Czech government approves package of measures to attack corruption scourge

The Czech Republic last year slipped down the rankings of more or less corruption free countries. Politicians’ failure to tackle what it almost universally recognised as a major problem was one of the reasons for that fall. The caretaker government has now adopted a bold anti-corruption package which it hopes will be given a fast track through parliament.

Prime Minister Jan Fischer was cautious not to present the package as a magic wand to solve what has frequently been described as one of the biggest brakes on the development of the Czech Republic.

But the anti-corruption package, which appears to have been inspired in part by broader measures already in place in neighbouring Slovakia, does call for some fairly bold steps.

One of the major innovations is the offer of immunity from prosecution for key prosecution witnesses who agree to testify in return for guarantees that the slate will be wiped clean as far as they are concerned.

Another is the creation of so-called police anti-corruption agents. The description agent provocateur is not on target because the government proposal bans such agents from initiating a crime, but does allow them to take part in criminal activities to gather information.

The proposal would also tighten up on the rules for awarding public contracts. Those in key positions who could influence the outcome would be vetted in advance by the National Security Authority. This is aimed at shedding light on such decision makers’ backgrounds and possible criminal connections.

The package has been welcomed as a step in the right direction by David Ondráčka the head of the Czech branch of the international anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International.

“It is a symbol that the government clearly perceives corruption as one of the major structural problems in this country and that real life tools need to be employed. However, we would have loved to see a more complex approach not just focussing on repression and repressive measures which is basically the focus of this package.”

But Mr Ondráčka points out that a lot more could be done to make the Czech Republic a less welcoming environment for corruption, for example by shedding more light on public deliberations at all levels.

“There must be a tendency to make everything more transparent especially when it deals with public funds. What I am talking about specifically is public construction, public subsidies and EU funds which are very vulnerable to corruption. We would like to see a more open and accountable legislative process which deals with the issue of regulating lobbying and the issue of the transparency of the legislative process. And at the same time we would love to see much more focus on how local property and money is dealt with by local councils.”

As well as reservations about the package’s scope, Transparency International is also sceptical whether the government can really push its plans through parliament before elections due in May.

Those doubts have been fuelled by a mixed reception for the package from Czech politicians. The leader of the main centre-right party, the Civic Democrats, attacked the package as unsystematic, artificial and in some aspects debatable. And he singled out provisions giving the police greater powers to use wire taps as a backwards step.