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LETTER FROM THE EDITOR

Mayday: Corruption thrives in 'post-communist' Slovakia

Readers of this paper may remember an interview we did with Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda in July 2000, in which the irascible PM got shirty when we asked him why the government's anti-corruption plan had been delayed.
"You're wrong," he said several times, even though we had attended a press conference a week before at which Deputy PM Ivan Mikloš explained why a deadline had been missed.
Much of what the PM said then remains his answer for concerns about corruption today, and shows how little government 'thinking' on the topic has evolved.

Readers of this paper may remember an interview we did with Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda in July 2000, in which the irascible PM got shirty when we asked him why the government's anti-corruption plan had been delayed.

"You're wrong," he said several times, even though we had attended a press conference a week before at which Deputy PM Ivan Mikloš explained why a deadline had been missed.

Much of what the PM said then remains his answer for concerns about corruption today, and shows how little government 'thinking' on the topic has evolved.

"We shouldn't beat our heads in a desire for perfection," he said. "Let's not whip ourselves or traumatise ourselves for things we can't help, because this can be depressing and take positive energy from us." "Again we are trying to be holier than the Pope." "Why do you ask questions born of this desire for perfection?"

The reason we ask, then and now, is that organised, institutional corruption of the kind that penetrates the state sector makes a mockery of working for a living. It is morally traumatising for people who believe that who you know and how much you pay in this country will always outweigh education, character and skill. Dzurinda's appeal to 'reason' aside, the government should be whipping itself to eradicate corruption, it should desire perfection in the provision of state services. If the prime minister is not the unequivocal advocate of this, what claim does he have to be re-elected?

The public attitudes of senior state officials on corruption are one of the most puzzling aspects of Slovakia's struggle with graft. Dzurinda recently called complaints about corruption "crying", and said that people "after four shots of borovička" tended to blame him for everything. Attorney General Milan Hanzel, after the arrest of three state prosecutors in a bribery affair, said "what should I do, commit suicide?"

What these comments reveal more than anything else is the pressure felt by people close to the most efficient engine of corruption in Slovakia - politics. How else does one explain why senior officials don't resort to western-style platitudes such as promising to "thoroughly investigate" such "grave matters" and mete out "condign punishment"? Why else would they fly off the handle, if not out of frustration at the immensity of the task they face?

The other side of this curious public discourse is the silence of people whose pockets are being emptied. While Dzurinda comes on like a child punished for another's misdeeds, workaday people are coughing up and keeping their own counsel.

Here's a small contribution to the corruption record, if one that may seem curious given the tone of this column. In the past three years I have bribed a doctor Sk5,000 ($110) to secure competent medical attention for my pregnant wife, Sk3,000 to get a real estate certificate of ownership from a property office in a reasonable time, and several times that amount (I forget now how much, because it's understandably not in company records) to get a judge to ignore the 'problems' he had 'identified' in entering a simple change in this newspaper's entry in the business register (I need not add that all the documents were in perfect order).

But I don't feel like a hypocrite in expressing strong opinions against corruption, because like the rest of the population I understand that getting things done requires that you bribe state officials. I don't regret having paid those bribes, I just feel annoyed that life can't be lived here any other way.

It's often said that corruption remains such a massive problem because ordinary people continue to pay bribes. This seems akin to saying that Israelis are responsible for the death toll of suicide bombings because they continue to eat in restaurants and shop for groceries.

The real key to change lies with powerful people who could terrify the bribe-takers with court action, set a public example by publishing personal and political party income statements, and not give speeches in which people who want change are called whining drunks.

Dzurinda is right on several scores (compared to Mečiar, who is never right in anything): corruption exists in every country, Slovakia is on a far better wicket than Russia and not so far behind its western critics, and the situation is slowly improving, at least in privatisation.

But he's wrong on so many other counts that the government's claim to be 'fighting' corruption should be downgraded to a more appropriate term, such as 'sighing' or 'raising an eyebrow' at Slovakia's culture of graft.

While no one seriously thinks that the EU or Nato will cold-shoulder Slovakia over the corruption issue, investors are getting restless with government inaction on the issue, as well as at telling decisions like putting disgraced former state material reserves fund director Ján Odzgan at number 37 on Dzurinda's SDKÚ party candidates list for 2002 elections.

Meanwhile, ordinary people are left to confess crimes of bribery if they want to start any wider discussion of corruption, risking prosecution - in the best pre-1989 tradition - to force a change the government doesn't seem to want. Despite low attendance at this year's May day parades, communist habits are proving more durable than anyone could have believed.

Tom Nicholson
Editor in Chief

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