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Schmögnerová praised for open talk on courts

Finance Minister Brigita Schmögnerová delivered an astonishing message to the Association of Slovak Female Judges on February 5 on the inroads the government was making against judicial corruption in Slovakia: "Not a single court has accepted a request from us proposing a change at the post of the head of the creditors' committee [involved in dealings with bankrupted companies]. The reasons for this can be characterised as nothing other than the influence of different interest groups".
The statement was the first time a top government official had openly criticised courts for tolerating and abetting corruption within the judicial system - something that international institutions have said is a persistent problem, and one which needs to be solved through vital reform of the same judicial system the finance minister was implying is corrupt.


Finance Minister Brigita Schmögnerová shocked some judges with her open comments on court corruption.
photo: Ján Svrček

Finance Minister Brigita Schmögnerová delivered an astonishing message to the Association of Slovak Female Judges on February 5 on the inroads the government was making against judicial corruption in Slovakia: "Not a single court has accepted a request from us proposing a change at the post of the head of the creditors' committee [involved in dealings with bankrupted companies]. The reasons for this can be characterised as nothing other than the influence of different interest groups".

The statement was the first time a top government official had openly criticised courts for tolerating and abetting corruption within the judicial system - something that international institutions have said is a persistent problem, and one which needs to be solved through vital reform of the same judicial system the finance minister was implying is corrupt.

The statement brought immediate reaction and explanation from all corners, including the finance minister herself.

Schmögnerová explained for The Slovak Spectator February 12 that she had been merely spelling out the negative experience her ministry had had with commercial courts. "It often happens that courts come up with decisions which can be characterised as... influenced, and lagging behind the diction of the law," she said.

"When the Finance Ministry isn't able to receive a court's preliminary ruling on a case for three or four months, but certain businessmen get it overnight, people simply start asking 'how is this possible?'".

Officials with the World Bank, an organisation which has repeatedly warned that the government must be more active in fighting corruption, said that Schmögnerová's open criticism was a sign of a new willingness among public officials to deal with the issue and air it in public.

"Mrs. Schmögnerová is open and frank about her concerns, which is undoubtedly positive for the issue. It needs to be discussed [openly] and that's the best way to eliminate it," said Roger Grawe, head of the World Bank's Central and Eastern European office in Budapest.

But analysts and officials with NGOs said that Schmögnerová's comments were, while positive in themselves, actually a general sign of the government's failure to tackle the problem of corruption.

"She wanted to express her dissatisfaction over the slow pace of the fight against corruption in the country. It [the fight against corruption] should be more effective and faster, and the finance minister has clearly spelled this out," said Emília Sičáková, head of the corruption watchdog Transparency International Slovakia.

Justice Ministry criticism

The Finance Minister's criticisms of the working of the judiciary spurred a very different reaction from the Justice Ministry, though. Having designed legislation to root out corruption within state organs, ministry officials described Schmögnerová's comments as too strong, inaccurate and based on little evidence.

Daniel Lipšic, general secretary at the Justice Ministry and one of the principal coordinators of the government's National Fight Against Corruption programme, said: "When she [Schmögnerová] complains that courts haven't been acting in favour of the Finance Ministry and at a very slow pace, I would like to remind her that there have been cases when the opposite was true, for example the Nafta Gbely [gas and oil storage company illegally privatised under the former government - ed. note] case, when the courts ruled in very short time and accepted the government's requests.

"I believe that there is corruption, and not only at courts. I accept that. But I expect concrete proposals for change rather than just statements and comments."

More speed needed

Economic analysts have stressed that accelerating court proceedings by cutting judicial red tape would improve the country's micro-economic performance in 2001. They argue that complicated court procedures and poor law enforcement have discouraged some investors from putting vital foreign money into Slovakia.

Mikuláš Dzurinda's ruling coalition in 1998 made combating corruption one of its key priorities in its election term. Last year it launched its National Fight Against Corruption, but only a few months later admitted that the programme's application had been slower than expected and that some ministries had not considered it a priority.

A recent World Bank survey on corruption and bribes at state institutions showed that bribes were widely accepted, and tolerated, at a majority of Slovak state institutions. The survey showed that the average bribe paid by Slovak businessmen to courts was 25,500 Slovak crowns ($543).

A Corruption Perception Index compiled by Transparency International every year showed in 2000 that Slovakia's corruption levels were far higher than those in regional neighbours. The country fell from a world position of 48th in 1998 to 52nd last year (out of 90 countries), while Hungary was 32nd, the Czech Republic 42nd and Poland 43rd.

The World Bank's Grawe said that his bank's survey spoke for itself in terms of problems to be dealt with. "Corruption is viewed as one of the key problems [in Slovakia] and I believe that the results of the survey will be taken to heart and reforms will be made with our possible support," Grawe said.

He added that the government had presented its commitment to deal with the issue of corruption by asking for the survey to be carried out. "We don't have any similar data for the Czech Republic and Hungary as they haven't asked for such a survey. I think it shows a willingness to solve the issue," Grawe concluded.

Theory easier than practice

According to the World Bank, judicial reform in general and improvement in the administration of bankruptcy processes in courts in particular are key to fighting corruption effectively.

The government has recently approved several legal measures designed to help fight against corruption in the courts, including a new Law on Judges and Lay Judges and a key revision to the bankruptcy law. The revision is expected to speed up court dealings with bankrupted companies.

But in spite of the fact that part of the necessary legislation eliminating corruption at courts has been put into place, Lipšic explained that one of the most difficult tasks for the government would be its application in practice.

"Court corruption has been cultivated here, and it is difficult to disrupt the channels through which it occurs. Bribes are not given to judges directly, they are given through lawyers, policemen, regional officials and other people. It is very difficult for the police to penetrate these networks and prove that there are money transfers occuring," Lipšic said.

He added that in order break the direct and indirect connections between judges and business people, the Justice Ministry would this year appoint a special prosecutor for corruption.

"This move will serve as one of the tools for minimising corruption at courts," Lipšic said.

However, some analysts are pessimistic of how much the new institute will help. Jana Červenáková, of the Bratislava economic think-tank MESA 10, said: "These people [judges and people giving bribes] have known each other for a very long time. There may be an effort to reveal particular cases of corruption, but the real potential for its success is minimal."

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