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Crime & Justice

Clean Ripples Spread Across East Europe

BUDAPEST, Jun 18 2013 (IPS) - Monday’s resignation of Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas over a massive corruption scandal may well mark a new era of judicial independence in the Czech Republic and possibly the whole post-communist region.

The Prime Minister’s chief of office Jana Nagyova, a regular in the tabloids and allegedly his lover, has been arrested and stands accused of illegal spying and bribing of MPs.

Two military intelligence officers and two former members of parliament face similar charges. Necas himself denies any wrongdoing.

The government, composed of a coalition of right-wing liberal and conservative parties, is resisting opposition calls for a fresh election, hoping to weather the storm with a mere government reshuffle.

Necas, who is intent on leaving politics following last week’s events, tendered his resignation to the President on Monday. He will remain in his post until a new prime minister is appointed.

“This is a good sign of some judicial independence in governance structures,” Petr Lebeda, director of the independent think-tank Glopolis told IPS.

“It could be encouraging for judicial systems in other countries. A message has been sent that there is no such thing as impunity for politicians and high public officials, that anybody who does something illegal can be sued for his crimes.”

Indeed, news of the corruption scandal and the subsequent resignation have sent shockwaves across Central and Eastern Europe, with the media following developments closely.

In the face of weak institutions, the region’s media and particularly investigative journalists have played a crucial role in uncovering corruption scandals and in pushing authorities to act, as is frequently recognised by international anti-corruption organisations such as Transparency International (TI).

Slovakia is witnessing the re-emergence of a public debate on the lack of independence of prosecuting and judicial bodies as well as on politicians’ lack of will to tackle corruption systematically.

In a statement published last year, Transparency International singled out the Czech Republic and Slovakia as home to particularly weak prosecuting bodies, describing them as “vulnerable to direct political influence because of their strictly hierarchical and non-transparent organisational structures.”

In one comment published by leading Slovak daily Sme, commentator Roman Pataj accused the government of “occupying key posts in the Slovak judiciary” and termed its policies in this field as “non-transparent” and “disastrous”.

There were similar reactions in Hungary, where also politicians could be heard: Gergely Karacsony, leader of the opposition party Dialogue for Hungary, reacted by making fresh calls for an investigation into a recent tobacco retail tender which controversially benefited government supporters and their relatives.

Karacsony lashed out at the country’s state prosecutor, calling on him to follow the Czech example while criticising his inactivity: “He lacks the expertise and the courage to step up,” he said, accusing him of protecting government “mafias”.

The Czech scandal has reverberated because it is inserted in a region that faces very similar challenges. The most frequently corruption-related malaise in the region involves unlawful party financing, manipulation of state institutions by political and economic interest groups, murky ties between the business and political classes, and weak prosecuting bodies.

There is also a clear East/West divide: TI’s corruption perception index shows Central and Eastern Europe lagging behind all of Western Europe with the exception of Italy. Among post-communist countries, only Estonia fares well in the index.

Hence the fall of the Czech leader caught many by surprise, not because of the high-level corruption, but due to the fact that authorities acted: “Justice only worked at the lowest levels, once it reached the top levels it would never lead to the courts,” Lebeda said.

While prosecutions of high level officials are not unseen in the region, they are usually reserved for opposition politicians, and convictions are rare.

What makes the Czech Republic different from the rest of the region is the fresh “emancipation of the office of public prosecutor and consequently anti-corruption police,” Ondrej Cisar, a political scientist at the Czech Academy of Sciences told IPS.

“Making a sort of sweeping analogy, one can say that we are going through a prosecutors’ revolution, similar to the judges’ revolution in Italy in the beginning of the 1990s,” Cisar added.

Ironically, Necas himself may be responsible for his own fate, as he ended an old habit – not just in the Czech Republic but in all of post-communist Europe and beyond – of placing political appointees to judicial posts.

Following years of media criticism of various governments over the prevalence of an alleged ‘justice mafia’ that protected high-profile politicians from prosecution, Necas named Pavel Zeman as chief prosecutor in 2010.

Zeman, perceived as an independent, played a key role in strengthening the independence of various prosecution and judicial bodies as well as in starting a wave of prosecutions that reached its climax last week.

This process was one that the “government probably did not actively support, but also did not block,” Lebeda told IPS. The weakness of the coalition government may thus have been a blessing in disguise, preventing any particular political force from asserting its authority over the judiciary.

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