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MPs smell populism in 'firm hand' bill

This month's session of parliament will see discussion of a new law which its author, Robert Fico, says will help Slovak courts finally crack down on people behind dubious privatisations and who have accumulated property through murky business deals.
However, Fico, an independent MP and leader of the non-parliamentary Smer party, has been accused in the past of populism by his parliamentary colleagues and political observers; his latest bill has been criticised on the same score. Some politicians and political analysts say that Fico, in going after the recently rich, is trying to gain political points from the failure of the current government to meet its 1998 election manifesto pledge to bring past economic criminals to justice.
Under the draft law, all Slovak citizens could be asked to show where they obtained the money to acquire their property; however, the bill is intended to apply mainly in cases where the value of someone's property far exceeds their declared income.


Independent MP Robert Fico, leader of the non-parliamentary Smer party, has proposed new means of dealing with privatisers.
photo: TASR


"If I were the attorney general, I'd immediately ask him: 'Mr, how did you obtain your property?'"

Anti-graft bill author Robert Fico


This month's session of parliament will see discussion of a new law which its author, Robert Fico, says will help Slovak courts finally crack down on people behind dubious privatisations and who have accumulated property through murky business deals.

However, Fico, an independent MP and leader of the non-parliamentary Smer party, has been accused in the past of populism by his parliamentary colleagues and political observers; his latest bill has been criticised on the same score. Some politicians and political analysts say that Fico, in going after the recently rich, is trying to gain political points from the failure of the current government to meet its 1998 election manifesto pledge to bring past economic criminals to justice.

Under the draft law, all Slovak citizens could be asked to show where they obtained the money to acquire their property; however, the bill is intended to apply mainly in cases where the value of someone's property far exceeds their declared income.

Fico told The Slovak Spectator September 5 that the bill had been drafted specifically "to step on the toes of those who privatised large properties since 1990, and those who own villas worth 30 or 40 million [Slovak crowns, $600,000 to $800,000] even though their declared income is 15,000 crowns [$300] a month.

"It won't be enough just to say 'I built up my property through hard work' in court - these people will have to demonstrate how they did it [acquired their property] with documents, contracts and so on."

The bill stipulates that the attorney general will have the sole power to propose investigations in civil court. If convicted, a defendant's property could be forfeit.

It was not clear from the reactions that The Slovak Spectator canvassed among MPs whether the draft had a chance of becoming law. Most politicians said the bill's fate depended on the extent to which Fico was prepared to bargain.

"I'm prepared to support Fico's initiative and I will recommend that my party colleagues do the same, although it's rather radical in its current form," said Ladislav Orosz, a member of parliament for the ruling coalition Democratic Left Party (SD1). "Whether the draft becomes law depends on how much Fico is willing to compromise," he added.

The Smer head, however, has said he is prepared to accept "reasonable" compromises only, and insists that in his eyes the draft "is still too soft. I had to hold myself back when formulating it.

"Slovakia needs a very, very, very strong hand," he said. "If they [MPs] come up with reasonable proposals, I'll be open to them. But if they try to remove the basic pillars of the law, I'd rather say 'no thank you'."

Grigorij Mesežnikov, political analyst and head of the Bratislava-based Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) think tank, said that Fico's primary goal was not to get his draft through parliament but rather to be seen to react "cleverly, as ever, to the public's mood. It's a means of pleasing the voter", he said.

"Political scandals and corruption cases haven't disappeared [during this government] and this has naturally frustrated voters. By proposing the law Fico wants to score some political points with the electorate."

Dealing with the past

If passed, Fico's law might affect many people who were involved in privatisation under the last government of Vladimír Meeiar [1994-1998], such as Karol Martinka, who privatised Pieš?any spa in 1996 non-transparently, or Alexander Rezeš, former Transport Minister from 1994-1997, who privatised the Východoslovenské železiarne (VSŽ) steel giant.

Martinka is currently in exile in Austria; Rezeš, while now in Slovakia, still owns a villa in Spain which is worth tens of millions of crowns, and was purchased while VSŽ saw its financial results turn from annual profits of billions of crowns in 1995 to an 11 billion crown loss in 1998.

At the same time, it could also touch politicians connected to the ruling Mikuláš Dzurinda administration.

Pavol Kanis, former Defence Minister, and an SD1 MP, was forced to step down in December 2000 because he was not able to prove where he obtained the money to build a luxurious villa in Bratislava's exclusive Koliba district.

Kanis said at the time he had been lent some money by a friend whose name he would not reveal, and had obtained the rest through regular gambling. Were Fico's draft to become law, its author said, Kanis's purchase might well be scrutinised in court.

"If I were the attorney general, I'd immediately ask him: 'Mr, how did you obtain your property?" Fico said, referring to the scandal which forced Kanis from office.

But Orosz, as well as Ladislav Pittner, a former Interior Minister and a Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK) MP, said that there could be problems with the draft. They argued that the provision that only the attorney general, a political nominee, could initiate a court motion could leave decisions to start investigations open to political influence.

"It's possible that he [the attorney general] could come under various political pressures," said Pittner.

On the other hand, Fico's draft puts the burden of proof on the suspect - an idea Pittner believed could save precious time and energy for courts and police investigators.

Ivan Šimko, current Interior Minister, told the Slovak daily Sme August 23 that he did not see why "such tools [as Fico's draft law] to secure order and legality" should not be used, because "normal means of proving illegal [business] behaviour have failed".

Current laws should be used

Some opposition politicians, however, have argued that Slovakia already has sufficient means to punish people suspected of accumulating property non-transparently.

"Everything that Fico proposed already exists under Slovak legal norms," said Ivan Gašparovie, an MP with the opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS). Gašparovie ascribed problems in bringing economic criminals to justice not to missing legislation, "but to the fact that state organs are unable to enforce the existing law." He added that he was willing to support Fico's draft "as long as it takes on a more realistic shape during parliamentary discussion".

Gašparovie also denied that such a law would cause problems to businessmen close to the HZDS, such as Rezeš. "[Rezeš] wouldn't have any problem documenting [the legality of] how he got his property," he said.

But a coalition politician told The Slovak Spectator, on condition of anonymity, that the draft had little chance of becoming law. "There will probably be enormous pressure not to pass this law. Few top state bureaucrats would like to risk having [how they acquired] their properties scrutinised."

Fico admitted that his draft could be killed off by other MPs. "I wouldn't be surprised if all politicians gave official statements supporting the law to a second reading, while in the back halls of parliament they did all they could to see the draft doesn't get through."

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