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Last Updated: Monday, 14 February 2005, 17:32 GMT
Europe's transparency deficit
By Jan Repa
BBC Europe analyst

Transparency is patchy in western Europe too
The furore over a luxury flat owned by Czech Prime Minister Stanislav Gross has raised new concerns about financial transparency in Central Europe.

Mr Gross has told parliament he is willing to be investigated over the purchase he made five years ago.

The opposition claims he could not have afforded to pay for the flat and says Mr Gross' explanations are unconvincing.

According to independent corruption monitors Transparency International, the Czech Republic is the country in Central Europe where corrupt practices have the best opportunity to flourish.

One observer has suggested that, while in some parts of the world corruption is part of the social fabric, in Central Europe people understand concepts like legal obligation and public probity - but do not always apply them.

It is like a clock, whose mechanism basically works, but is full of dust and fluff.

Europe-wide debate

"This analogy with the clock is excellent," says Miklos Marschall, Transparency International's regional director for Europe and Central Asia.

"This is an issue which has been debated over the past 10 to 15 years, during the transition. So there is already a sensitivity. The debate is over how broad such regulations should be. In other words, who should be included - whether only executives and members of parliament; or also local government officials.

We need a better investigative journalism to really nail down the real cases - and not just pick up what one politician says about another
Miklos Marschall,
Transparency International

"The other question is how much transparency is necessary. There is a public interest to have as much transparency as possible. And there is the interest of politicians to limit that interest."

But Mr Marschall says western Europe is not necessarily a good model.

"There are not too many 'best practices'. Just think of Germany - where members of parliament have all kinds of second paid jobs - and the public was not very much aware of that," he says.

"Or look at the European Union. While the commissioners are very well regulated... if you look at the members of (the European) parliament, there is much less regulation.

"There is much we do not know about how they hire their immediate staff. It is quite common for European MPs to have their relatives as staff members."


There are obvious examples of corruption. But "conflicts or interest" - the confusion of private advantage with public function - do not have to be illegal, in the strict sense of the term.

Czech PM Stanislav Gross
Czech PM Stanislav Gross has defended his flat purchase
Mr Marschall cites the example of a deputy speaker of the Hungarian parliament, who was also the owner of an agri-business.

"He thought it was absolutely alright to get a state subsidy for that: using the argument that this was open to anyone who owned land - so it was a very democratic process," he says.

"What's more, he didn't think it was wrong for him to vote for such a subsidy in parliament. The good news is that he was forced to resign from his position as a parliamentary speaker.

To have good conflict of interest practice, you have to have a culture of unwritten ethics.

"If we go a little eastwards: out of the 100 mega-rich in Russia, 22 are deputies in the Duma, 10 are senators, and three are regional presidents. There is no clear dividing line between the political sector and the business sector. That is a fact in Central Europe as well. Many politicians used their careers to personally enrich themselves."

Weak media

The Czech Republic already has "conflict of interest" legislation. But critics say it is far too weak.

According to Transparency International, many MPs do not bother to make a declaration of interests - or treat the issue as a joke. A new draft law was withdrawn by the Czech government last year.

Mr Marschall says part of the problem lies in a weak media.

"The media is not up to its job. Because what is going on is smear campaigns, accusations. The whole issue of corruption has been hijacked by the politicians," he says.

"Maybe the only exception is Poland, which is big enough to have a free media. You cannot find good investigative stories - because the media, the journals, the newspapers, don't have the money to do a two-month thorough research on a case.

"So some gossip comes up - and it dies away."

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