- - Tuesday, May 29, 2012

BUCHAREST, Romania — More than two decades after the fall of communism, angry residents in Eastern European democracies are rebelling against a culture of corruption that is making their economic hardships even worse.

Demonstrators recently brought down a corrupt government in Romania and nearly toppled one in the Czech Republic. In Slovenia, the prime minister is under indictment, while Croats are watching a massive corruption trial. Hungarians have taken to the streets to protest a new constitution that centralizes power in the national government.

“We grew up in a culture where petty corruption was almost like a civic virtue - a way to get around the stupid [communist] system we had,” said Miklos Marschall, deputy director of Transparency International, who is from Hungary.

Now graft is reaching beyond the penny-ante levels of the old Iron Curtain, he said.

“You see the politicians’ corruption, corruption in big businesses, and that frustrates people,” he said.
Andreea Nicutar of the Eruption Anticorruption group, which mobilizes young Romanians for political change, called the wave of political scandals “degrading.”

“[Corruption] steals our liberty, our dignity and our self-esteem,” he said.

Some analysts say the wave of protests indicates a new awareness of corruption they attribute to political maturity among the citizenry.

“It is a positive [development] that the states of the Central and East European region are prepared to acknowledge and attempt to deal with the issue, because this shows a maturing on their part that is not frequently enough acknowledged by their peers elsewhere in Europe and around the world,” said Eamonn Butler, professor of Central and Eastern European studies at the University of Glasgow in Scotland.

Last month, the Czech government barely survived a no-confidence vote in parliament after a court convicted two lawmakers on bribery charges.

More than 100,000 demonstrators marched in Prague to protest corruption, as well as austerity measures the Czech government imposed to deal with the Europewide financial crisis.

On May 14, leading Czech opposition politician David Rath was arrested carrying $350,000 in cash. Police found an additional $1.5 million stashed in his home and charged him with accepting bribes in public contract deals while serving as governor of the district of Central Bohemia.

“People are really happy that this has happened,” Quentin Reed, an anti-corruption consultant in Prague, said of Mr. Rath’s arrest. “This could be a wind of change in the Czech Republic if it really means that the police got their act together and went after this guy.”

In Slovenia, Prime Minister Janez Jansa was recently indicted on bribery charges involving arms smuggling. His efforts to impose budget cuts brought thousands out in protest.

“Austerity measures are heading in the wrong direction,” said Jure Zebec, a 40-year-old writer from the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana.

Slovenia is just another country following the same pattern; however, corruption is widespread in our country like elsewhere. The Slovene government is not combating it because [it is] actually part of the problem.”

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