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EDITORIAL

Justice is alive and well: It's the law that's blind

Dima is a 22 year-old undergraduate from Uzbekistan who is studying at a Slovak university on a stipend of 3,500 Slovak crowns ($75) a month. The law says he can't work to add to his meager scholarship, but he does on a brigada (odd jobs) basis in order to buy smokes and go on a date once in a while. He says he doesn't want to be a criminal in the eyes of the law, but that the rules set by his host country leave him no choice.
He's not alone. Slovakia's ageing body of laws is increasingly out of step with reality, and forces everyone who lives here to ignore the rules at least part of the time just to get by.
It's a situation almost unthinkable in western countries, where laws that can't be obeyed are speedily scrapped, and rules that won't be followed are rarely proposed in the first place. Laws are conceived as an expression of people's sense of justice.

Dima is a 22 year-old undergraduate from Uzbekistan who is studying at a Slovak university on a stipend of 3,500 Slovak crowns ($75) a month. The law says he can't work to add to his meager scholarship, but he does on a brigada (odd jobs) basis in order to buy smokes and go on a date once in a while. He says he doesn't want to be a criminal in the eyes of the law, but that the rules set by his host country leave him no choice.

He's not alone. Slovakia's ageing body of laws is increasingly out of step with reality, and forces everyone who lives here to ignore the rules at least part of the time just to get by.

It's a situation almost unthinkable in western countries, where laws that can't be obeyed are speedily scrapped, and rules that won't be followed are rarely proposed in the first place. Laws are conceived as an expression of people's sense of justice.

But in this country, where moral standards have been eroded by four decades of communism and another of frustrated hopes, law and justice have become estranged. Those who break the rules, as did communist industry barons and Mečiar-era privatisers, are rewarded with unimaginable wealth, while those who follow them are abandoned to unemployment and crumbling state services.

This is particularly dangerous in Slovakia, where people's interior sense of right and wrong has to be rebuilt after years of deformation. But far from reinforcing this rebirth of values, the laws of the land are actually frustrating it.

Part of the problem is that laws haven't moved fast enough to keep up with new economic and social realities. In Dima's case, the last time scholarships for foreign university students were raised was 1998; since then, 31.4% inflation has made 3,500 crowns an unlivable pittance, only slightly above the amount of money the government sets as subsistence level for welfare applicants (3,490 crowns) and far below the minimum monthly wage (4,400 crowns).

The other half of the equation is that some legislation changes every few months, defeating the attempts of law-abiding residents to obey it. It's now such a tortuous ordeal to get a work or residency permit that many foreigners are forced to work illegally, and cannot pay taxes even if they wanted. If foreign firms want to bring in an expert on a consultancy contract for several months, for example, they haven't a chance to arrange the necessary papers in time, and thus are unable to pay their expert legally (calling for 'creative' job financing that doesn't benefit anyone except the untaxed recipient).

And thus it goes. The Employment Law requires employers to give five months salary to an employee they wish to fire, so firms either bully staff into accepting less or invest money into automation rather than new hires, just to avoid the hassle. Illegal work is rife as people take under-the-table jobs to meet tax dues on their day wages, or as firms conspire with welfare recipients to take black market wages and remain on state benefit rolls.

If anything, it's to the country's credit that some people are still willing to try and obey absurd laws while those who flout them go unpunished. Correcting both sides of this distressing equation will take decades and the concerted talents of Slovakia's legislators; if this country is indeed a 'work in progress', nowhere is this more true than in retying the corset that law provides to justice.

Too often, however, it seems that the concerted talents of legislators are being misspent. This week, parliamentary debate began on an amendment to the Constitution, a revision which is expected to correct some of the worst communist-inspired elements of the country's 1992 legal foundation. It will bring many needed corrections, but has been held hostage to narrow political interest groups (the Green party, for example, conditioned their four parliamentary votes on having protection for caves written in; the Christian Democrats want to outlaw abortions, the former communist SDĽ to protect the right to work etc.).

The Constitutional amendment is an important step, no doubt. But a small public debate on what should be changed wouldn't have been out of place, surely? Such a debate might have preceded a more far-ranging discussion of what moral values this society holds dear, and how these can be secured in its laws.

There's an old communist-era adage that is still on the lips of many Slovaks: "He who doesn't steal from the state is stealing from his own family". Erasing that wry homily from the store of folk wisdom requires the country's leaders to show people that thieves go to jail, while hard work leads to prosperity. But all the government has proven to the country so far is the aptness of a line penned by the Roman poet Seneca: Video meliora proboque, Deteriora sequor (I see and approve better things, but follow the worse which I condemn).

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