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EDITORIAL

Closing the door on graft

BRIBING a state official in some cases is as ‘simple’ as inserting a wad of hundred-euro banknotes into an envelope and dropping it off at the right office at the right time. Sometimes, giving kickbacks resembles a complicated intelligence operation, one which involves a whole apparatus of people who know where and when to transfer what, and how. Yet the role of any government which aims for some degree of transparency is to throw as many obstacles as possible in the way of such corrupt apparatuses, to reduce people’s motivation to give or accept bribes, and to repair holes in the law that allow room for graft.

BRIBING a state official in some cases is as ‘simple’ as inserting a wad of hundred-euro banknotes into an envelope and dropping it off at the right office at the right time. Sometimes, giving kickbacks resembles a complicated intelligence operation, one which involves a whole apparatus of people who know where and when to transfer what, and how. Yet the role of any government which aims for some degree of transparency is to throw as many obstacles as possible in the way of such corrupt apparatuses, to reduce people’s motivation to give or accept bribes, and to repair holes in the law that allow room for graft.

If only half of the state initiatives launched over the past two decades with the declared goal of bringing “unprecedented transparency” into Slovak public life had been successful, Slovakia would be a model state. Yet a recent survey by the Business Alliance of Slovakia (PAS) conducted anonymously among 425 respondents, paints a much gloomier picture of how business leaders regard dealings with the state: many businesses are repelled from participating in public procurement procedures by the general conviction that in public procurement, contacts with public officials count for more than high-quality bids.

The respondents also said that the highest occurrence of corruption is at ministries, institutions providing money from European Union structural funds, other central state administration bodies, regional governments and at courts and prosecutors’ offices. By contrast, participants in the PAS survey felt that the lowest occurrence of corruption was found in dealings with other private businesses.

Several business leaders with international backgrounds say that they can handle the prospect of moderate tax hikes, but not the idea that their money will end up in the pockets of well-connected cronies instead of in the public purse.

This is perhaps why those interested in doing business fairly, and who do not want to get involved in bribery, plus political ethics watchdogs, get twitchy whenever the state starts fiddling with the public procurement rules.

In this context it is no surprise that a proposal from Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák to create a special regime covering so-called strategic orders, i.e. very large procurement deals with ‘societal significance’ and exceeding €10 million, has aroused suspicion.

According to Kaliňák’s idea, state officials would get to select contracting firms themselves without any competition, based on their own judgement and on what they regard as beneficial for the state. Yet, instead of “unprecedented transparency” as Kaliňák described the desired effect of the changes, the provision on strategic orders would open an unprecedented space for legalising the many tricks that the parties that have run the state over the past 20 years have already used to manufacture deals with their buddies or what they view as ‘friendly’ enterprises.

Now that it is mostly Smer nominees that are running the country the party already has an indirect say in spending worth millions of euros every year. That is why anyone who cares about transparency and the fate of taxpayers’ cash must carefully watch the party’s proposals to change public procurement rules. Perhaps one positive sign is that the chorus of criticism in response to Kaliňák’s changes came in part from some of his own cabinet colleagues, including two non-partisan nominees, Economy Minister Tomáš Malatinský and Justice Minister Tomáš Borec – the latter even calling for the draft to be withdrawn.

The strategic order is not the only problem with Kaliňák’s blueprint and it is important that the focus is not limited only to this aspect, thereby allowing the government to smuggle into law provisions that do not benefit transparency under the cover of yielding over the issue of strategic orders.

For example, ethics watchdog Fair-Play Alliance pointed to the importance of having state procurement data publicly accessible in a form which is easy to download and process. Thus would allow the tell-tale figures and trends that can point to corruption to be more easily identified.

There will always be politicians who try to channel into their pockets or the bank accounts of their friends a little something from what they see as a bottomless supply of public funds. But the quality of Slovakia’s public life depends on how difficult the laws and the system make it for such people to do so – and how it holds them accountable when they are exposed.

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