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EDITORIAL

Corruption: Red handed, scot free

Corruption, say Slovaks, is everywhere - in schools, hospitals, bureaucratic offices and the courts, people have to pay for services that belong to them by law, while others buy advantages that should not be a matter of commerce.
These beliefs were presented in a World Bank corruption report made public this week. The media, meanwhile, document a similar story in high places. Political parties appoint nominees to steward state firms and banks, and do their best to ignore the fraud, clientelism and corruption that ensues. Whenever one nominee errs so egregiously that he has to be fired, another of the same ilk replaces him.
In this environment, it is unconscionable that the government has once again put off its anti-corruption 'action plan'. When we first heard of this stirring call to arms in February, it was supposed to be followed by about six weeks of public debate and then translated into laws which would punish thieving bureaucrats.

Corruption, say Slovaks, is everywhere - in schools, hospitals, bureaucratic offices and the courts, people have to pay for services that belong to them by law, while others buy advantages that should not be a matter of commerce.

These beliefs were presented in a World Bank corruption report made public this week. The media, meanwhile, document a similar story in high places. Political parties appoint nominees to steward state firms and banks, and do their best to ignore the fraud, clientelism and corruption that ensues. Whenever one nominee errs so egregiously that he has to be fired, another of the same ilk replaces him.

In this environment, it is unconscionable that the government has once again put off its anti-corruption 'action plan'. When we first heard of this stirring call to arms in February, it was supposed to be followed by about six weeks of public debate and then translated into laws which would punish thieving bureaucrats.

Instead, we were told at a July 3 press conference that the programme would now not be ready until September 13. A shortage of personnel needed to script the plan is apparently to blame.

Shortages there certainly are, but more ones involving ethics and courage than idle bureaucrats (God knows Slovakia has enough of those). The main problem is that no one in power is motivated to change the system. Political parties, their private sponsors and Slovakia's several hundred thousand civil servants all profit from the way things currently run, and until some brave (and disinterested) soul cuts the painter, the ship of state will continue to wallow in murky practices.

A case in point - this past week, Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda fired Ján Odzgan, head of the State Material Reserves, a body which stockpiles essential supplies such as wheat for use in the case of a national emergency. A top secret Slovak Intelligence Service report released to the media last month had accused Material Reserves officials of selling off wheat for private gain. But instead of using the scandal to end the practice of political nominations to lucrative state posts, Dzurinda said he thought Odzgan should be replaced by yet another nominee from Dzurinda's own Slovak Democratic Coalition party. The prime minister's recent pronouncements on corruption, given these circumstances, are so cynical that it sends chills down one's back.

That said, the government's task in exorcising corruption from a country which for decades encouraged it is unenviable. For every cut-and-dried case of bribery there are a thousand slippery instances of wrongdoing in which money changes hands but no laws are broken. Here's an example from Comenius University Rector Ferdinand Devisnký, related to The Slovak Spectator last month:

University entrance exams, in the public's mind, invite some of the coarsest forms of corruption around. Thousands of students every year compete for limited places at law and medical faculties, while poorly paid professors give out exam questions to those who can afford them.

The reality, according to Devinský, is that schools have divided responsibility for setting exams among many different departments, making it impossible for any one professor to know all the questions. Meanwhile, computerised scoring and immediate posting of results have made it impossible for anyone to turn in an empty answer sheet to an exam invigilator with a nod and a wink.

Some professors, however, have realised that the public still doesn't believe that rich parents can't buy their children a place in school. They thus offer 'preparation courses' to a select group of students for 100,000 Slovak crowns each and promise vaguely to 'arrange things' with the school administration. Given the average entrance exam success rate, two or three out of each group of 10 students are bound to pass the exam; the professor then returns the money of the unsuccessful applicants, claiming he tried but couldn't turn the trick, and keeps the money of the accepted students. The parents who get their money back admire the teacher for his honesty, while those who don't consider it cash well spent - after all, the professor must have greased some wheels given that their kids got in.

How do you fight that kind of corruption? This is something the World Bank report didn't capture - while 56% of people feel that corruption in schools is high and 36% moderate, we have no way of knowing how many believe that corruption is here to stay and one just has to get used to it.

The only way to change the system is to talk about it, day and night, and make the costs of getting caught taking bribes unbearable. But given the prime minister's own reluctance to start the dialogue, getting caught remains the least of anyone's worries.

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