Slovakia’s Boss Tweeds

“AS LONG as I count the votes, what are you going to do about it?,” is believed to be one of the “memorable” quotes by Boss Tweed, an infamous 19th century New York politician who embezzled about $100 million from the city coffers and since then has become a textbook example of political corruption.

“AS LONG as I count the votes, what are you going to do about it?,” is believed to be one of the “memorable” quotes by Boss Tweed, an infamous 19th century New York politician who embezzled about $100 million from the city coffers and since then has become a textbook example of political corruption.

Slovakia has not yet caught and prosecuted its Boss Tweed – and even if it did, he would not make it into textbooks on corruption because systematic and nationwide education about corrupt practices and how citizens should react to them still doesn’t really exist.

If an exam had been conducted on December 9 among Slovakia’s politicians, members of parliament, judges or policemen to find out whether they knew what phenomenon that particular day was devoted to, most of them would probably have flunked. Their ignorance about December 9 – International Anti-Corruption Day – was another missed opportunity to raise awareness about an issue which should certainly be a concern for Slovakia.

This should be a worry if for no other reason than that, according to a Transparency International (TI) survey, Slovakia has recently slumped in the most-quoted world corruption perception chart: from 56th to 60th (in a ranking of 180 countries). This decline compares poorly with the period of the previous government, during which Slovakia was ranked 49th and 50th. The overall Corruption Perception Index (CPI) decreased from 5 points last year to 4.5 points this year, the SITA newswire reported.

“Just numbers”, opponents of watchdogs might say as they compile a list of reasons why such global charts could be wrong and how they perhaps try to compare the incomparable. Receptive readers, however, do not need charts to understand that something is rotten in the state of Slovakia. Perhaps it is enough to take a look back at the past six months, or to make it simpler, the past two.

The country’s land fund, in a scheme almost identical to the one which cost the then-agriculture minister his job in November 2007, allowed a private company, GVM, whose owners reportedly have close ties to ruling coalition partner Vladimír Mečiar, to gain lucrative state property in a High Tatras mountain resort at well beneath the market price. This is the same company that was the intended beneficiary in the 2007 deal. At that time, Prime Minister Robert Fico reshuffled the land fund’s management, just as he has now ejected its chiefs again in 2009. The lesson? Simply, that sacking the ones at the top will hardly stop their cronies from taking huge and unjustified bites from the public cake.

Transparency International has offered cures for dealing with the disease of corruption but there has been little willingness to take them at any level of public administration. TI proposed increasing the transparency of financial information such as central publication of state aid, European tenders, etc. Effective procurement with obligatory electronic auctions is among the pills that TI suggests countries take, along with more transparency for the judiciary and regular, measurable evaluation of judges and publication of the results. TI also proposes stricter monitoring of political party financing, conflicts of interest and property reports by politicians at state and regional levels, among others.

With only very few exemptions these practices are not yet among the natural instincts of public officials.

Perhaps this is the effect of a generation of people who under communism developed instincts to trick the system in order to survive and do the best they could by means of ‘gifts’, ‘contributions’, and various other euphemisms for bribes and corrupt behaviour.

Prime Minister Robert Fico famously stated that he believes it is acceptable to use public funds to reward supporters or sympathisers of ruling coalition parties if their proposals conform to the law and the rules.

“We will not consider it unacceptable if, in the case of two equal projects of the same quality and the same final effect, a minister gives preference to a [village or town] mayor who supports the ruling coalition,” Fico said at a press conference in 2008.

Fico said he would consider it unacceptable if the ruling coalition’s supporters or sympathisers were discriminated against during tenders despite submitting projects of the same or comparable quality.

“We cannot and will not discriminate against more than the 60 percent of people in Slovakia who identify with the ruling coalition, either as members or sympathisers,” Fico said during a political talk show on the TA3 television station on August 24.

These are statements which do not require much comment when seen in a certain context. That context is December 9, and what Anti-Corruption Day should really mean in Slovakia.

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