Corruption, caught in the Web

Like other countries in Central Europe, Slovakia is battling to overcome the scourge of endemic corruption. The government in Bratislava has decided to attack the problem by publishing documents relating to public calls for tender on the internet.

Published on 5 January 2011 at 16:20

Shortly before Christmas, the Slovak parliament adopted an amendment to the civil code. Starting on 1st January 2011, contracts for services to the Slovak state will have to be published on the Internet or they will be deemed invalid. The transparency initiative is largely unprecedented: in other EU countries, even ones where corruption is virtually unknown, an obligation to publish public contracts is the exception rather than the rule.

In pushing through the amendment, Prime Minister Iveta Radičova has taken concrete action to resolve the problem of political corruption, and its adoption is without a doubt her first major victory since she took office in July 2010 — not least because the new legislation will be applied retrospectively. The Slovak government has already published all public contracts approved over the past four years, and it has pledged to publish details of deals dating dating back to the year 2000 over the next twelve months.

There are a number of reasons for this radical commitment to the cause of transparency. In the 2010 elections, the issue of corruption, which had been rampant under the Robert Fico administration, was high on the agenda — and in passing it is worth noting that this was not the case in the Czech Republic [which also elected a new government in 2010], where the right-wing parties mainly campaigned on the issue of the national debt. While Fico was in power, the opposition worked steadily to raise awareness of the issue of political bribery and to highlight bitter memories of the abuse of public funds under the Vladimír Mečiar government in the 1990s. So in the run-up to the June vote, it was natural for Iveta Radičová to make corruption one of the main themes of her campaign.

Slovakia has become the laboratory

There is, however, another more general reason for the new legislation, and that is the emergence of a global trend in which social relations are increasingly influenced by Facebook, and the world of politics is increasingly subject to pressure from the media — you might say that the recent emergence of WikiLeaks is a secondary effect of this phenomenon. In view of this state of affairs, politicians are faced with two options: they can either batten down the hatches, or they can weigh in behind the cause of total transparency.

It is too early to judge the extent to which the Slovak experiment will prove to be effective. The opposition claims that the publication of thousands of contracts will simply submerge the public and the media in a welter of information they will be unable to interpret, while the supporters of the amendment insist that there will always be someone — i.e. firms who have lost out in public calls for tender — ready to blow the whistle on deals made for prices that are over the market. And perhaps more importantly, they also point out that even if no-one reads them, the requirement for the publication of contracts will force companies and civil servants to behave more responsibly.

But as it is largely untested, no-one really knows what the effect of Slovakia’s bid for total transparency will be. It is by no means certain that the measure, which may have unexpected side effects, will effectively wipe out corruption. Political graft has always shown remarkable resilience in circumventing laws no matter how well intentioned they are. But there is no doubt that the Slovak experiment will be closely watched in the Czech Republic and the rest of Central Europe. In view of the country’s dramatic political history, the arrival of a fresh squad of radicals in the Bratislava parliament was to be expected. In the wake of the radical fiscal reforms undertaken eight years ago, for the second time in a decade Slovakia has become the laboratory for a new social experiment.

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