"Is it easier for a kid to work all month for 5,000 crowns, or to steal a mountain bike from another kid in Petržalka and sell it on the black market for 3,000 crowns?"
Major Jaroslav Penc, Bratislava District 1 Police Chief
Yet, observers do not hold youngsters entirely responsible for their hoodlumry. Caused by political and economic corruption at highest levels, they argue, the moral ambivalence is dripping through all levels of Slovak society, leaving kids in the dirtiest debris.
Beverly Hills 90210 hoodlum
Major Jaroslav Penc, the new Police Chief of Bratislava District 1, pointed to what he called a "steady increase" in violent crime in Bratislava between 1990 and 1995, and noted a corresponding drop in the age of the "typical" criminal. "Before 1990 the age group committing the most crimes was that of 20 to 30 year-olds," he said."Now, the age is 16 to 25."
Kveton Holcr, a research professor at Bratislava's Police Academy, agreed. "50 per cent of minor crimes are committed by people under 18 years, and 75 per cent by those under 29," Holcr said.
Having identified increases in the delinquency of Slovakia's youth, police and academic experts are remarkably unanimous in pinning the blame. A variety of social, economic and political forces seem to underlie the changes. Youth crime, in particular, seems almost inevitable.
In Penc's view, "the family is responsible for the education of their children", but in Slovakia, parents are concentrating too much on their jobs and not enough on the moral and spiritual growth of their offspring. This failure is crucial, Penc said, because it occurs at a time at which impressionable children are exposed to "alternative" standards of living such as that espoused by the popular television series Beverly Hills 90210.
"Young people are easily influenced", argued Penc, "and ask yourself, is it easier for a kid to work all month for 5,000 crowns, or to steal a mountain bike from another kid in Petržalka and sell it on the black market for 3,000 crowns?" As Holcr put it, "these smaller crimes have a social context - exposure to mass-media and television, which stimulates a desire for luxury."
Beat generation's afterbeat?
Gabriela Lubelcová, a sociologist at Comenius University, took a less hard-boiled view of teenage criminals. "[Major Penc] has a policeman's view, and those are police statistics," she said curtly. The root of the problem with Slovak teenagers, she argued, is "a general decline in social control, in authority... In every country in transformation, there are social distortions that occur."
Going even further, Lubelcová claimed that these distortions are part of "a general decline in the authority of law and parents that occurred also in Western Europe." The difference is that western countries experienced these upheavals during the 1960's, while the politically stagnant countries of the former eastern bloc had to wait until 1989 for similar social forces to be released.
Instead of containing the negative part of these forces, Slovak justice tends to release it all - literally. Penc suggested that Slovak courts may not yet fully realize the nature of Bratislava's newest criminal class. Recalling a recent case, he explained "I put a 16 year-old in jail for the rape of a girl under 15. This boy already had a one year-old child and five years of experience with heroin. His father was one of the first post-communist heroin dealers in the city, and his mother was a successful shop owner."
Despite the fact that the boy was covered in jewelry and clothing "five times more expensive" than normal, the court "decided to release him while the crime was being investigated," Penc said. During the next several days, the boy committed two more crimes and was promptly rearrested. "The media were accidentally informed of the case", Penc recalled with a smile, "and published all the details, whereupon the court decided to keep the child in prison".
From breeding farm to organized crime
The most talented kids from breeding farms in cities' slums are scouted by better organized clubs. "Organized crime is just starting in our country", Penc said, adding that it was originally attracted to drugs and prostitution, but now "the main part of this crime is in the economic and business area". Once again, Holcr agreed: "we don't have any hard evidence, but in my opinion there has been a big increase in business and money-motivated murders".
Penc pointed on the top levels of society while speaking of the deepest roots of organized crime in the country. "The biggest problem with this type of crime was caused by non-transparent privatization laws," he stated, "which made it possible for some subjects to get hold of large properties in an easy way... The wording of the law has been [often] changed and people are confused...".
Ivan Mikloš, the former Privatization Minister (1991-1992) and founder of MESA 10, a social and economic think-tank, lays the blame on the doorstep of the present Slovak establishment. "In every post-Communist country", he observed, "privatization is a process in which corruption and organized crime exist. But it makes a huge difference if the government respects the rule of law, if it has crime-fighting as a priority, or, as the situation is in Slovakia, if the government is breaking laws and doing everything it can to not investigate crimes with a political background."
Fish stinks from the head
Academics seem to agree that perceived levels of official corruption have engendered a moral crisis in Slovak society as a whole. "When people see top government figures being corrupt, they ask themselves, why shouldn't I be", Mikloš said. "The highest proportion of criminals are Gypsies", Holcr said, "but Gypsies would have to steal for 20 years to do the damage caused by one serious economic crime... Our ladder of values has broken down, and our new priority is money."
"Privatization created many millionaires whose moral integrity is not the best", mused Penc, "and let me ask you, if one of them owes someone 5 million crowns, is he more likely to go to trial to recover it,... or would he sacrifice a million and give the job to an "enterprise" from here or the more eastern regions?"
The social, political and economic foundations of the 'new' crime in Slovakia are easy to identify but difficult to disentangle. New levels of permissiveness and moral laxity are evident everywhere, but who is to blame? Mikloš is in no doubt. "It is important to recognize if crime and corruption is an inevitable feature [of economic transition] or if it is organized by the government... We are in the second group".
Penc, for his part, observed that Slovak society has fallen into the trap of democracy, insisting on its rights and refusing its obligations. "If I want to enjoy my rights, I must be careful that I do not infringe on the rights of others," he said. "Too much democracy brings chaos," he concluded, invoking the words of the Communist revolutionary Lenin: "We have destroyed the institution of family in this country...we wanted to be different than we are, but no one showed us how."
3. Jul 1997 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson