My wife came home and as soon she came through the door she burst out: Did you know that you can get a driving licence without a test for 500 euros and a secondary school leaving certificate without attending school for a thousand? Yesterday a friend of mine gave a five hundred euro note to a doctor just so that he would take a look at her sick mother! Her eyes were wide with horror, as if she had just seen the devil. Maybe she has.
Ten years ago I would have told her not to believe everything people say and not to pass judgement without sufficient evidence. Yet today I believe her because I have heard and believe stories that are much worse. Every day they come hurtling out of every newspaper in the Czech and Slovak Republics: instead of a driving licence or a school leaving exam they describe transactions with government monies worth millions of euros. I hear similar stories from my neighbours or random people like the nice man who came recently to prune a tree in my garden and who told me that he can’t even get a contract for mowing the lawn on city council property without the official in charge taking a 20 percent cut. Stories like this keep rolling down like an avalanche, destroying the tender shoots of faith that one day we might live a normal life.
Modelled on communist State Security
Actually, a similar avalanche comes rolling from the computer when you google the word corruption. You will discover that everything imaginable in all languages has been written about it. The word derives from the Latin corrumpere (to destroy) and its root is the Indo-European reup, which just goes to show that we’re not the only ones who have this problem. But it’s not much comfort to think that in Italy they’ve had the Mafia since the 19th century and that Latin America and the Arab world have always been riddled with corruption. We cannot even refer to the Central European tradition because in that case the gap between us and the Austrians in the corruption league tables could not be so enormous.
For corruption in post-communist countries is a new mutation of this ancient disease. It has blossomed in the fertile soil of fermenting freedom under the hothouse protection of totalitarian habits. It has become so powerful that it has mutated into a separate system which is invisible but all-pervasive, its existence clandestine just like that of the StB [State Security] used to be. It has used the fact that our society has become so accustomed to inhabiting a dual world that all it had to do was to slip on the comfy old shoes of social schizophrenia left behind by the old regime. After all, the Czech Wikipedia entry on corruption states in the introductory paragraph that it is the opposite of integrity.
Although corruption is increasingly being discussed and written about in the visible world these are just so many words whose only effect is a peculiar state in which corruption is a public affair, while at the same time leading a very private life. And in this private life it behaves like a virus that is quick to learn. It avoids all known forms of control or corrodes them from the inside, leaving only a veneer of democratic procedures as an optical illusion for the public (and the European Union). It has its own coded language, its own institutions without an address, and its own paperless media.
The nature of post-communist corruption is just as infernal as that of the former secret police network used to be. Of course, one cannot compare the totalitarian and military character of the StB with the parallel and ever-changing structure of corruption, but the relationships within these two worlds are similar. The StB and its agents functioned on the same principle of knowing and covering up a crime, creating firm tiesand building an impenetrable wall of silence. Even the motives that make people enter this closed world are very similar today, from the desire to acquire or achieve something to despair, as when you are trying to save your mother and are prepared to give the doctor anything to make her better, just like many people in the past signed an agreement to cooperate with the StB believing they would thus protect their loved ones.
Speaking the truth is not enough
The communist regime was based on lies that had to be publicly proclaimed as truth. The truth about the real nature of the world we lived in could only be spoken in secret, in the privacy of one’s own home. Back then I believed that once this gap between the public and private was closed, once truth was spoken sufficiently loudly, it would be enough to bring the whole system tumbling down. This is precisely what happened thanks to the hundreds of thousands who went out into the streets. So how is it possible that another system based on a lie – and corruption is such a system – has been able to come to life and flourish despite the fact that it has been mentioned publicly not just once – indeed, it has recently been on everyone’s lips more or less constantly?
The only explanation I have is that our society has been so profoundly marked by our post-communist experience that we are reluctant to give it up. Because, in a way, the existence of the present-day dual world confirms, especially for the older and middle-aged generation, that their life under the former regime reflected the natural state of things and therefore was not completely pointless. Democracy is just another external manifestation of this existence, which does not close the gap between the concealed and the visible world: it only allows us to define it.
However, defining the problem is clearly not enough. My faith in freedom and in the power of words does not stand a chance in the battle with corruption; it seems to me that the more articles and analyses of corruption I read, the more it grows. It’s as if the flood of words turned into its very own protective shield, it’s become a tedious subject that makes people tired and want to switch off.
For example, people in Slovakia have been aware for years that their former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar, who used to boast of his modesty and closeness to the people, owns a huge villa and that his grown-up children have been buying up property and houses surrounding his villa as if they were building a medieval fortress to hide in should they be besieged. Another ill-reputed politician, the chairman of the Slovak National Party, drives luxury cars, flies his own airplane and allegedly owns half the town he used to be the mayor of, under the cover of various companies. Both these gentlemen belong to the coalition government of the current, allegedly left-wing Prime Minister Robert Fico, who in press conferences fulminates against the corruption of his predecessors. Yet it is his government whose corruption affairs roll past the population with a deafening roar, like carriages of an endless train loaded with stolen money. Most recently, one of Fico’s ministers used a front company headquartered in a garage in the USA to arrange the sale of emission quotas on the international stock exchange. Economists say that the state – i.e. the taxpayer – has been cheated out of 70 million euros but the only effect these flickering numbers have on most Slovaks is to put them in a hypnotic trance as soon as they hear the word million.
But what about the Czechs? Well, they are not much better off. A former prime minister, the once promising young politician Stanislav Gross, who went straight from school into politics without a university degree and who had never held any other job, miraculously acquired a fortune soon after resigning his government post. But first he got himself a law degree from a university which has recently been revealed as the breeding ground for fictitious lawyers who had real degrees though they had never studied at the university. Then, after Mr. Gross suddenly made a further three million euros on a mysterious sale of shares of a company that later went bankrupt, and went on to buy an apartment in Florida and a restaurant in Prague. And guess who represents Mr. Gross in his lawsuits against the media that dare to write about him? It’s one of these fictitious lawyers. Meanwhile Czech politicians fulminate in press conferences and on TV against corruption, most recently about the 30 million euros the citizens of Prague lost when the city council, ruled by a single political party, authorized a company with an unknown owner (in the Czech Republic it is still possible to own shares in a company registered at a P.O. Box, i.e. with an undisclosed owner) to introduce a new kind of travel card for public transport. The new system doesn’t work and the money is gone.
These examples are but illustrations, small pieces of a gigantic puzzle that can’t be put together because there is not enough will and opportunity. The Czechs and Slovaks lack not only the language that might penetrate people’s numbed consciousness; in spite of the vast amount of information around they also miss real stories. People treat information in the media simply as hints from which they have to reconstruct the rest of the story, not as the actual story telling them who bought what from whom and for how much, and where the money went. The media rely on the readers’ willingness to reconstruct the story (one of the reasons the journalists cannot do it is that corrupt politicians are likely to take them to court and win) and the result is a conspiratorial relationship between the media and its consumers, which only serves to reinforce the feeling that we live in a dual world. Reading revelations about some external circumstances that vaguely hint at corruption as the driving force behind a story just confirms my suspicion that the real background has remained concealed while the hope of ever discovering the truth is futile. But unlike the StB, the people who inhabit this shadowy secret world do not keep records of their agents, their reporting structure and criminal plans.
If we accept the existence of a public secret that someone else has a key to, what state of affairs do we live in? It is the psychological state of exile: we acknowledge living in an alien country governed by somebody else’s rules. It is not a coincidence that the Czechs and Slovaks are trailing in European surveys of public trust. If four-fifths of a society refuse to trust their fellow citizens, how can they call this country their own?
Twenty years ago I believed that the fall of communism was brought about by a society that refused to live in a dual world any longer. I was wrong. Society continues to live in such a world, perhaps quite contentedly so, because it is under the illusion that this is the natural state of things. I can only hope that a younger generation will lose patience and have to stick to my belief that just as communism collapsed, one day corruption, too, might also collapse.