JUSTICE Minister Daniel Lipšic is renewing his efforts to lead the cabinet's fight against corruption, a major issue that looms over Slovakia's integration aspirations.
At a December 11 cabinet meeting Lipšic was named head of an anticorruption department, which is to coordinate anticorruption policies. It will replace the anticorruption unit set up by the previous cabinet, whose efforts were often criticised for being too formal, vague, and ineffective.
The recent cabinet decision was in direct response to earlier calls by European Union (EU) institutions to create a specific cabinet position responsible for tackling bribery.
Corruption remains one of the top concerns of Nato and the EU, organisations that invited the post-communist country into their clubs on November 21 and December 13 respectively.
"The problem of corruption in Slovakia is a serious one and needs to be addressed on all levels. For that, involvement of all cabinet ministers to root out corruption in their spheres is required. Citizens must also participate," Minister Lipšic told The Slovak Spectator.
President Rudolf Schuster welcomed the creation of the anticorruption department, but he warned that the government could slip back into a formalistic approach to fighting corruption.
"I have a feeling that again we will approve some [anticorruption] measures and that will be it. Our entry into Nato and the EU will be judged by results, not by the fact that we create some special institutions [for fighting bribery]. Promises are no longer enough," Schuster said.
More than 1,500 actions to fight corruption and increase transparency in public spheres had been put forward by the National Programme for the Fight against Corruption, designed by the previous Dzurinda cabinet. Lipšic wants to address the problem in a different way.
"I think there is no need to produce large national programmes [bound] in red hard cover," he said.
Lipšic, whose department will employ five people, will by March 31 next year produce a list of measures he thinks are needed to fight corruption. In addition, all ministries must send their proposals to his office by that same date.
Emília Sičáková-Beblavá, head of the anticorruption watchdog organisation Transparency International Slovakia was sceptical about the new department.
"Only time will tell to what extent the anticorruption department will make sense," she said.
"We mustn't forget that the election cycle lasts four years. So if they come up with solid anticorruption proposals only half a year before the [next] elections, it won't make any sense. Laws must be approved as soon as possible, within the first election year," she said.
Lipšic said he was aware of the urgency: "I know we need results and I believe the department will present them; good results."
Slovakia, along with other transforming post-communist countries aiming to become members of the EU, has been regularly encouraged to fight corruption by the European Commission (EC) in annual progress reports on the country's accession to the EU.
The EC's 2002 progress report on Slovakia said: "Surveys indicate that corruption remains cause for serious concern in Slovakia. The most-affected areas appear to be the health-care sector, education, police and judiciary."
Nato representatives have also voiced their concerns about levels of corruption in countries invited to join the Alliance.
US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who several weeks ago visited Slovakia, said he appreciated the progress Slovakia had made since it launched the coordinated national fight against bribery in 2000. He noted, however, that it was crucial to continue fighting.
"It is very important to fight corruption because corruption threatens the heart of every democratic system," Rumsfeld said.
Corruption is a common problem in many post-communists states, said the Open Society Institute's Quentin Reed on December 13. He recently authored a report on levels of corruption and anticorruption policies in EU candidate countries.
One problem, Reed said, was what he called "state capture" - corruption to influence the preparation of state laws and regulations, which includes the unregulated lobbying and the lack of effective conflict-of-interests laws.
"In almost all candidate states there are national strategies to fight corruption, but there are problems with their implementation. [The strategies] tend to be quite formalistic, concentrating on low-level rather than high-level corruption, and generally fail to tackle the most serious problems," Reed said.
In line with those recommendations, Lipšic plans to prepare effective and concrete measures, including a conflict-of-interests law, a law governing proof of the origin of property, and a law defining rules of lobbying.
According to Lipšic, increased transparency in state bodies as well as increased penalties for corruption crimes, can also help prevent corruption.
"The problem of corruption is a serious one. It is widespread, both low-level and high-level corruption. With help of special prosecutors and investigators, the influential personal links that often exist can be broken and enable proper investigations of corruption cases," Lipšic said.
Market and financial analysts have repeatedly warned in the past that a corruption-free environment - as well as effective, well-functioning courts - was crucial to attract foreign investors, who might otherwise back away from entering the country because of its history of bribery.