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World: Justice Ministers See Corruption Threatening Democracy

Prague, 12 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - A conference in Prague of justice ministers from the Council of Europe's 40 member states has ended with a call for greater support for the international community's fight against growing corruption and organized crime. In a closing declaration issued late Wednesday, the ministers emphasized that corruption of state officials --often by organized crime groups-- posed an increasing threat to the rule of law, democracy and human rights throughout the Continent. They said this was particularly true of the 16 Council member states from Central and Eastern Europe and the former republics of the Soviet that have joined the organization since 1999.

The two-day meeting, sponsored jointly by the Czech Government and the Council of Europe, was held largely behind closed doors. But the text of reports and speeches made by several Eastern ministers were made available to our correspondent. They reflect great awareness of the moral corrosion and subversion of democratic values currently posed by widespread corruption in reforming, former Communist states.

In their reports to the conference, both Czech Justice Minister Vlasta Parkanova --who chaired the proceedings-- and her Hungarian counterpart Pal Vastagh underlined the trans-national character of crime and corruption in Eastern states whose borders were opened after the collapse of Communism in 1989. Parkanova said that corruption was now a serious problem in the Czech Republic that extended not only into many areas of public administration but also into the political and law-enforcement communities. Vastagh said the same for the situation in his country, noting that in some respects corruptive practices that had developed under Communist rule continued to flourish in post-Communist Hungary.

Speaking candidly, Vastagh put it this way: "At the time of the change of (Hungary's) regime, it was believed that corruption would no longer pose a big problem in an emerging market economy, since the reasons for it would have ceased to exist. This expectation, unfortunately, proved to be wrong."

The bluntest talk about widespread corruption in the East, however, came from Ukraine's Justice Minister Serhiy Holovaty, whom Council of Europe officials regard as a man of great personal integrity and honesty. Holovaty told the conference that the spread of corruption and organized crime in Ukraine and other former Soviet republics threatens, in his words, "to undermine the fragile foundations of their emerging civil societies."

In these countries, Holovaty continued, "(former) Soviet elites continue to cling to power. Having wielded tremendous administrative control over the lives and activities of their citizens (under Communism), the members of the 'nomenklatura' are now the virtually uncontrolled arbiters of the distribution and use of state property....Today, because of the absence of accountability within hierarchical power structures, the scope for fraud, corruption and self-aggrandizement is broad, to put it mildly. The nomenklatura is not interested in serious economic and administrative reform because its members profit handsomely from the existing unregulated environment."

Holovaty found that in the former Soviet republics the link between organized crime and corruption -- a phenomenon remarked by most speakers at the meeting-- had what he called a "special character." He defined that character in these words: "The distinction between organized crime and certain aspects of government activity is often indistinguishable. (The result is) the increasing institutionalization of corruption, enormous losses of revenue to state budgets, retardation of the development of the private sector, the monopolization of certain aspects of economic activity, and pervasive unjust enrichment."

The same point was made, but far more diplomatically, by the chief Council of Europe official at the meeting, Deputy Secretary General Peter Leuprecht of Austria. He told the meeting that the Council's four-year-old drive to aid international efforts at combating corruption had been considerably hampered by some member governments making merely verbal, but not real, commitments to its efforts. At a press conference at the end of the meeting yesterday, Leuprecht said that what is lacking in those states was what he called "political will." When pressed by RFE/RL to define the reasons for the absence of such will, he specifically referred to, in his words, "the penetration of criminal organizations in government."

Leuprecht and many other participants said they were convinced that the practical proposals agreed upon by the ministers for increasing intra-European and international cooperation in combating crime and corruption would be adopted at the Council of Europe's second summit meeting in October. But neither he nor many of the Eastern ministers present at the meeting were optimistic about stemming crime and corruption in the East, and particularly in the former Soviet republics, without a complete transformation of their societies and public attitudes. And that goal, they clearly suggested, will not- be achieved in the foreseeable future.