SLOVAKIA'S apparent inability to stamp out corruption in its public institutions may infect the cleaner workings of the EU once it becomes a member, a new study says.
The report by the Open Society Institute (OSI) is the result of a year of research into corruption in eight of the 10 countries slated to join the EU in 2004. It says that the widespread corruption endemic in most former Eastern-bloc countries could affect the dissemination of EU funds and disrupt the way the union operates after the new members are admitted.
Considering that "the majority of candidate states are clearly ranked by [corruption] perception surveys as significantly or much more corrupt than member states... the big EU enlargement question becomes not whether candidates are ready for the EU, but whether the EU is ready for them," the OSI report says.
The situation is all the more precarious because the EU "lacks a functioning anti-corruption strategy of its own," the report continues, warning that "under these circumstances, the EU urgently needs to beef up its corruption monitoring mechanisms, and establish anti-corruption standards across the Union."
Corruption in Slovakia is most prevalent in the health service, judiciary, privatisation, customs, and the police, the report says, noting that although the government has taken some significant steps to fight corruption, the problem is by no means solved.
"There has been a sea-change in government policy and political culture since 1998, and some of the foundations for an effective anti-corruption policy have been established, but the government needs to redouble efforts to implement its anti-corruption strategy," the OSI reports.
According to the study, one of the biggest challenges Slovakia faces is changing the mindset of its people, many of whom are used to handing out bribes here and there to make their lives easier.
"Public opinion appears to be more tolerant towards corruption than in any other EU candidate country," the report notes, adding that this high tolerance level "indicates a level of cultural acceptance of corruption that is likely to hinder efforts to fight corruption considerably."
Observers point out that public figures need to start setting better examples of honest behaviour. In its short history, the country has seen more than its fair share of shady deals carried out by the political elite, and some politicians have even publicly admitted to fiddling the system in order to get what they wanted.
Although the government approved the National Programme for the Fight against Corruption in 2000, some of the most important elements of this initiative have yet to be implemented.
For example, fundamental reform of licensing processes has been blocked, while proposals to limit the immunity of MPs, improve provisions on conflict-of-interest and asset declarations and strengthen party funding regulations have not been carried out or have been rejected.
"Practically nothing has changed in Slovakia. The country has had a lot of political corruption scandals and it has been able to do very little about it," said Ivo Samson, analyst with the Slovak Foreign Policy Association.
"This has a negative impact on the thinking of individuals, who say: 'Why should we behave correctly when people in the public eye do not?' It has been seen that it doesn't pay to behave in a correct manner when there are examples at the highest level that go unpunished," he said.
It is also a question of habit, believes Emília Sičáková, president of Transparency International Slovakia, who worked on the OSI report.
"Some research shows that acceptance of corruption is as high as it is because people are used to a system that works, and they believe there is no other way to achieve their goals," she said.
"We need come up with anti-corruption systems that show people that they don't have to pay when they go to the doctor, for example. Then people will believe they can survive without paying the bribes."
She said Transparency International Slovakia supports educational programmes run in secondary schools and universities that show people how to get things done without resorting to illegal payouts.
"That sort of initiative should go hand in hand with [government reforms]. People need to feel and see that the changes are actually happening on a practical level as well as just in theory," she said.
But until such systems can be implemented and their effectiveness proved, experts are concerned that the EU may be asking for trouble when it admits Slovakia and nine other countries in 2004.
"After integration, corruption will not vanish [in Slovakia]. Rather, it will have a negative impact on the union as a whole," said analyst Ivo Samson.
"If a country has corrupted institutions, it will infect the larger institution that country is joining. Therefore, it might be better [if the EU] helps stamp out corruption before admitting these countries. After all, it can't kick a country out for bad behaviour once it is a member."