A FOREIGN diplomat in Bratislava simply groaned when told of the Mikuláš Dzurinda cabinet's latest corruption scandal.
The same reaction has probably come from thousands of people, both foreigners and locals, who have been dismayed by the government's inability to keep its nose clean, and its fatal flair for bad timing (last week's scandal comes three months before crucial national elections - see front page story).
Most of the details of the recent affair really don't matter to anyone but the police investigating them - which bidder really submitted the better offer for supplying 35 new locomotives to the state railways firm, who was lobbying for which firm to win, whether the whistleblowers acted on as honourable grounds as they claimed.
But there are a few elements here that tell an eloquent tale of the country's public culture.
First, PM Dzurinda perhaps ought to have thought twice about his brother Miroslav being named the head of a tender commission to select over Sk5 billion ($106 million) worth of new trains. Both common sense and public probity suggest that the brother should have bowed out, particularly given that the PM himself is an old railroad man and former Transport Minister.
Second, while no one will ever be able to prove that MP Peter Kresánek was referring to the tender as a slush fund for the PM's SDKÚ party in a letter he wrote to Dzurinda, the SDKÚ certainly had no business getting involved in the rail tender. Nor did party treasurer Gabriel Palacka, fired under suspicion of corruption as Transport Minister in 1999, have any call to be discussing the matter with Kresánek and expressing views on who should win.
Third, the fact that nothing was done until the Kresánek letter was leaked (after which Dzurinda fired Transport Minister Jozef Macejko and laid criminal charges) leads one to believe that corruption remains accepted in Slovak politics as long as no one finds out. And if anyone does find out, the instinct of politicians is still to round on the whistleblower (Miroslav Dzurinda said he was considering laying criminal charges against Supreme Audit Office head Jozef Stahl, for example, after Stahl dared to question the tender commission's decision; before laying the whole thing at Macejko's feet, the PM claimed the scandal was an act of revenge by Ano party leader Pavol Rusko, etc.).
Public officials in this country still clearly don't get it. Not only is it OK for the PM's brother to decide tenders in a ministry he used to run, but it's even OK for both of them to act as if this is normal. It's OK for a political party to be sniffing around a tender in which it has no official role. It's even OK for the country's leader to claim that while a party mate told him twice about problems with the tender, the information had gone in one ear and out the other (this from a railways professional on corruption allegations in one of the biggest railway procurement tenders ever). It's almost as believable as Bill Clinton's not inhaling.
František Šebej, leader of the parliamentary integration committee, noted that last weekend's Czech elections had drawn only 58 per cent turnout, in what Šebej claimed was an expression of voters' disgust with the behaviour of politicians.
Slovakia by all accounts should get at least 70 per cent turnout in September, which however would be the lowest in the country's 10 years of national elections. Given that both the Dzurinda government and foreign statesmen have underlined the importance of high voter turnout to see western-oriented parties returned to government, and Slovakia proceed to Nato and EU membership, one can understand that diplomat's groan all the more.
After all, it will be difficult for voters to make the 'right' choice in September if they can't tell the candidates apart.