are the least corrupt.
Despite the survey results, and evidence from several other polls showing that corruption has become one of the most important issues for Slovak voters, the government has put off its much-anticipated anti-corruption legislation. Although Dzurinda and Deputy Prime Minister for Economy Ivan Mikloš had originally promised that a programme would be ready by this month, they now say voters will have to wait until September to see laws that in Dzurinda's words "build a Slovakia where you won't meet corruption."
"Corruption is a big problem in Slovakia," Dzurinda admitted at a press conference convened on July 3 to announce the World Bank's findings and the delays in the proposed legislation. "The government as well as the people realise corruption is a negative phenomenon. But common people often find themselves in a vicious circle unable to resist corruption and they get involved in it. Therefore we decided to agree on concrete action plans to be produced by all ministries and submitted to the government on September 13."
Mikloš added that the delays had been caused by lack of manpower in preparing the programme. Ministry officials had been charged with preparing the legislation in addition to their normal duties, he explained, since no special group had been formed to script the programme. Mikloš added that further delays had occured when the translation of the World Bank surveys from English to Slovak had taken longer than expected.
But anti-corruption professionals said that the delays were another sign that the government was not serious in its proclaimed crusade against corruption. Watch-dog group Transparency International Slovakia [TIS] called on the government to do more in its anti-corruption fight, while economic analysts warned that failure to do so would result in losses of potential direct foreign investment.
"Not just the government, but the parliament itself should officially declare a fight against corruption," said Emília Sičáková, head of the Bratislava-based TIS, which assisted the World Bank with its survey. "If the government doesn't come up with a concrete and systematic programme soon, it may endanger the implementation of such changes during this election term [1998-2002]."
Ján Tóth, senior analyst with the Dutch ING Barings bank in Bratislava, said that an audit of companies under state control could lower the level of corruption. Otherwise, he said, Slovakia's economy would pay the price: "Potential investors expect a much larger profit when entering countries with high corruption indexes," he said. "They want big money as a compensation for entering a risky business environment, and furthermore, companies willing to invest in a country known for corruption are often rather dubious businesses."
Duane Schultz, an advisor to US Senator John Mica who organised a September 1999 tour of Slovakia by US businessmen, agreed that the legislative delay was as much a concern as the corruption itself. "Delays give the bad guys the opportunity to expand," he said.
The World Bank survey, which was carried out with the assistance of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Slovak Focus agency, did not claim to have presented a complete picture of corruption in Slovakia. According to survey leader James Andersen, the study did not present reliable information on high-level corruption since respondents were limited to households, state administration officials and entrepreneurs - high level state officials were not canvassed.
But Mikloš assured journalists at the July 3 press conference that such a study would soon be undertaken, saying that he himself would initiate a survey on corruption covering the highest levels of the Slovak government. It was in the interest of the current government to eliminate corruption hot-spots, he said, in areas such as licensing authorities, state administration bureaucrats and the judiciary. While Mikloš said these areas of corruption would be eliminated through "reform and making their operations more transparent," he again offered no concrete plan of action.
In support of their actions to date, both Dzurinda and Mikloš said the passing of the Freedom of Information Law on May 17 (which secured the public's right to access information on state bodies, regional governments and other public entities) had been a huge step forward towards eliminating corruption in Slovakia.
According to the World Bank findings, one third of state administration employees said that the law [which will take effect on January 1, 2001], would complicate their work. "Naturally, reforms in state administration will meet with some resistance," said Mikloš. "They [state bureaucrats] realise that such changes will decrease the possibility of some currently lucrative activities."
The World Bank's Anderson added that the survey showed public concern over the influence wielded by private companies on politics. "Respondents said that privatisation was rather untransparent and were concerned about the unofficial sponsoring of political parties by private enterprises. In 1998, 11% of companies said they indirectly sponsored political parties. At the end of 1999, 8% said they did so," Andersen said.