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EDITORIAL

Bombs, banks and blocked shares: Sins of omission and commission

It's tough to say what threatens the rule of law in Slovakia more - things happening that shouldn't occur, or things not occurring that the law says ought to.
Are you, for example, most worried that the National Bank of Slovakia allowed a private bank to keep its license for over a year after discovering the bank was lying about its financial health? Or are you more bothered by the collaboration of several courts and stock brokers to allow a small firm illegally to recover a debt from the Finance Ministry by grabbing shares in Transpetrol, a state firm owned by the Economy Ministry?
Should we be surprised that Slovak police authorities say they have not taken legal action against Slovak Peter Jusko, even though these same authorities supplied information on Jusko to a United Nations team that described him as part of an international arms smuggling gang? Or rather amazed that a Žilina regional court has actually ruled there was a racial motive involved in the murder of a Roma mother of eight in her home by baseball bat wielding skinheads?

It's tough to say what threatens the rule of law in Slovakia more - things happening that shouldn't occur, or things not occurring that the law says ought to.

Are you, for example, most worried that the National Bank of Slovakia allowed a private bank to keep its license for over a year after discovering the bank was lying about its financial health? Or are you more bothered by the collaboration of several courts and stock brokers to allow a small firm illegally to recover a debt from the Finance Ministry by grabbing shares in Transpetrol, a state firm owned by the Economy Ministry?

Should we be surprised that Slovak police authorities say they have not taken legal action against Slovak Peter Jusko, even though these same authorities supplied information on Jusko to a United Nations team that described him as part of an international arms smuggling gang? Or rather amazed that a Žilina regional court has actually ruled there was a racial motive involved in the murder of a Roma mother of eight in her home by baseball bat wielding skinheads?

Since the Dzurinda government came to power in 1998, we have certainly seen fewer high-level crimes committed - no political kidnappings or murders, no bombs in the gardens of dissenting MPs, no attempts to sabotage neighbouring countries' national interests.

On the other hand, there has been little vigorous action in cases with a political or organised crime undertone. No fraudulent privatisers, no senior national property fund or state bank officers, have been brought to book despite the promises of 1998. Suspect financial institutions like Devín banka have been allowed to get away with business mayhem because of their political connections to ruling coalition parties. The government's anti-corruption programme has been careful not to give its rules too many teeth, lest the bureaucratic feeding frenzy be disturbed. Police refuse to wear identity tags, lest people put a name to their outstretched hands. Judges resist declaring assets for their next of kin. Arms control officers joke about receiving bribe offers from arms exporters, but no mention is made of criminal proceedings.

Simply avoiding sins of commission is not enough to turn Slovakia into a law-abiding country or gain the trust of western alliances. For that, state officials must stop omitting to enforce the rules, no matter how difficult, dangerous or unrewarding this may be.

Given the resources and weaponry of criminal gangs, one can understand why police might be reluctant to take real action against protection rackets. But this reluctance pervades police ranks, with district chiefs saying they can't even clear the money changers from Tesco because of a hole in the law. Nonsense, of course - a little determined harassment would rid downtown Bratislava of these odious men - but determination is precisely the quality the police lack these days.

Not that improved laws wouldn't give enforcement better tools. Slovakia's arms control legislation requires arms exporters to obtain a license, and to authorise each arms deal with a Foreign Ministry license commission. Except, that is, when arms exports do not involve a change in ownership of the weapons, as may occur when a Slovak firm is only 'leasing' an attack helicopter to an African country. In such cases, it's entirely up to the Customs Police to decide whether to allow the deal, and as one arms expert says, "if you know who to pay off in the customs directorate your problems are solved."

But even removing the danger and difficulty of doing what the law prescribes is not enough if doing the opposite remains profitable. Central bank governor Marián Jusko may say his inaction against the clearly failing Devín banka arose from his belief the bank could right itself, but one has to wonder what role was played by the political profits to be had from keeping Devín's backer, the SDĽ party, in the ruling coalition. The Interior Ministry may plead impotence to act against arms broker Peter Jusko, but one has to wonder who's interests have been served by preventing legal loopholes from being shut.

There's an old saying regarding the rule of law: "Horse thieves are hung not for stealing horses, but in order that horses not be stolen." In other words, taking firm action in a few cases is often enough to encourage respect for the law among the wider population. What Slovakia desperately needs is a few hangings of public servants for dereliction of duty, in order that law enforcement not be neglected.

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