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Eastern Europe protests corruption

- - 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."

Former Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader is on trial in the biggest corruption case the Balkan nation has ever seen. His Croatian Democratic Union lost power last year because of the political scandal.

In Slovakia, politicians are accused of taking bribes in exchange for lucrative privatization contracts in 2005 and 2006 in what is known as the Gorilla scandal. It sparked widespread protests earlier this year.

Romanians expressed their frustration in January after Prime Minister Emil Boc dismissed Raed Arafat, a deputy health minister and highly respected reformer. A torrent of anger over corruption and austerity measures swept Mr. Boc's government from power the next month.

The current ruling Social Democratic government is also tainted with graft. After only a week in power, the education minister resigned after he was accused of plagiarism. Also former party leader Adrian Nastase, was sentenced to two years in prison after conviction for misuse of public funds in January.

Hungarians have been protesting a new constitution that has been heavily criticized for centralizing power and undermining democratic institutions. Some EU leaders have also denounced Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government over the constitution.

Some analysts have noted the irony that many of those now accused of abusing power were once deeply involved in the fight against authoritarian rule.

Mr. Orban was a firebrand young activist famous for a 1989 speech calling for democracy and the withdrawal of Soviet troops.

Blaz Zgaga contributed to this report from Ljubljana and Jan Richter from Prague. Ruby Russell reported from Berlin.