Corruption is "widespread" in Slovakia and the government must take further steps to root it out, the European Commission has said.
Commenting on an annual country report from the EC, European Commission Ambassador to Slovakia Walter Rochel urged Mikuláš Dzurinda's coalition to do more to deal with what was now a "serious concern".
"Corruption is a serious source of concern for us. It seems to be widespread in many sectors and the government, while having taken some positive steps in dealing with this issue, must take more," he said.
The EC's annual reports on candidate countries were released November 13 as the 15 member bloc approved new strategy documents on enlargement. The report on Slovakia praised steps taken to strengthen the economy and the independence of the judiciary.
But it warned there was a worrying "gap" in policy formation and real implementation in the protection of minority, especially Roma, rights.
"Further progress can be noticed in developing approaches to tackle the problems of minorities but there remains a gap between policy formulation and implementation on the ground," read the report.
It warned: "The under-representation of Roma students in the education system, hand in hand with over-representation in schools for retarded children, continues. Housing conditions, notably in the so-called "settlements" mostly in the eastern part of Slovakia, remain a matter of concern.
"Violence, notably at the hands of 'skinheads', continues to be a serious threat to this minority. In 2000 police recorded 35 cases of racially motivated crimes, with Roma being the biggest group of victims. In some cases Roma were exposed to serious ill-treatment by the police," it said.
It also singled out unemployment and a growing economic division between some regions of the country as a source of concern.
"These are weak points and the discrepancies between the regions are a worry," said Rochel.
Despite the criticism ministers and MPs welcomed the report. "I am very happy with this report. It is by far the best one we have received so far," Mária Kadlečíková, Deputy PM for Integration, told The Slovak Spectator.
Peter Weiss, MP for the Democratic Left Party (SDĽ), said the report was proof that "Slovakia has taken another significant step in preparations for entry to the EU".
The EC also proposed on November 13 closing negotiations with 10 countries by the end of 2002, including Slovakia, so that they could enter the Union in 2004. Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey will not be included in any expansion.
Ministers are confident Slovakia can join in 2004. However, EC Commissioner for Integration Gunther Verheugen recently warned that a return to power of Vladimír Mečiar could endanger the country's membership bid.
Mečiar's policies while in office between 1994 and 1998 led to Slovak exclusion from a 1997 round of invitations to begin negotiations on entry into the EU. However his HZDS party has recently declared it supports entry into the EU and Nato.
In response to questions on whether next year's October elections would affect a decision on membership, Rochel said: "We will respect the decision of the Slovak voter which is sovereign. But it will be up to EU member states to decide what countries are let into the Union."
He also praised the efforts made by the government in bringing Slovakia on a par with other candidate countries this year.
It has closed 20 of the 29 chapters of the pre-accession legislative harmonisation document the Acquis Communautaire. Poland has closed only 18. He also highlighted the economic progress that had been made in the last 12 months.
However he said that while the report had been "optimistic" there was still much work for Slovakia to do, particularly in strengthening certain legislation.
Kadlečíková said the report had highlighted the need to bring in new laws. "We appreciate the objective approval we have received but also that we have many challenges still ahead of us in the next year.
"Corruption was a criticism and we realise we have more to do in this area. What I would like to see is the introduction of legislation on conflicts of interest, something which the report said was lacking.
"The Euro funds affair has been something that has taken up a lot of my time. I think if we had legislation on conflicts of interest we would be able to name people in these kinds of cases openly and clearly."
In April this year Kadlečíková's predecessor, Pavol Hamžík, was forced out of office over a scandal involving the alleged misuse of EU funds by a senior Government Office worker.
Rochel said the affair, which was only breifly mentioned in the report, had illustrated the need for "financial control to be enforced".
19. Nov 2001 at 0:00 | Ed Holt