Despite a promise from Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas to finally take a hard line against corruption and cronyism, the Czech Republic is 53rd on Transparancy International's annual ranking of corrupt nations.
Jiri Kubatscheck owns two shoe stores on the outskirts of Prague. At the end of last year he wanted to open another in the center of the city, but his plans hit a familiar wall.
"Nothing happens without a bribe," said Kubatscheck. "Just to secure the space, the administration wanted 50,000 crowns (2,100 euros, $2,870) cash. I didn't do it. The corruption is everywhere, from the top to the bottom."
The shoe salesman isn't the only one who has had such an experience. Many Czechs are frustrated and disappointed by their politicians. Corruption and bribes are part of everyday life, and only those who can afford large bribes can get ahead, said the Czech director of Transparency International, David Ondracka.
"Normally, you’re most likely to encounter corruption in administrative offices," Ondracka continued. "But very often it carries over to doctors, for example when there are waiting lists for a certain operation. Then you can't get anything done without a bribe. Even with public contracts, things are not conducted transparently. It all depends on who you know - it's all about corruption and cronyism."
Corruption has penetrated every aspect of life in the Czech Republic, according to Ondracka: from public servants who hold out their hands for bribes, to corrupt administrative officials, or even bribable police officers. Week after week, political scandals are splashed across the headlines of Czech papers.
A lack of political will?
Necas still has to deliver on his promise to fight corruption
Last summer, a conservative government came to power with the aim of putting a stop to the widespread corruption. Prime Minister Petr Necas ran on the promise that the fight against corruption was to be his top priority.
"Nothing can be hidden, nothing can be swept under the rug and nothing can be held back from the eyes of the citizens," Necas said. "Trust in the political system of our country is dependent on that. Corruption is not acceptable for us."
But the self-crafted clean image of the prime minister is already showing stains. At the beginning of the year, the government passed an anti-corruption measure, but so far there have been no great successes. In fact, Transparency International director Ondracka warned things are actually getting worse.
"This government is drowning in its own corruption scandals," he said. "For that reason I'm skeptical if their anti-corruption strategy will be successful. This can only be the beginning, because words have to be followed by deeds."
Fundamental change needed
Ondracka said there is little to show in terms of actual change. According to him, nearly every fifth public contract is negotiated under the table. The economic damage is enormous - around 3.5 billion euros are lost every year. Anyone hoping for a career in politics or business is practically forced to take part in this dirty game.
The political parties have even been to a large extent financed by less-than-reputable sources, and control measures are - at best - full of holes. The system of self-policing doesn't work either, said Ondracka. Many companies are able to exert their influence on political decisions. The only solution, according to Ondracka, is a fundamental change in politics and society.
"Police and public defenders must be able to work independently in order to bring all cases before the courts after a thorough investigation," he said. "Czechs must understand that bribery is no trivial offense, but a crime. Only then will things change."
Author: Stefan Heinlein / mz
Editor: Andreas Illmer