Is the end to corruption near?

"I HAVE often noticed that a bribe ... changes a relation. The man who offers a bribe gives away a little of his own importance; the bribe once accepted, he becomes the inferior, like a man who has paid for a woman." Graham Greene

"I HAVE often noticed that a bribe ... changes a relation. The man who offers a bribe gives away a little of his own importance; the bribe once accepted, he becomes the inferior, like a man who has paid for a woman." Graham Greene

The British novelist perfectly captures the ties that, at the end, bind both the giver and taker of bribes in a dangerous union that can turn a whole generation of people into inferiors.

Although the ancient Romans believed that laws must be numerous in a state where corruption abounds, developments in post-Communist countries have shown that laws alone do not stop bribery.

The communist regime unwittingly inspired people to discover tricks to evade the rules - a survival skill that manufactured a tacit agreement among people that the end justifies the means.

The Slovak language itself started reflecting the acceptability of bribes. For example, when a patient wanted to receive better treatment from his physician, he did not bribe the illustrious doctor. Instead, he brought the physician a "gift" (maličkosť) or "small thing"(všimné), the name given to sweeteners like sugar for coffee or tea.

Likewise, teachers received "contributions" far beyond the traditional apple, and comrades slipped gratuities into bureaucrats' pockets - "friendly gestures", all of them, belying the innocence of Communism and revealing instead the invisible grey cloak shrouding the society.

Today, friendly gestures take on far more powerful meanings, and the words to describe them are accordingly strong: bribe, abuse of power, cronyism, nepotism, favouritism, and inappropriate patronage, to name a few.

On occasion, though, old-fashioned words like "gift," "financial reward" and that endearing word meaning "small thing" are used instead.

Still, Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index 2004, which ranks 146 countries in terms of corruption levels, ranked Slovakia 57th among nations. Latvia shares this position.

The index shows that Slovakia has cleaned up its act, at least slightly. Slovakia received four out of a maximum 10 points (10 indicates that the population perceives the public sector as "clean"; 0 indicates "dirty") to post a 0.3-point improvement over the last index.

Although the improvement may seem minor, it still shows progress in an area that, just a couple of years ago, seemed an immovable fortress that would stand firm forever.

"Corruption in large-scale public projects is a daunting obstacle to sustainable development, and results in a major loss of public funds needed for education, healthcare and poverty alleviation, both in developed and developing countries," said Transparency International Chairman Peter Eigen at an industry luncheon.

The Slovak government formally declared war on corruption in 2002, making it one of its top priorities during the election.

It is important to consider that every government's garden has its bad apple. But society's trust in the government is determined by how that government handles the rotton fruit. Does the government toss the bad apple from the garden? Or does it pretend that the worm is not there?

The kick-off of the corruption crusade at the start of 2002, when the new government took office, elicited mixed feelings. Observers say that melodramatic billboards featuring necks with vampire bites that warned, "Corruption sucks our blood", overshadowed the concrete problems facing the government.

Since the billboards, however, Slovakia has established a special court to prosecute corruption cases.

Even Transparency International acknowledges the creation of the court to combat corruption as the government's most significant action during its first two years in office.

But the government's own vampires linger.

A few weeks ago, an investigation into a corruption scam involving a Sk5 million (€125,000) bribe allegedly accepted by Pavol Bielik, a member of the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) and the mayor of Rača in Bratislava, was completed. The case now rests with the corruption court.

After seven out of the eight recordings of legally tapped phone calls pertaining to bribery were "lost" due to a technical failure on the Interior Ministry's wiretapping archive system, the front pages of every major Slovak newspaper carried the story.

The fact that the wiretapping scandal is currently under investigation provides hope that such suspicious activity will not disappear into oblivion as so many corruption scandals did under the Mečiar administration.

Whether the Bermuda Triangle that formerly swallowed corruption cases is gone is uncertain, but one thing is: The selection of judges to the special court for corruption is not entirely transparent.

According to Transparency International Slovakia (TIS), the Judicial Council, which oversees the operation of courts in Slovakia, often fails to justify its personnel decisions, which leaves some to question its credibility.

So often when it comes to privileges that parliamentary deputies enjoy, politicians are not nearly as eager to join the corruption crusade as they would have the public think.

The Slovak government has been promising to narrow the immunity of deputies from criminal prosecution, but when it comes to concrete steps - such as initiating transparency into the judicial system - they are reluctant to do so.

And yet, hope prevails. The country is experiencing its first corruption court trial ever that includes an active member of parliament. The HZDS deputy, Gabriel Karlin, and the high-standing municipal official, Milan Mráz, are charged with bribery. It is hard to anticipate how the court trial will develop, but its existence is a testament to the society's maturity and its readiness to leave behind the notion that the end justifies the means.

By Beata Balogová

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