General Secretary at the Justice Ministry Daniel Lipšic says he is the family's black sheep.
photo: Ján Svrček
"It was the worst day of my life," remembers Lipšic. "It was horrible."
Lipšic could have just as easily been writing a term paper on that afternoon in early 1999 as reshuffling personnel at the Slovak Ministry of Justice. A precocious legal student, he was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study law at Harvard in 1998. He had been there for only a month when elections brought a new government to Slovakia, and with it a tempting offer to return home.
"[Newly appointed Justice Minister] Ján Čarnogurský called me in America and said that he would like me to be the General Secretary of the Justice Ministry," recounts Lipšic. "It was very unexpected. I had had no concrete interest in such a position before, and at first I refused."
But for the next few days, Lipšic was haunted by his own words. "I had always been very adamant that Slovakia needed to give a chance to young people. I realised that if I didn't return and take the job, I would be a hypocrite," he says.
Lipšic says he would have been a hypocrite to turn down the offer of a job at the Justice Ministry and the opportunity to help his country.
photo: Ján Svrček
Lipšic called Čarnogurský and cut a deal - he would take the job if he could finish the semester he'd already started, and return for the second semester in the fall 2000.
In an era when many of Slovakia's best and brightest can't wait to leave, Lipšic is a rare example of a Slovak with almost limitless potential abroad who returned home. With a resume that would make mouths water at law firms across the United States, Lipšic has spent the last two years using his legal expertise to make changes in Slovakia's legal system instead of thousands of dollars in the West.
"It isn't always easy for young people in this country. There is a tendency here to suppress over-achievers not present in countries such as the U.S. So I can understand why people would want to leave, even though that wasn't the decision I made. I believe one of the greatest virtues is helping one's country when it is in need, which is now."
After two years of working with Lipšic, Minister Čarnogursky says that he has proved to be a shining example of how young, ambitious people, when given the chance, can change Slovakia. "Because of his age, Daniel gives us the advantage that he is more likely to take radical solutions to problems. And his study time abroad gives him a dimension that is extraordinary in our culture."
Back now from a second stay abroad to finish his Harvard education, Lipšic says he made the right decision in 1998, and he is glad to be part of a generation of Slovaks which is changing the country. "We are still influenced by the communist regime, but much less so than our parents. We are open-minded, critical, and not afraid to express our opinions.
"Young ambitious people left the country en masse in 1938, 48 and 68. It would be a tragedy if that were repeated now. I hope that all young people that gain experience abroad will bring their knowledge and experience back to Slovakia. If that happens, this country has nothing to worry about."
A commitment to justice
Last fall, Lipšic showed his colours as a principled legal scholar unwilling to be swayed by political interests. A parliamentary deputy and member of the opposition Slovak National Party, who had made racist comments against Slovakia's Roma minority, Víťazoslav Moric, was indicted for inciting racial hatred. Lipšic disagreed with his words, but didn't think charging him with a crime was, in this case, constitutional.
"There must be a clear legal difference between speech and action, and speech must be protected. It is dangerous once the government starts deciding what kind of speech is dangerous," argued Lipšic, adding that his opinion, which struck against the popular one, was influenced by his exposure to constitutional legal issues in America, where freedom of speech is one of the most guarded and debated rights.
The attacks on Moric were also, says Lipšic, an example of a practice he is against - politics encroaching on law. "Too often Slovaks still think the constitution should depend on political preferences and not what it says."
Lipšic's commitment to legal standards overriding political interests is not surprising since he never dreamed of a career as a politician.
"My mother is a physician, my father is a physician, and my brother and all my cousins are physicians. I always thought I would be a doctor too, since during communism a career in law was restricted. But after the revolution things change," he says.
But Lipšic adds that although he is the black sheep of the family, he has kept the Lipšic heritage by applying the ideals of the medical profession to his legal work. "There are a lot of similarities between medicine and law; both fields are more than professions. Both are services to the community, to life and justice."
Lipšic, who joined Čarnogursky's Christian Democratic Party after coming back in 1998 and who was elected vice chairman in October last year, admits that he is now in the thick of political life in Slovakia. But he says that won't change his approach to law and reform.
"I am never going to lose my contact with the legal world. Keeping your options open outside the political world is crucial in remaining independent within it. You never have to compromise your standards if you know you can walk away at any time," he says.
For Lipšic, making sure that the entire Slovak government functions more transparently has been a main goal. He sights the Law on Judges and Magistrates, part of the judicial reform programme, passed on January 1 as one of his most important accomplishments at the Justice Ministry. And in March he was picked to head a committee on the fight against corruption.
"Slovakia is a small country, which means local and regional elite are still entrenched. Investigations into corruption at that level are often cursory and biased. We need to create a specialised, centralised office to fight corruption. By the time my tenure in office is done, we should have made significant progress," he says.
Lipšic also believes that politicians, at national level will also have to work hard - and cleanly - to change their own image.
"It will take time. People are cynical about politics, which is only natural since there is still a lot of corruption. But over time, if young politicians can build a record, we can change this attitude."