I can’t think of a better way to describe it than that headline I just wrote. Sure, we’ve talked intensely about corruption here in the Czech Republic since at least the murky days of coupon privatization and the birth of the national pastime of “tunneling” – that very Czech expression to indicate the backhanded siphoning off a company’s assets before letting the company die a slow death. But nowadays it seems that everywhere you look corruption is the buzzword of Czech society.

Take a recent issue of Respekt, by far the country’s best analytical weekly. Each week the magazine features a section called “Ten Czech Pieces of News That You Shouldn’t Miss”. I picked up a copy from early December and it took me until #8, the death of a famous Czech architect, to find a report that had nothing to do with corruption. The others, in order:

1) Two parties, ODS and TOP09, formed a new coalition to govern Prague, which considerably weakened the influence of politicians with suspect ties to businessmen known as the city’s “godfathers”
2) An anti-corruption organization filed suit against the head of the Prague branch of the Social Democrats for misusing money intended for handicapped people. One of his colleagues called for kicking him out of the people because of clientelism.
3) The anti-corruption police arrested the head of the Prague city police for bribery.
4) The anti-corruption police and high state attorney’s office founded a special team to see how the country can join in a criminal case opened in Switzerland against the managers of a Czech coal company.
5) The former deputy to the Prague mayor was cleared of financial crimes.
6) Three hundred union members protested in Prague against corruption and called for the founding of a special committee to monitor how the police investigate corruption.
7) One of the biggest insurance companies has evidently wasted millions of crowns on an electronic health booklet project that still doesn’t work.

And all of that in just one week! And it’s not just the serious press. The leading tabloid, Blesk, usually content to focus on celebrity affairs and gruesome murders, has even got into the act, apparently believing that not only sex sells, but corruption as well. From a Czech Position article:

A week after Czech PM Petr Nečas was derided for claiming his government has done more to fight corruption in its 18 months in power than was done in the previous 10 years, the tabloid Blesk on Thursday launched an online petition calling upon the police and judiciary services to thoroughly investigate corruption scandals — and published a list of “top 20” most-corrupt politicans and businessmen.

Blesk, which has nearly twice the readership of the leading broadsheet Mláda fronta Dnes, said it had polled 50,000 people asking them who they thought were the greatest scoundrels among Czech politicians and lobbyists whom the police and public prosecution have yet to bring to justice. Without giving poll figures, the tabloid said former Social Democrat (ČSSD) prime minister Stanislav Gross is “indisputably the king of corruption in the eyes of the Czech people.” 

A much more scientific study was also just released by the Czech branch of Transparency International, and is really worth a look. The country’s first National Integrity System (NIS) study analyzes the extent to which the country’s institutions were prepared or unprepared to face corruption, as of the end of 2010/beginning of 2011. The key results indicated that the weakest pillars in the system are the state attorney’s office and the state administration, followed by the police; in general, excessive politicization had led to an unwillingness across the system to actively move against corruption cases with a political subtext. The best evaluated pillars were the ombudsman’s office and the Supreme Audit Office.

All of the above indicates that the disillusionment triggered by the current government’s scandals and initially sluggish moves against corruption seems to be leading to greater civic activism. Together with the non-profit sector, academics, and artists, more businessmen are now getting involved, including a group that launched the Foundation Fund Against Corruption and started handing out grants to whistleblowers and others fighting for greater transparency. The Foundation has also started to launch its own investigations into wrongdoing. Recently, Andrej Babiš, one of the richest Czech businessmen, founded the Action of Dissatisfied Citizens (ANO) movement in the fall of 2011, started railing publicly against corruption, and vowed to compete in the next elections. Pro-transparency websites that encourage citizens to do things like find out more information about their politicians and send them messages have also sprouted up.

What’s also interesting about all of this is that people’s opinions about corruption haven’t changed all that much. In March, CVVM, one of the country’s leading polling agencies, asked people if they thought public officials take bribes; a whopping two thirds (67 percent) opined that the majority do (44 percent) or almost all of them (23 percent). Political parties were seen as the most corrupt organizations, along with the ministries and central (national) offices, while the educational system, banks and financial institutions, and the media faired the best. (Interesting to see education as the least corrupt, given the opposite situation in so many of the other countries TOL covers).

According to CVVM, none of those figures have radically changed over the past decade.

In other words, the greater civic activity isn’t a result of people suddenly waking up and realizing that corruption is endemic or somehow thinking it’s worse than ever. No – for whatever reason (the disillusionment over the past elections; the maturation of civil society and individual businessmen; the increased investigative powers of the media), people just appear to be willing to do something about it.

Photo from Kenny Miller’s stream at Flickr.com.

Jeremy Druker

Jeremy Druker is the executive director and editor in chief of Transitions Online. Twitter: @JeremyDruker Email: jeremy.druker@tol.org

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