ATTORNEY General Milan Hanzel says he is happy that corrupt prosecutors were caught.
photo: Pravda - Peter Mayer
The head of the Humenné regional attorney's office, Juraj G., was charged on April 26 with accepting a bribe of Sk100,000 ($2,150) from two Košice district attorneys, Vladimír R. and Alexander Ch. If found guilty, Juraj G. faces up to eight years and the others four to five years in jail.
Attorney General Milan Hanzel suspended all three attorneys, adding on April 29 that the head of the Košice district attorney's office might be fired as well.
The scandal has reinforced Slovakia's growing international reputation for unchecked corruption, and has drawn warnings from foreign diplomats that the country may have problems winning an invitation to join the European Union and Nato unless it cleans up its act.
Onno Simons, a counsellor with the European Commission's delegation in Bratislava, told The Slovak Spectator on April 30 said that corruption was "part of the larger picture" that the EU has formed of Slovakia, and that the Union wanted to see strenuous efforts by the country's business and political leaders in fighting the phenomenon.
"There has to be rule of law in Slovakia, and corruption doesn't gel with the rule of law, does it?" Simons said.
Police said the Košice district attorneys had given the bribe to Juraj G. to secure the release from custody of two people arrested for trying to distribute cigarettes smuggled from Ukraine.
Interior Ministry spokesman Stanislav Ryban said police were still investigating the case, but refused to give further details.
Hanzel said he had been aware of the suspected crime since the beginning of the year, adding that the judge who released the two smugglers was also under investigation.
However, fighting back against public suspicion that the case was only the tip of an iceberg of judicial corruption, both Hanzel and Interior Minister Ivan Šimko said the event should not be blown out of proportion.
"What's now expected of me? Should I jump for joy because we discovered them, or should I commit suicide?" Hanzel said on April 30 on the private TV station TA3.
"Whether it's the tip or the bottom of the iceberg, the point is to tackle the problem," said Šimko on another TV talk show.
The high level of corruption in Slovakia has been tracked by international and domestic surveys carried out by the World Bank and Transparency International.
While Slovakia has ranked 51st on a list of 91 world nations for corruption, last year placing alongside such countries as Mexico and Panama, at home the Slovak public has repeatedly fingered the judiciary along with the health and education sectors as the most corrupt.
The current cabinet, led by Mikuláš Dzurinda, launched a programme called The National Fight Against Corruption in February 2000. Although the plan was praised by some western observers as a step forward from the previous cabinet of Vladimír Mečiar, many anti-corruption activists said it quickly became bogged down by bureaucracy and the resistance of state officials to change.
With the courts remaining heavily backlogged with cases and yet to produce a conviction in a high-profile Mečiar-era crime, international criticism of corruption in Slovakia has recently become sharper, particularly as Slovakia nears possible EU and Nato entry.
Jorge Espina, a Spanish attorney and EU pre-entry advisor to Slovakia, said on April 26 that judicial corruption was now one of the greatest worries connected to the country's potential EU entry.
"The worst thing is that in the eyes of common Slovaks, the police and courts are seen as very corrupt, which makes the fight against corruption very difficult. In the first place, trust in these institutions must rise."
Simons confirmed that the EU was following the corruption situation in Slovakia and was going to "pay even more attention to it than usual in this year's annual EU report on the pre-accession progress due in October".
"Last year we saw some progress with various anti-corruption programmes, but it is important to see change taking place in practice," Simons said.
Vladimír Bilčík, an analyst with the Bratislava-based Slovak Foreign Policy Association think tank, said while corruption by itself might not spoil Slovakia's integration bids, "EU member states are very sensitive on this topic.
"Corruption is one of the essential problems in Slovakia and must be addressed," the analyst added.