The Mafia is big news in Slovakia at the moment. Recently a list of names was leaked into the public arena - firstly on the internet and then into the general media. Allegedly it was a police list of people connected with the underworld. There is no clear evidence as to the authenticity of the list; however, it has made the mafia the hottest topic in town.
In summer the streets of the old centre of Bratislava are filled with picturesque or luxurious restaurants with exotic palm trees outside. The palms are a nice addition, but some say it is much more than just that. It has been rumoured that palm trees indicate that a restaurant is owned or under the protection of a mafia group.
Regardless as to whether this is true or not I started to wonder just what is controlled by the underworld and to what extent it influences life in Slovakia.
"We can state that people imagine that the mafia has a very strong influence in Slovakia."
... says sociologist Pavol Haulik from the MVK poll agency which conducted a survey for the paper SME. This survey indicates that every third Slovak claims that he has come into contact with organized crime. And just how big is this crime? Martin Korch is the spokesman for the police presidium:
"It's very hard to estimate the number of members of the underworld. In 2002 Slovak police monitored 22 criminal groups, which mainly focused on material and economic crime and violence and 56 criminal groups organizing human trafficking, smuggling people to western countries."
As Korch says, the main criminal activity is economic and it's very frequent that the criminal groups connect themselves to legal enterprises, acting in businesses like restaurants, but also the distribution of alcohol and tobacco products, or operating private security services. Mr Korch:
"It also happens that entrepreneurs are misused by the underworld for money laundering. In recent years blackmailing or forcing entrepreneurs to hire underworld protection has been quite a problem. Currently this situation has been partially stabilised."
Rumours as that of the palm trees raise the question as to whether it is possible to do business without being connected to illegal activities, or the underworld.
"It's very hard to say to what extent entrepreneurs in Slovakia can operate without connection or misuse from the side of the underworld. The only way we can operate in these cases and prove anything is through court proceedings. However, if entrepreneurs don't want to cooperate or provide evidence of this we can't proceed in any way."
... says Martin Korch from the police presidium. As much as 70 percent of Slovakia's population believes that the country's political development is influenced by mafia. Sociologist Haulik tries to find an explanation for this:
"There were many indicators signalling that not everything is "clean" at the highest political level. But because none of these allegations, or uncertainties were explained or proven, people are to a certain extent very sceptical."
According to Haulik, people have already lost their trust in politicians. As the police has confirmed the connection of mafia groups to legal enterprises is very close. Whether or not restaurants with palm trees outside really indicate this relationship probably will probably never be proven, but it does reflect a concern many people share over the role of the underworld in our businesses and institutions.
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