How corrupt is Czech political culture?

Zdenek Koristka, photo: CTK

In the last few weeks the Czech papers have been full of it: the alleged attempt to bribe the government MP Zdenek Koristka. It started two months ago. Mr Koristka claimed that prior to a confidence vote in parliament, two men representing the opposition Civic Democrats tried to bribe him. His story was that they offered him a substantial amount of money as well as an ambassador's post if he used his vote to bring down the government - which has a parliamentary majority of just one. Although nothing has been proved, amid accusation and counter-accusation, the case has brought up many questions about the current state of Czech political culture. Is corruption an everyday reality in Czech politics? How many more cases remain undisclosed?

Zdenek Koristka, photo: CTK
Jan Kasl has been involved in Czech politics for 15 years. In his former position as mayor of Prague he came to the conclusion that corruption - based on the providing of special favours - is nothing out of the ordinary in Czech politics.

"We have to specify what we mean by the term 'corruption'. I was never offered money to be (or not to be) mayor of Prague or to behave one way or another. But to be offered a political position or to be offered the post of an ambassador somewhere, I am afraid this is 'normal' or 'it happens' in Czech politics. It's of course unfair. I'm afraid these type of deals: 'You'll quit this position, you'll behave that way and you'll be sent to Australia or somewhere....' It's something that is happening all around the world. It's part of manipulating people or [political] party behaviour. But to corrupt people with money - to offer 15 millions crowns for leaving the parliament or voting against - it is definitely corruption."

At this stage in the so-called "Koristka affair", we can only speculate whether there really was an attempt at bribery, but I asked Jan Kasl if he thought, at least in theory, that such a crude attempt at bribery, as described by Mr Koristka, would have been possible.

"I can easily imagine it. I think that the reality was not so easily described as 'a bribe'. I can imagine that they were talking and he was offered; 'So what would you say to 10 million crowns or to a position in a board of directors?' or 'I'm joking about the ambassador post in Bulgaria...'"

Jan Kasl says he has had personal experience with this kind of corruption.

"I must say I was unofficially offered an ambassadorial position if I would leave my mayor's position. Of course, nobody has recorded it, nobody would confirm it, but this is the kind of practice that's happening -- I'm afraid it is happening. Mr Koristka is not a very trustworthy person regarding the manner in which he announced (or didn't announce) that ['bribe']. I think there will be no resolution: There will be no punishment, no trial after the whole case is investigated."

According to the Corruption Perception Index issued by Transparency International - an organization that aims to monitor and fight corruption worldwide - the Czech Republic is seen as more corrupt than the average European country, occupying 54th position among the countries listed. David Ondracka from the Czech branch of Transparency International:

"Generally, you can say that the Czech Republic is among those countries in Europe that are more vulnerable to corruption and the level of corruption is relatively high. This doesn't mean that in the neighbouring countries there is no corruption or that there is little corruption."

What are the primary causes of political corruption in this country?

"In terms of political corruption I would say that there are a few aspects. One, the Czech Republic is a relatively small country; people know each other, especially in this political sphere where there are a few hundred people who deal with it. The other aspect is that there is a very strong and an increasing impact of political parties on everyday life of society; namely, regarding the distribution of public funds or promotion of people to certain positions in public administration or in state-owned companies. This is something which moves the Czech Republic towards countries like Italy or earlier to Austria, where political parties basically divided their spheres of influence."

Another reason for corruption in the Czech Republic is the country's communist past. The communist system didn't provide clear and fair rules for competition. In the absence of a market economy, people looked for other ways to get scarce commodities. In this way, a system of providing mutual favours developed. Political Analyst Milan Znoj says that the fast-paced political changes since communism fell have also had a negative impact on the general way of thinking here.

"Our society went through rushed changes. Establishing new institutions, a new country - Czechoslovakia broke down and new institutions had to be established, democracy emerged...It's not an easy task. These unstable conditions create very good space for corruption."

But how can we confront this situation? David Ondracka explains what he sees as the best way to fight corruption on a political level.

"First of all, there must be some real political will; an environment which is not favourable for corruption. This means to start with legislation, norms like a Public Procurement Act, a Conflicts of Interest Act, an Act on Control in Public Administration.... These are key norms which should set the playing field for public administration and officials contacts with business. The other aspect is, of course, efficient prosecution of corruption. We can see certain improvement in this point; the police Anti-corruption Unit is working quite hard to open up cases... The last thing is obviously the activity of citizens themselves; they should not give up and stay apathetic but rather force politicians to be accountable."

The "Koristka affair" is very vague and to the lay observer often seems bizarre. It has had so many strange twists and turns that at one moment it seems like a fable, the next like a horror story. However things turn out, the whole affair may have at least one positive consequence - observors say it has raised public interest in fostering more openness and transparency in the way politicians behave. This could make politicians more careful in the future.