Corruption measures stall again

DESPITE an intense push by global leaders to step up the fight against corruption in top places, Slovakia seems unable to take what are seen as crucial measures in bringing transparency into public life.
The government has recently presented parliament with two pieces of draft legislation that would complicate life for those who gain their assets illegally.

DESPITE an intense push by global leaders to step up the fight against corruption in top places, Slovakia seems unable to take what are seen as crucial measures in bringing transparency into public life.

The government has recently presented parliament with two pieces of draft legislation that would complicate life for those who gain their assets illegally.

In the course of parliamentary debate, MPs passed some major changes to the drafts, after which Justice Minister Daniel Lipšic decided to use his right to withdraw from the legislature the proposals his ministry had put forward.

"I'm convinced that Slovakia needs a fair, just, and effective law, and I believe we can come back to it and pass legislation that will be effective and will make people believe again in the political system and the people who represent it," Lipšic told parliament when he announced his decision.

Critics from the ranks of the MPs claim that they corrected some serious flaws in the legislation and that the minister had only used the opportunity to boost his tough-on-corruption image, even at the cost of keeping needed legal measures from being taken.

In a statement released by the coalition member the New Citizen's Alliance, the party's vice-chairmen Jirko Malchárek and Ľubomír Lintner said they did not want Lipšic to "continue to exploit this topic for his own political presentation".

"He put his personal interests over the interests of society, which only confirms that he has most likely not matured enough politically to be a member of cabinet," the representatives stated. At 30, Lipšic is the youngest minister in the government.

The first proposal was a draft constitutional law on conflict of interest whose main goal was to prevent situations in which personal gain, rather than the general good, motivates the decisions of public officials.

Slovakia has had a similar law since 1992 but it has never made tangible impacts, due especially to obstacles in procedure and the vagueness of some provisions, according to the Justice Ministry's position paper on the law.

If it had been approved, the law would have affected the president, cabinet members, heads of other central administration bodies, MPs, top representatives of the judiciary, mayors and other municipal officials, and people running state-owned companies and public corporations.

For up to two years after leaving their public post, these public servants were to be banned from acting on behalf of private corporations, taking unfair advantage of their posts, and taking up positions at corporations about whose rights or obligations they decided as public officials.

The withdrawn law introduced an obligation for representatives to submit a declaration of their assets and those of their children and spouses with whom they share a common household.

Officials could face the loss of their mandate if found to have violated their duties.

Lipšic decided to withdraw the draft from parliament after legislators voted to increase the majority required to start proceedings and decide on imposing a sanction. The government's proposal required a simple majority, but MPs said a majority of three-fifths should be incorporated into the law.

Opponents argued that a parliamentary majority could abuse the provisions and strip rivals of their mandates. Lipšic, on the other hand, said the law would be "too soft" on violators.

For his decision, Lipšic even faced criticism from the ranks of his own party.

"The achieved compromise seemed to be at the limits of what was possible; I therefore didn't fully identify myself with his decision," said Pavol Minárik, head of the Christian Democratic Movement's parliamentary caucus and the party's vice-chairman, in an interview with the daily Národná Obroda.

Other coalition representatives also voiced their objections, along with doubts about whether a better law could be passed in the foreseeable future.

Lipšic himself seems to be convinced it can, as on January 26 he again initiated the process, which will eventually take the draft back to parliament. The new version takes into account some of the legislators' previously presented concerns.

The opposition party Smer has since come up with its own initiative to divide breaches of law into categories according to their severity and adjust sanctions in line with that division.

So has the coalition party the New Citizen's Alliance, whose MPs plan to present to parliament a draft identical to the one agreed on by parliamentarians before Lipšic's decision to take it back. Lipšic would have no power over the debate on such a proposal, which would come from legislators and not the government.

The second anti-corruption effort from Lipšic's office was the proposed law on measures against people who gain their assets from illegal sources, also known as the law on proving the origin of property.

That piece of legislation was designed to enable the state to take property away from people who could not document its legal acquisition. Those people whose assets exceeded the minimum wage by more than 200 times would face scrutiny.

The minimum wage is currently Sk6,080 (€149.47) and is increased annually by the cabinet.

According to the draft, anyone would have the right to turn to the financial police with their suspicions about the unlawful origins of others' gains. If the police inquiry found these allegations to be grounded, prosecutors would take the case to the courts.

The ministry proposed that, in the subsequent civil proceedings, the burden of proof would lie in part with the citizen, rather than the state. It would therefore be up to individuals to prove that their property was gained legally, or else have it taken away.

These provisions became the sticking point in debates on the law. In the end, parliament voted to change the wording of the law so that the prosecutor would have to prove that assets were not acquired in line with the rules.

"In a legal state there is no place for a law like this," said opposition MP Miroslav Abelovský in parliament during the debate on the issue, claiming that the provisions were unconstitutional.

In the end it was a representative of the ruling coalition, Gábor Gál from the Hungarian Coalition Party, and not the opposition that proposed to make it the prosecutors' duty to prove that assets were gained illegally.

As many as 80 members of the 150-member assembly supported the change, which led Lipšic to withdraw this measure from parliamentary debate as well.

"If the prosecutor was able to prove that [the property] originated in corruption, trafficking, or money laundering, well then he could just start criminal proceedings [instead of civil proceedings on the origin of property]," Lipšic told the press.

"We don't need a law like that. It would be an ineffective and totally dead law, which wouldn't be applied in a single case. For me, the results of the voting are a surprise," he added, as the coalition as a whole had previously agreed to pass the law.

The Slovak stalemate on corruption-related issues comes at a time when world leaders are emphasising the need for increased efforts in the field.

"28 months ago, all free nations were called to defend freedom from terrorism. Today we are called to defend our freedom from corruption," US Attorney General John Ashcroft told the world's economic and political elite assembled at the World Economic Forum in Davos on January 22, according to a session summary released by the organisation.

"Corruption saps the legitimacy of democratic governments. In its extreme forms, corruption even threatens democracy itself, because democracy lives on trust, and corruption destroys trust," Ashcroft added.

In the past, the EU and US alike have criticised Slovakia for corruption and cronyism, claiming that it is deeply rooted in all levels of society, including the highest.

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