ATTORNEY-GENERAL Costas Clerides said that Cyprus was seeing ‘unfathomable’ levels of corruption and graft, in a speech he made last Monday at a seminar on combating corruption. Another speaker, auditor-general Odysseas Michaelides, agreed saying that the level of corruption was much higher than what he expected when he was appointed in 2014.
They did not say something we did not know, but as respected, independent state officials that have been combating corruption their words carry more weight than most. “Through money and self-interest, anything can be achieved,” said Clerides. “Ideas are guided, individuals and institutions are targeted, consciences bought and crimes are committed,” he added. Michaelides said that “anyone who wished to abuse his position could do so,” as he had “ample opportunity and almost complete certainty of non-punishment.”
The government, meanwhile, preferred to see the glass as half full. Justice Minister Ionas Nicolaou believed the government was making progress in combating this phenomenon. In 2016, 177 cases of corruption were reported and 169 solved while this year of 162 cases investigated 149 were solved. A special unit was set up to fight financial crime while more staff was hired at the auditing and state legal services, said Nicolaou, who admitted there was problem with the law – there were 24 different laws relating to corruption, which should be unified into one law.
Nicolaou could also have cited the argument, often used Disy and government spokesmen, that never before had so many corruption cases been brought to trial and top officials sentenced to prison. Nobody could argue with this boast, even though it indicates a degree of complacency on behalf of the government. Dromolaxia, the Paphos Sewerage Board, the waste treatment plants, Tepak, Ayia Fyla co-op bank were some of the big scandals uncovered during the Anastasiades presidency and there are more currently under investigation.
Combatting corruption required a policy of zero tolerance, Clerides and Michaelides concluded at the seminar, but this is a theoretical point. Zero tolerance does not come from the sky, especially when all the political parties and unions are involved in corruption, actively engaging in it and benefiting from it. Who will impose the zero tolerance when the members of our ruling elite are benefiting from high tolerance. Nepotism, which is a form of corruption and a criminal offence, is rampant in the state sector, which has become something of a family business for state employees, who ensure their offspring are hired. This may be considered low-level corruption, but there is a high level of tolerance to it, even by the attorney-general, whose office, it was recently reported, hired several offspring of serving attorneys. Was this just a coincidence?
Michaelides was surprised by the level of corruption he encountered when he took over his post, but never wondered why it was so difficult to bring charges against dishonest public employees. Do the rigid collective agreements, imposed by the unions, offer them excessive protection? Does the fact that a department head can stay in the same position for decades, because Pasydy does not permit transfers not encourage corruption? Our state is not even capable of taking basic precautions against corruption because of the unions and favours dispensed by the government to selected top officials. There is not even respect for the regulations.
And who is to blame that on the rare occasions that top civil servants were charged for corruption the cases are lost because of technical reasons? There were two such cases involving the heads of two big government department, not so long ago, both were acquitted on technicalities and returned to their departments. Does the law have loopholes, are judges too lenient or are the prosecutors of the attorney-general’s office not very good at their job? More recently, one of the corruption cases at Tepak, the applied sciences state university, was lost because the prosecution completely messed up. Was this done on purpose or down to incompetence?
These may seem like random thoughts, but they illustrate the breadth and depth of the corruption that plagues our society which, does not seem to have the real will to tackle it. Admittedly, some progress has been made in the last few years during which a chairman of a SGO, a deputy, a top-ranking party official, mayors, municipal councillors and a few public employees were put behind bars, but a many more still walk free enjoying the benefits of their dishonesty protected by unions, political parties, lax laws and society’s tolerance. We can only dream of zero tolerance on corruption in a country in which the main beneficiaries of graft are the members of our ruling establishment.