Bad habits die hard

ALMOST everyone in Slovakia has a story to tell about corruption. But even those who have encountered it first-hand are eager to put the experience behind them, or justify it as an inevitable byproduct of a society built on interpersonal connections.

ALMOST everyone in Slovakia has a story to tell about corruption. But even those who have encountered it first-hand are eager to put the experience behind them, or justify it as an inevitable byproduct of a society built on interpersonal connections.

Streets are lined with neighbours who bribed construction authorities for a permit, or to overlook the lack of one; parents who bribed school officials to have their kids enrolled in the best programmes; physicians who were bribed for preferential treatment; and police officers who were rewarded for turning a blind eye, or two, to traffic violations.

Or at least this is the impression one gets when listening to what people say in the privacy of their own home, or after a few drinks at the pub.

Last year, the number of corruption cases reported to the Corruption Office was the lowest since the office was founded in 2004. The number of people charged with corruption in 2007 dropped as well, the Sme daily reported on March 6.

According to the report, those charged with corruption included 17 civil servants, nine policemen, six customs officers, 15 businessmen, 12 private employees, two judges, two lawyers, two professors and two physicians.

While optimists will be tempted to interpret this as a sign that corruption is on the decline in Slovakia, pessimists will say that society is simply becoming apathetic about reporting it.

The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index 2007, which ranks 180 countries in terms of corruption levels, ranked Slovakia 50th among nations, giving the country 4.9 out of 10 points (10 indicates that the population perceives the public sector as "clean"; 0 indicates "dirty").

Part of the reason that a relatively high tolerance for corruption continues to exist in Slovakia is because certain forms of it are considered harmless. During communism, corruption was part of an unspoken deal that allowed people to flout the regime's senseless rules.

It will take many more generations to wean people off unspoken deals.

But is it only a generational issue? Are younger business people less likely to bribe authorities in the hope for a better deal?

Another ambiguity about corruption is whether small gifts qualify as bribes, and the different euphemisms people use to conceal what they may have done.

Patients still bring their doctor a box of chocolates or bottle of hard alcohol as an expression of gratitude and a kind of "deposit" on their next visit.

But Trenčín orthopedist Pavol Patro asked for much more than just chocolate. Between 2001 and 2005, he requested 38 bribes from patients, and in 2005, accepted one for Sk15,000.

The Supreme Court sentenced him to two years in prison and banned him from practicing medicine for four years. In his defence, Patro said that patients had volunteered the payments, according to the SITA newswire.

But health care is not the only vulnerable sector.

In 2003, the first corruption charges involving a member of parliament and a high-ranking local official were filed.

Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) MP Gabriel Karlin and municipal official Milan Mráz stood accused of accepting Sk500,000 for a construction contract for a local school.

The police caught Mráz and Karlin red-handed at the HZDS office: an envelope stuffed with the money was found in Karlin's handbag.

Back in 2005, a district court found Karlin guilty and sentenced him to one year in jail, but the regional court overturned the sentence in 2006 due to procedural errors and remanded it to the original court.

Karlin and Mráz proclaimed their innocence, saying they simply did not know how the money got into Karlin's handbag.

Their most recent hearing was scheduled for February 7, 2008, according to ČTK newswire, and the case is likely to drag on for many more months.

Gaius Cornelius Tacitus, a senator and historian of the Roman Empire, said that the more corrupt a state is, the more laws it needs. Strict legislation is undoubtedly an important element of the battle against corruption, but the laws themselves are not enough. The public needs to understand that it is actually their apathy and fear that creates the most fertile environment for corruption.

Governments also need to show commitment to the fight.

While Vladimír Mečiar's government mostly swept the problem under the carpet, the Mikuláš Dzurinda government declared a war on corruption in 2002.

But the war certainly isn't over.

As for the Robert Fico government, Pavel Nechala of Transparency International said that the government has not taken any steps to curb corruption.

No one believes one government can completely weed out bad habits that are as old as the society itself, but whenever governments cool their jets in the fight against corruption, it sends out a signal of indifference.

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